Opinion

The fears of Driving While Black in NC are true. The data prove it.

Brunswick County sheriff’s investigators made what appear to be the first arrests in connection with break-ins after Tropical Storm Florence coastal evacuations.
Brunswick County sheriff’s investigators made what appear to be the first arrests in connection with break-ins after Tropical Storm Florence coastal evacuations. Charlotte Observer file photo

North Carolina was the first state in the nation to mandate the collection of traffic stops data after reporters from The News & Observer documented that certain drug-interdiction units in the State Highway Patrol were searching blacks at twice the rate of whites, with little to show for it in terms of major drug catches.

Following a 1996 series by reporter Joseph Neff and others, and in the wake of national attention to the issue of “driving while black,” members of the legislative black caucus brought forward legislative proposals to collect data on all traffic stops. An N&O editorial endorsed the effort: “The numbers … should settle this issue of equitable treatment once and for all. … If the patrol is, as many blacks believe, unfairly targeting them, it must be stopped immediately. If not, the patrol deserves to be exonerated. [The] bill would go a long way toward showing who is right.”

Senate Bill 76 was passed with bipartisan support in 1999; in 2001 it was amended to apply beyond the Highway Patrol to virtually every police agency in the state, excluding only the smallest jurisdictions. Since January 1, 2002, data have been pouring in, over 20 million records so far. The law also mandated periodic reports to the General Assembly from the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

Though the state has dutifully collected the data, and provides a model of transparency by making the data available to the public, no thorough analysis of the nation’s largest running data collection project on traffic stops has ever been conducted. We just published a book, “Suspect Citizens,” that does exactly this. Our findings validate every concern expressed by those who pushed for the law.

Driving while black exposes a driver to approximately twice the odds of being pulled over, and once pulled over, to about twice the odds of being searched. These disparities cannot be explained away by any other factors included in the comprehensive state database. Hispanic drivers are also targeted for disparate treatment, particularly males.

Looking comprehensively across the state, here are some highlights of what we found. First, black drivers are much more likely to be pulled over. We don’t know, of course, who is driving badly, speeding, swerving, or driving without their headlights on at night. But we do know that blacks are about 22 percent of the population but 32 percent of the traffic stops. Add to that the statistical fact that whites drive more than blacks (according to studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation), and it is clear that the legislative concern that black drivers face a higher chance of being pulled over was well justified.

When we looked city by city, we also found that in almost every case, across the state, blacks constitute a much higher share of the traffic stops than of the local population. After the stop, 2.35 percent of white drivers are searched, compared to 5.05 percent of black drivers and 4.74 percent of Hispanics. This means that blacks are subjected to about twice the odds of being pulled over, and then after that more than twice the odds of being searched: A double-whammy that means they are four times as likely to be searched, given that they live here in North Carolina.

We looked carefully to see if these large disparities were justified by higher rates of finding contraband, or could be explained away by non-racial factors, such as driving at different times of the day, being pulled over for different types of infractions, or any other factor included in the database. We could not explain them away. Not only are blacks and Hispanics less likely to be found with contraband, but few drivers of any race are found with significant amounts of contraband.

The General Assembly was correct in mandating the collection of these data. As The N&O opined at the time, the data would either validate the concerns expressed by minority legislators or exonerate our police agencies from unjustified allegations of bias. It has validated the concerns. It is time now to work together to enact reforms to promote equity, enhance public safety, and generate renewed trust in the police.

Frank R. Baumgartner teaches political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Derek A. Epp received his PhD from UNC in 2015 and now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. Kelsey Shoub received her PhD from UNC in 2018 and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.
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