Rob Christensen

Christensen: Henry Frye, race and traffic stops

Henry E. Frye takes the oath of office as his wife, Shirley, holds the Bible as Frye was sworn in as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 1999.
Henry E. Frye takes the oath of office as his wife, Shirley, holds the Bible as Frye was sworn in as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 1999. News & Observer file photo

We should all aspire to carry ourselves with the integrity of Henry Frye, the first African-American chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

A number of years ago, Frye and his wife, Shirley, were returning to Raleigh from a meeting of the state bar association when he was pulled over by a Highway Patrol officer. He was driving his wife’s car, without any special license plates identifying him as a member of the court.

“I don’t know if he was speeding or what,” Shirley recounted in Howard Covington’s 2013 biography, “Henry Frye.” “Henry never challenges. If they say he was speeding, he’ll say how fast was I going? I didn’t know I was going that fast.”

“The patrolman was writing the ticket,” she said, “and he asked, where did he work? In Raleigh. What do you do? I am in the legal profession. What do you do? I am on the Supreme Court. And he said, why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t think it was necessary. He said I have already started writing the ticket. Henry didn’t say anything. When he got ready to go, he shook Henry’s hand.”

Frye’s behavior, I think most of us could agree, was exemplary.

Which brings us to the case of state Rep. Cecil Brockman, who represents a Guilford County House district just as Frye once did.

Brockman was stopped by state troopers in Archdale on Nov. 30 in a case that attracted a lot of publicity.

Brockman, a 32-year-old freshman legislator and former political campaign aide, had left a First Citizens Bank when he was pulled over along the town’s Main Street and charged for failing to buckle his seat belt. There were two patrol cars and three troopers involved, because it took a minute for Brockman to stop. Brockman said he did not immediately stop because he did not initially see the trooper’s lights flashing.

Recorded

The stop and the exchanges were caught on the dash-cam video and have been broadcast on several TV stations. Brockman identified himself as a state legislator and made it clear that he felt he wasn’t being treated fairly.

“I just think it’s amazing that you can really write a ticket to a state representative who was literally at the First Citizens Bank...I don’t know what you guys think this is doing. This is very frustrating.”

At one point, a trooper asks Brockman if he has any questions.

“I’m very pissed off,” Brockman responded. “I think if I was a white representative that you guys would’ve been like ‘OK, sorry sir.’”

The trooper said race had nothing to do with it.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said the traffic stop was handled professionally.

Brockman claimed that what was inaudible is that the officer questioned whether the BMW he was driving was stolen. Brockman said that should not have been in doubt because it had a special House member license plate on it.

Brockman has apologized on his Facebook page. “Let me start by saying I was wrong for not having worn my seat belt. It was a moment of deep frustration that I could have handled better.”

But he also added that “the heart of my issue with this incident lies with being treated with suspicion and being seen as a threat for no other reason I can figure other than being black.”

The responses to the incident have come down along predictably racially polarized lines, with some people accusing Brockman of being a racist or a bigot.

No one is suggesting the officers acted improperly. But the Brockman stop does raise larger questions.

Here is a question: How many people reading this column have been stopped, let alone ticketed, for not buckling their seat belt? How many people have family members, friends or acquaintances who have been stopped or ticketed for not buckling their seat belt?

I know that I have not. In fact, it seems like that is a charge most often used by police when they stop somebody randomly and have nothing else to charge them with.

Traffic stop analysis

North Carolina collects the most detailed data on traffic stops of any state in the country.

An analysis of tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data in Greensboro, published by The New York Times in October, found that police used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists – even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.

“Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason,” The Times concluded. “And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.”

As The Times noted, such stops are not insignificant. Since August, stops of black people involving such minor traffic infractions as a broken traffic light, a missing front license plate, and a failure to signal a lane change have resulted in the death of black motorists and the cry of the dangers of driving while black.

Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock has adopted a new policy that calls for his officers to focus on violations that cost lives – such as speeding, drunken driving, ignoring traffic lights or stop signs – rather than minor infractions. He has also forced out two officers accused of singling out black motorists.

So there are lessons to be learned from the Brockman episode. We may also aspire to carry ourselves like Justice Frye. We would hope that Brockman would behave more maturely next time. We need to support the police. And we need to make sure our policing policies are as racially neutral as possible.

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