Chapel Hill News

Orange County group sends police chiefs, sheriff advice for fighting police bias

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood listen to an audience member’s question about implict or unconscious bias.
Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood listen to an audience member’s question about implict or unconscious bias. mschultz@newsobserver.com

A coalition of attorneys, citizens and community advocates is asking Orange County law enforcement to weed out any racial bias in their departments.

The Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition recommended 11 steps, including periodic review of stop, search and arrest data; dashboard and body cameras for officers; mandatory use of written consent-to-search forms; and the treatment of marijuana possession as a low-priority crime.

The coalition has given Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police, along with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, until July 3 to respond.

While bias may start with the officer on the street, it’s important to understand that it’s not just a policing issue, said Orange County public defender James Williams Jr., a member of the coalition.

“The whole system needs to be involved in efforts to address (bias),” he said. “If we only look at the police, then I think we will never get this right.”

The coalition’s report noted key findings of a statewide police bias study released in December. The study found the Chapel Hill Police Department made 65,460 stops and 2,427 searches between 2002 and 2013. The Carrboro Police Department made 30,528 stops and 2,010 searches in that time.

Black drivers accounted for 24 percent of Chapel Hill stops and 22 percent of Carrboro stops, the study found, while the black population in each town was roughly 10 percent. Rural Orange County stops involved black drivers 26 percent of the time, it found, while the black population was 12 percent.

Roughly 12 percent of black drivers who were stopped in Carrboro had their cars searched, compared to 5 percent of white drivers, the data show. In Chapel Hill, 6 percent of black drivers stopped had their cars searched, compared to 3 percent of white drivers.

Nearly 9 percent of black drivers stopped in rural Orange County had their cars searched, compared to 5 percent of white drivers. The county’s racial disparity between Hispanic and white drivers whose cars were searched was much larger – 21 percent vs. 5 percent – the coalition reported.

The race-based differences in motorist treatment are not unique to Orange County, coalition members said, pointing to Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other places having a similar discussion.

“Justice must start at home,” said Frank Baumgartner, a UNC political science professor involved in the study. “We are calling on our local community leaders to show leadership by looking seriously into these issues and working with community groups to enact meaningful reforms.”

Spotlight on Durham

The city of Durham considered the UNC findings in depth earlier this year as it reflected on bias in the Durham Police Department. The city had sought reviews before by local boards and the U.S. Justice Department’s Diagnostic Center.

Durham now has more than three dozen changes in place or being considered, such as requiring officers to get written permission before searching a car during a traffic stop. The policy doesn’t affect searches carried out with a warrant or when an officer has probable cause to search.

The department also hired a public affairs manager to reach out to the community and completes periodic reviews of police stop, search and arrest data. Police officials have been holding public forums more recently to talk about plans for equipping officers with body cameras.

More to the story

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood joined an NAACP-sponsored panel discussion of policing bias in January.

Carrboro hasn’t had a racial bias or profiling problem, Horton said. If a complaint were filed, the officer accused of violating department policies would be investigated right away, he said, and, if found responsible, be reprimanded or retrained.

“We’re such a small department that if we had an issue, the supervisor would pick up on it pretty quickly,” he said.

Horton also took issue with using population data to compare stops and searches by race. Local residents are very transient, he said, and a majority of Carrboro stops and searches involve drivers from other counties.

The department is trying to compare the study data to its own records, he said, but lacks the staff and skills to do much of what’s requested. Southern Coalition for Social Justice data experts recently showed Carrboro police staff how to access and analyze traffic stop data, the coalition reported.

Chapel Hill started quarterly reviews of each officer’s traffic stops in 2012 as a way to identify any irregularities or patterns. The information collected is compared to local data about race and other demographics, Chief Chris Blue has said, and sometimes to other officers’ reports.

“Personally, I think it is healthy for organizations to build systems that require periodic reviews of all processes, particularly those involving the potential for bias, whether intentional or not,” Blue is quoted as saying in the UNC School of Government’s Indigent Defense Manual Series.

Blue declined to address the coalition’s requests at this time but has said before he understands the community’s frustration. He also agreed previously that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, noting that police sometimes target an area in response to citizen requests.

