A new website that provides information about police traffic stops in North Carolina is getting mixed reviews among Triangle police departments, who say they welcome the additional scrutiny but worry that the raw data might not tell the whole story in some cases.
The website, OpenDataPolicingNC.com, was introduced last week by the civil rights nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which partnered with the Caktus Group of Durham to launch the site. It contains up-to-date information about nearly 20 million traffic stops made by every police department and every police officer in North Carolina over the past 15 years.
The site’s creators think the new technology could revolutionize how law enforcement agencies, and even individual officers, are evaluated in the state and potentially across the country.
“The days of policing in secret are over,” said Fayetteville police chief Harold Medlock, whose department was the first in the state to partner with the creators of the website.
Police departments in Cary, Raleigh and Durham all voice support for the new website for the same reason articulated by Medlock.
“I think anytime we can be more transparent that it’s helpful to the cause because it builds trust between us and the community,” said Cary assistant police chief Tracy Jernigan. “For us it’s definitely another tool for us to use.”
Raleigh police spokesman Laura Hourigan said Raleigh’s police commanders “are glad that they are taking this initiative with presenting the data in an open format that is accessible to everyone.”
However, Hourigan echoed concerns expressed by others who say the website does not include specifics about each traffic stop, such as how fast a vehicle was traveling when it was stopped for speeding.
“We must remember that this is raw data and has not been subject to analysis,” she said.
North Carolina became the first to mandate the collection of data whenever an officer stops a motorist in 1999, and that data is available on the state Department of Justice website. But Jernigan described the new website as “more robust” than the state site and easier to use.
“There are more charts and graphs,” Jernigan said. “If I’m on the state site, I can look up traffic stops by race and gender. Then I have to close that window to look at police searches. Then I have to close that window to look at use of force. Here, everything about Cary is on one screen.”
The website was inspired in part by the work of UNC-Chapel Hill political professor Frank R. Baumgartner, who used the state data to show that blacks are more likely than whites in North Carolina to be stopped and searched by police. Ian Mance, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition, said he initially created an “in-house version” of the technology that was made available to community groups who sought information about police stops involving African-American and Latino motorists.
“I was fielding a tremendous amount of requests from people all over the state; all of whom I wanted to provide this information to,” Mance said. “But there’s only so many hours in a day, so the idea was, ‘How can I remove myself from this process?’”
Mance said that if a motorist feels he or she has been unduly targeted during a traffic stop, they can visit the website and enter their name, gender and race, along with the name of the police department that made the stop, date and location. The stop will appear along with the reason for the stop. A number assigned to the officer who made the stop will also appear in the lower left corner of the page. A visitor to the website can click on the officer’s number and historical data of all the officer’s traffic stops will appear.
The power of the data can be seen in Durham, where Mance found that of the 21,939 traffic stops officers made in 2014, nearly 60 percent were of black people, compared with the city’s population of about 40 percent black residents. An analysis of stops that resulted in a search between 2002 and 2013 shows that black males 19 and younger were nearly twice as likely to be searched after a stop than white males of the same age.
Mance said the department adopted two policies directly related to the data: officers must now obtain consent before searching motorists and their vehicles and the police department must now regularly review traffic stop data for individual officers “to see if there are any anomalies.”
Newly elected Durham City Council member Charlie Reece participated in the 2014 campaign that changed the police department’s search policy. He said the data uncovered racial disparities “that were too troubling to ignore” and “diminishes us as a community.”
Reece said he hopes the new police chief who will replace the retiring Jose Lopez will continue making use of the traffic stop data.
“It allows for the kind of policing that aligns with the community’s values,” he said.