Chapel Hill News

Elliot Cramer: Racial disparity in traffic stops does not equal police bias

By Elliot Cramer

Elliot Cramer
Elliot Cramer Staff photo by Ethan Hyman

The Orange County Bias-free Policing Coalition has issued a press release stating “Community groups ask Orange County government officials to address racial bias in policing.” They cite “problems stemming from racial bias in policing across the United States and urge local elected officials to address similar problems.” The Coalition’s evident assumption is that there is racial bias in local policing.

Their statement says that analysis of traffic stops showed that racial “profiling occurs throughout North Carolina, and specifically in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Orange County.” They define racial profiling as “law enforcement’s illegitimate use of race or ethnicity as a factor in deciding whether to stop, detain, question, or engage in an enforcement action.” The report goes on to say that Orange County’s own data “indicate clear racial disparities that adversely affect African-Americans and Hispanics.”

This disparity is that black people make up 10 percent of the population of Carrboro and Chapel Hill but 23 percent of the traffic stops by their police. The coalition should know that a disparity does not imply discrimination; if this were so, UNC basketball coach Roy Williams would have been fired long ago.

It is unlikely that the majority of local traffic stops are of local residents. Were this so, there would be more than one stop for every Chapel Hill and Carrboro resident, man, woman, and child. Many stops are undoubtedly residents of Durham which is 40 percent African-American. In fact, Professor Baumgartner, author of the study, has not claimed discrimination in stops, referring in one of his many reports to “violations such as speeding or driving while impaired, where the officer may have a clear visual cue that the behavior merits investigation.” In Chapel Hill over 78 percent of the stops are of this sort where the officer is unlikely to know before the stop whether the offender is black or white; radar guns cannot discriminate race.

Baumgartner’s real concern is with “how motorists are treated after otherwise similar traffic stops,” that is with searches.

Searches are in fact quite rare, an average in Chapel Hill of 69 per year for whites and 134 for blacks; this impacts an insignificant number of drivers. Almost all of the searches are for consent, search warrant, and probable cause with only the consent searches being problematic, 13 for whites and 37 for blacks. As an ACLU member, I agree with the coalition’s request that written permission should be obtained for a search.

Undoubtedly they are correct when they say that “there is greater pressure for blacks to say yes to consent searches than there is for whites.” This does not imply discrimination. No evidence has been presented that these searches are influenced by race.

Searches are somewhat successful; in Chapel Hill, contraband was found in 22.3 percent of the searches for whites and 30.4 percent for blacks, another discrepancy. There is not the slightest indication of discrimination in traffic stops and only a racial disparity without evidence of discrimination in a relatively small number of searches. One can certainly cite examples of real discrimination, but do the many disparities we observe between blacks and whites in SAT scores, end of grade scores, disciplinary actions, as well as traffic searches reflect discrimination or are they reflective of societal problems that Patrick Moynihan cited 50 years ago.

Perhaps it would be well for my fellow ACLU members and liberals to focus on these problems rather than supporting specious claims of police discrimination in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Elliot M. Cramer lives in Chapel Hill.