“Just saying (bias) doesn’t exist doesn’t make it disappear,” Mayor Mark Kleinschdmit said. Chapel Hill police are open to talking about issues and solutions, he said, because the changes underway and being considered will require the community’s support to be successful.

Blackwood said he would respond to the coalition’s requests by the July deadline. The group is free to make his response public at that time, he said, declining to comment further.

Deputies searched the cars of 23 black drivers and 20 white drivers last year, Blackwood said at the January event. It’s common to stop a driver, regardless of race, because they or their cars haven’t been seen in the area before, he said, but deputies do not profile drivers by race.

“We have black officers who are stopping black drivers, and if you asked them (why) it’s because they had a (motor-vehicle violation),” Blackwood said then. “The implication is that we’re stopping black drivers (deliberately), and I just disagree with that.”

While the number of searches may be low, the coalition said, the number appears different when you consider the county’s racial makeup. It’s not the number of traffic stops, Williams said, but what law enforcement is doing in an effort to find contraband.

“Instead of race being used as a descriptor, it’s being used as a predictor” of criminal activity, he said.

Training, changes happening

All local agencies require officers to receive annual diversity and other training. Some officers also attended a recent regional workshop with Lorie Fridell, of the Fair and Impartial Policing group. The “train the trainer” event taught them how to teach bias-free policing techniques to their peers.

Blackwood has emphasized training and resolving bias concerns since being elected last year, Orange County Commissioners Chairman Earl McKee said. The commissioners work closely with the sheriff but do not have a supervisory role, he said.

“The board is concerned that every person in Orange County ... receives fair, responsive and responsible treatment when dealing with law enforcement,” McKee said. “I think we’re striving to get better.”

The sheriff’s office already requires deputies to get written consent for searches when there’s no evidence of a crime, Blackwood said at the forum. Chapel Hill and Carrboro are considering the possibility.

Written consent is a good idea, said Kleinschmidt, who is also an attorney. He noted concern about and changes this year in the federal civil forfeiture program, which let officers seize cash and property from individuals without proving a crime has occurred.

Another growing trend is outfitting officers with cameras.

Most Orange County police and sheriff’s vehicles are equipped with cameras. Hillsborough bought body cameras last year for some of its officers, and Chapel Hill is considering the possibility now.

Carrboro’s latest capital projects budget includes $91,000 to buy 42 cameras, enough for each officer and a few replacements. At least 14 cameras will be purchased during the first round, Horton said, expanding eventually to about 35 patrol cars. He has been meeting with Alderman Damon Seils and the ACLU to work out the details, he said.

Marijuana crimes

The coalition also asked local law enforcement to reduce the emphasis on marijuana crimes.

Roughly 47 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in Chapel Hill are black, the coalition reports, and about 44 percent in Carrboro. The number of black people arrested for marijuana possession in rural Orange County was 27 percent.

That’s a concern, coalition members said, because many involve young people, and in North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults. A low-level marijuana arrest can become part of a young person’s permanent record, affecting their ability to attend college or get a job.

Carrboro officers can use discretion when they find a small amount of marijuana, Horton, said, but someone with the drug bagged for sale would be arrested. He suggested groups opposed to marijuana laws contact legislators.

“The law is the law. We are sworn to enforce it,” he said.

Bias-free suggestions

The Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition is asking local law enforcement agencies to adopt 11 proposed solutions to racial bias and profiling:

▪ Identify and change existing policies that result in racially biased policing

▪ Adopt written policies explicitly prohibiting racial profiling

▪ Periodically review officers’ stop, search and arrest data

▪ Require officers to use written consent-to-search forms

▪ Prohibit vehicle stops and searches based solely on a driver’s “nervousness,” “presence in a high crime neighborhood” or “criminal record”

▪ Require dashboard cameras in police cars and body cameras for officers

▪ Make marijuana a low priority

▪ Mandate quarterly race reports to town or county leaders

▪ Mandate racial equity training for all officers

▪ Adopt measures to increase public confidence in how agencies respond to allegations of police misconduct

▪ Increase civilian involvement in law enforcement decisions

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