GREENSBORO — It’s not just Greensboro.
In the Triad and across North Carolina, black male drivers were about 1½ to 4½ times more likely to be searched during traffic stops than everyone else, according to a News & Record analysis of data from 24 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the state.
Yes, the Greensboro Police Department searched black males (6.9 percent) more than three times as often than everyone else (2.1 percent), our analysis of nearly five years of data found.
But that’s similar to search rates by police departments in High Point, Asheville and Fayetteville.
Greensboro and its racial disparities, however, have been thrust into the spotlight since an article in The New York Times on Oct. 24 highlighted the department’s history of traffic stops and searches.
That article said Greensboro police stop and search twice as many black motorists as white, even though whites are more likely to be carrying contraband.
Truth is, the Times could have picked any number cities in North Carolina — Winston-Salem, Archdale, Durham, Wilmington, Asheville — and reached a similar conclusion:
Black men get searched more.
“It’s not particular to Greensboro,” said Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has studied racial disparities in traffic stops since 2011. “This is an unwelcome reminder of the realities of race in America.”
Urged by the Greensboro City Council to take swift, decisive action after the Times’ article, Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott temporarily halted traffic stops for minor vehicle equipment violations. Blacks are more likely to be pulled over for such suspected infractions in Greensboro and in large cities across the state.
That prompted the Greensboro Police Officers Association to issue a statement denouncing Scott’s decision, saying it “did nothing to dispel the misconception portrayed by the (Times’) article that our officers are engaged in racial profiling.”
The association, a voluntary, nonunion group that nonetheless offers officers a voice in departmental affairs, was also critical of comments made by Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who has urged Scott to take even more action based on the raw data.
“We are greatly disturbed by the lack of public support from our city leaders,” the police association’s statement said.
“Our officers target violations of the law, not individuals.”
Suffice to say the Times’ article triggered actions that virtually guarantee the issue will stay in the forefront for the foreseeable future.
Reasonable people can — and will — disagree on why these racial disparities exist. They cite socio-economic issues, institutional racism, vigilant policing in high-crime areas, overt bias or a combination thereof.
The numbers, however, are what they are.
The News & Record looked at data on traffic stops and searches for 24 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the Triad and large police departments in other parts of North Carolina.
We narrowed our analysis to traffic stops conducted from Nov. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2015.
The data are available on the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s website, http://traffic stops.ncdoj.gov. Since 2002, state law has required every local law enforcement agency to report the number of traffic stops it makes, the reasons for the stops and the outcomes of the stops.
These agencies also must report the drivers’ gender, race and ethnicity.
Our analysis found that:
- Greensboro police made 206,041 traffic stops in that period. Black males were the drivers of 65,471 of those vehicles.
- Police searched 7,552 of those drivers, including 4,538 black drivers.
- The search rate for black males: 6.9 percent. The search rate for everyone else: 2.1 percent.
- Greensboro officers were twice as likely to search black males as white males.
- Officers also were five times more likely to search black males as white females.
The results of other studies are similar to ours — not surprising, because the researchers relied on the same statewide data.
The largest study, released in March, was conducted by Baumgartner, the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill.
He and his students analyzed data on traffic stops from dozens of law-enforcement agencies in North Carolina, including Greensboro. The study covered a longer period than ours — from 2002 to 2013.
Their findings showed that black male drivers in Greensboro were 86 percent more likely to be searched than white males.
Among Baumgartner’s other conclusions about Greensboro:
- Police searched 11 percent of black males under age 30, compared with about 6 percent of white males the same age.
- Black drivers were twice as likely as whites to undergo “consent” searches, where the officer searches based on an oral consent instead of a warrant.
- Blacks were twice as likely to be searched for probable cause — when officers see a reason to search someone — and twice as likely to receive pat-down or “protective” frisks as whites.
Scott, the police chief, said in a recent interview that Greensboro police were looking the at the disparities long before The New York Times drew attention to the issue.
Scott said he asked researchers from UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T in August to look at the department’s data on traffic stops. He is expecting the results early next year.
“The numbers are alarming to me,” he said. “I think the numbers are accurate. There’s no doubt about it.”
Factors to fuel findings
Having established that most studies reveal racial disparities in traffic stops and searches, we’re left with the hard part: Figuring out why.
Theories abound. Among them:
- Socio-economic factors that lead to higher crime rates among minorities.
- Institutional racism in the police department.
- Overt racism by individual officers.
- Increased patrols in mostly black neighborhoods — at the request of black residents.
- Faulty data.
The opinions people hold about the “whys” often reflect their backgrounds, their experiences and, yes, their races.
Baumgartner calls this an “empathy gap,” a way to explain why some white, middle-class Americans are less likely to consider bias as a factor in, say, disparities related to traffic stops.
