As a young man growing up in Kentucky in the early ’90s I think it’s fair to say I engaged in more than my fair share of risky behavior. I conspicuously flouted authority, indulged in underage drinking, experimented with marijuana and other psychoactive drugs — and still somehow managed to pull it together and become a reasonably responsible and productive adult.
Predictably, I had some minor brushes with law enforcement, but luckily none of them carried any major consequences.
Once, when I was 18, an older friend who had graduated from college supplied me with beer. We had been drinking at another friend’s house and decided to walk down the street to where the flooding Kentucky River had subsumed a highway bridge. We were probably nursing open cans when a state trooper rolled up and asked what we were doing. I had to admit that I had been drinking and that I was under age; I refused to tell the officer where I’d obtained the alcohol, although he surely knew exactly where it came from. But after asking me if I didn’t realize I was digging myself deeper into a hole, he accepted our promise that we would walk back to our friend’s house and sleep off our intoxication. I was completely nailed, but I suppose the officer trusted us, was not too put out by my insolence and decided to take a harm-reduction approach rather than subject us to the criminal justice system.
Another time, while I was back home for a visit during college, I rode in another friend’s VW bug back from a blues festival in Lexington late at night. My friend, who was in the habit of driving 80 mph on the two-lane highway that led to our small town, happened to be high on psychedelic mushrooms. And because the moon was full and just to make things more interesting, my friend decided to turn off his headlamps. We were flying down the straightaway through a valley when we noticed blue lights behind us. Incredibly, my friend stepped on the gas with the notion that he would outrun the cop, pull into a stranger’s driveway and more or less melt into the night.
But the officer was right on our tail, and at my panicked insistence, my friend eventually did pull over. The state trooper, who happened to be black, asked my white friend some polite questions and had him perform a field sobriety test — walking a straight line and reciting the alphabet backwards, if memory serves — which he passed with flying colors. He searched the car, and my friend produced a baggy of ground coffee. Then the trooper asked us if we could direct him to the home of a neighbor, who was reputed in our circle to be sexually abusing his stepdaughter. My friend eagerly cooperated. Then the friendly trooper bade us goodnight.
We got off without so much as even a citation. Was it because an African-American state trooper felt ill at ease and out of his element in a rural county with an overwhelmingly white population? Did he view his encounter with us as a successful trade-up for a larger quarry? I’ll never know for sure, but I can’t help feel that our white skins had a lot to do with how events played out that night.
In the past 10 years that I’ve lived in North Carolina, black male friends have told me about being subjected to repeated traffic stops by police for no apparent reason. Should I refrain from comparing my personal experience, reasoning that it was a different place with a different population and that it happened in a different, perhaps more lenient time? I don’t think so.
In North Carolina, you don’t have to rely on personal anecdotes to know that black men receive radically different treatment from the police than white guys like me. In a review of traffic stops across the state from 2002 to 2013, a team of UNC-Chapel Hill researchers recently found that blacks in many cities are twice as likely to be searched as whites. Being searched increases the likelihood of arrest by a factor of 48, so the researchers conclude that a search is “the key entry point to a negative outcome” from the perspective of a citizen encountering the police.
Of the five largest cities across the state, Greensboro holds the highest disparity, with black motorists 108 percent more likely to be searched than whites. Durham and Charlotte are close behind, with 105 percent and 102 percent respectively. Before your eyes glaze over, realize this means black motorists are searched at double the rate of whites. In Winston-Salem and High Point, black motorists also are more likely to be searched during traffic stop — 24 percent above whites in Winston-Salem and 24 percent above whites in High Point — still nowhere near Greensboro’s astronomical rate.
Greensboro police Chief Wayne Scott told me he completely understands the concerns that arise when any particular segment of the community receives disproportionate attention from the police. But he said there might be a legitimate reason for the unequal outcomes.
“We deploy our resources where we have the highest rate of crime,” Scott said. “A number of our minority communities do have a higher rate of crime, which is going to equate to a higher presence by our officers to combat that crime.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon the chief said he had just returned from a community meeting where residents requested more police presence.
“I think it’s no secret that communities that have a crime issue want more police,” Scott continued. “It’s fair to say a lot of our minority communities want more police presence. I think that plays into the overall picture.”
The chief said he was open to the idea of conducting a more narrow study of searches on major thoroughfares like Wendover Avenue, where the population of motorists is likely to be most representative of the city as a whole. The numbers, he said, “make me want to ask more probing questions about the way we’re doing our job. What’s motivating our officers to take these actions? Is it something the officers are doing or is it something the motorists are doing?”
That review can’t come quickly enough.
“Such patterns call into question constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law, and foster hostility and resentment in a group of the population that regularly comes into contact with the police,” Professor Frank R. Baumgartner wrote in an August 2014 report on Durham, where search rates closely mirror those in Greensboro. “That these trends appear to accelerating rather than holding steady or being ameliorated is a troubling suggestion that the policies, and the resulting citizen response, may be self-perpetuating: a downward spiral of policing and citizen resentment.”