A UNC professor who researches racial disparities in traffic stops says a growing gap between searches of black and white drivers in Durham is concerning.
“What jumped out at me (in figures released last week) is really the degree of disparity between white and black search rates,” said Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at UNC whose research has highlighted disparities across the state and nation.
The figures, which looked at traffic stops and searches over the first six months of 2015, show blacks were searched at nearly four times the rate of whites. Of the 3,916 whites stopped, 2.5 percent were searched. Of the 6,770 blacks stopped, 9.87 percent were searched.
The searches resulted in the arrests of 11 whites, or 0.28 percent, and 37 blacks or 0.55 percent.
Hispanics were searched at nearly three times the rate of whites.
The black to white disparity is higher than one from a report looking at figures from 2002 to 2013, which showed black drivers were searched at twice the rate of white drivers. City officials said the increase was likely caused by two targeted operations in minority neighborhoods where shootings had occurred.
The new figures, which the Durham Police Department released Nov. 16, sought to explain racial disparities in traffic stops and searches in Durham. Police Chief Jose Lopez said the numbers reflect “crime issues and geographic areas,” not racial profiling. The figures showed 61 percent of the drivers stopped were black and 36 percent where white.
“You really have to look at the area in which you are working and what the numbers are in that area,” Lopez said.
The analysis, which notes similar disparities in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Fayetteville, looked at the 11,012 traffic stops in Durham through June. There were 10 percent fewer traffic stops overall than during the same period in 2014.
The Police Department’s Traffic Services Unit, covering the entire city, made 2,268 or 21 percent of the traffic stops. For those stops, the racial breakdown was 49 percent black and 47 percent white. About 41 percent of the city’s population is black.
The analysis also looked at officers who stopped 25 or more vehicles and had a 75 percent or higher stop rate of minorities. Of those 33 officers, all but 13 worked in either District 1 (62 percent black, 20 percent white and 20 percent white by race) or District 4 (54 percent black, 32 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic), which have the highest crime rates, the Police Department report states.
“Based upon the data analyzed, there was no evidence of unexplainable disparities regarding traffic stops among the officers,” the report states. “Rather, officers are stopping vehicles consistent with the demographics and crime statistics of their assigned areas.”
City Manager Tom Bonfield said the report does a better job of explaining the disparity than previous attempts but that the numbers continue to be a a concern.
Baumgartner called the Police Department’s report “highly defensive.”
The analysis doesn’t address concerns that some community groups have expressed about a Police Department strategy of using traffic stops in high-crime areas versus focusing on higher-level criminals.
Baumgartner echoed those concerns stating he wasn’t sure how traffic stops in high-crime areas helped solve violent crimes and larcenies. He also pointed out that contraband is found at a small percentage of the stops.
Bonfield said targeted operations in high-crime areas seek to identify and confiscate illegal weapons.