“Minority communities have known this their whole lives,” he said. “Now we have to decide, ‘Is this unfair? Does it lead to a lack of trust (among black people)?’ ”
But Baumgartner said it’s an unfair burden to put on police departments — this responsibility to fix centuries of inequality.
He also noted that “bias doesn’t explain it all.”
That’s the same conclusion reached by Lee Hunt, the manager of the police department’s information services division and its primary crime analyst for complex problems, such as identifying possible racial bias in traffic stops.
Researching the topic has become a full-time job for Hunt, who has a doctorate in anthropology and a background in statistical analysis.
Hunt cited several variables to consider when looking at the traffic stop data: land-use patterns of a particular community, where police are asked to be, whether individual officers follow department protocols.
An example: Hunt said local officers make most of their stops on highways and major thoroughfares, such as Gate City Boulevard or Battleground Avenue.
“You can’t predict on any given day and any given time what your anticipated demographic of drivers is,” Hunt said.
Those demographic fluctuations might affect data on traffic stops, given that there could be more black drivers one day and more white drivers the next. But in theory, the search rates for black and white drivers should be similar.
Critics of the police department point to such disparities as further evidence of its “culture of corruption and double standards,” as members of the Beloved Community Center noted in 2013.
That year, the community center cited several instances of alleged misuse or abuse of police powers within the local department.
“The contrasts of police action, between the affluent and the poor, the white and the minority, the passive and the vocal, are astounding and well documented,” the community center’s report said.
The department’s own data on complaints about racial profiling complaints doesn’t bear out the theory that the pattern is widespread.
From 2006 to 2014, the department received 54 profiling complaints out 2.7 million citizen contacts for all crimes, according to a Greensboro police spokeswoman.
That’s a complaint rate of 0.002 percent.
Since 2009, the department has received 112 complaints specific to traffic stops, though not all alleged bias, according to Hunt.
Critics, however, argue that those figures only reflect complaints that are officially lodged with the police department and that the majority of racial-bias claims go unreported.
Additionally, some researchers reject the notion that the disparity between whites and blacks searched during traffic stops points to bias.
Deborah Lamm Weisel, an assistant professor of criminal justice at N.C. Central University in Durham, analyzed Baumgartner’s research for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.
Weisel said she found several flaws, including some stop/search totals that were either incorrect or combined with the Highway Patrol’s district numbers.
She also said Baumgartner failed to take into account the variables that affect local law-enforcement agencies, such as deploying more resources to high-crime areas.
The idea that there is widespread racial bias within North Carolina’s law enforcement agencies is unjustified and “detrimental to public safety,” she wrote.
Weisel’s report also said the premise “can lead to ‘underpolicing,’ ‘policing by race,’ as well as erosion of public support and cooperation.”
“Racial minorities, who are far more likely to be the victims of crime, suffer the most from these effects,” her report noted.
So amid all these theories about why police officers search black men at a disproportionate rate during traffic stops, amid all the disagreements about whether its root is racism or circumstance, amid all the spreadsheets and anecdotal information, the Greensboro Police Department now finds itself tasked with fixing the problem.
It will not be easy.
In addition to the temporary halt on traffic stops for suspected equipment violations, Scott said the department will amp up its programs on de-escalation techniques, active listening and anti-bias training.
Scott also said he hopes to host a meeting of the state’s police chiefs in December to figure out ways other ways to tackle such disparities.
Greensboro City Councilman Mike Barber said he wants statistical data on traffic stops, arrests and other matters included in a bimonthly packet, along with employment levels, budget updates and other metrics.
Said Barber: “If we see an anomaly, if we see anything that is inconsistent with our values, then we can immediately evaluate and address the data, so never again will this take us by surprise.”
The Greensboro Police Officers Association, Scott and Vaughan are pushing state legislators to make footage from the body cameras police wear available for public inspection.
That, Vaughan said, “will lead to greater accountability and trust.”
Since March, she has been discussing race and local policing with members of the Beloved Community Center and others in the community.
Called the Community-City Working Group, it announced recommendations last week on how Greensboro police can shrink racial disparities in all areas of its law enforcement efforts.
Most of the group’s recommendations aren’t specific to traffic stops and searches but factor in the data on arrests the police department makes as a result of those stops.
The group is asking the Greensboro police to no longer charge people with obstructing or resisting arrest unless their actions are linked to more serious charges.
And the group wants the department to no longer consider possession of small amounts of marijuana a high-priority crime.
Both practices, the group said, tend to target black males disproportionately. And ending those practices would go a long way toward reassuring minorities that the local police are working to end racial disparities,said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, one of several black ministers critical of the police department.
“You cannot solve a problem if you’re not willing to acknowledge it,” he said.