NYT article prompts debate about resisting arrest charge

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by Jordan Green

Mayor Nancy Vaughan expresses concern about the Greensboro police’s use of resisting arrest as a standalone charge, but Chief Wayne Scott said he wants to study the issue further before he makes departmental changes.

Derrick Giles freely admits that he’s not the best at staying on top of things like vehicle registration, and that he has been known to speed on occasion. He has no problem with being pulled over by the Greensboro police for those infractions.

“The question is what happens after that,” said the 50-year-old Greensboro native, who is black. “I’ve been pulled out of my car and patted down while I had a baby in the back in the car seat. I’ve had my car searched without my permission for reasons that were not explained. When I refused to consent to a search, they said, ‘We’re gonna search your car anyway, and we’re gonna tow it.’ So it was punitive.”

A study released by UNC Chapel Hill researcher Frank Baumgartner in March revealed that black motorists in Greensboro like Giles are twice as likely to be searched during police traffic stops as whites. Baumgartner’s findings were replicated and amplified in a New York Times investigation published on Oct. 25 that found “wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.” (Triad City Beat Associate Editor Eric Ginsburg contributed research to the project as a freelancer.)

The article’s publication prompted expressions of concern from members of the Greensboro City Council and a pledge by Chief Wayne Scott to work with his staff to understand what drives the disparities and to make any necessary changes to improve police interactions with the black community.

The findings came as no surprise to many black residents, including Giles, who owns Enpulse Energy Conservation, an engineering firm with four employees. Giles said he has had multiple experiences with police officers acting discourteously during traffic stops.

“I’ve had many officers approach me respectfully,” Giles said. “I thank them for the ticket. I’m not really thankful for the ticket; I’m actually thankful for the respectful and civil interaction. But when I ask an officer why they’re stopping me and they don’t tell me, my head is going to spin around and now we have an adversarial relationship.”

As a testament to just how commonplace the experience of racial profiling is among black men in Greensboro, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said she once had to call the police department to get them to stop harassing her eldest son.

“My son was stopped three times,” said Johnson, who is black. “He never got a ticket, never got a citation. He asked, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ Finally, I called the department and it stopped. He wasn’t speeding, and nothing was wrong with the vehicle. It was depressing. I didn’t get any answer that made any sense.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said the statistic that bothered her the most from the New York Times investigative report is that blacks are more than four times as likely as whites to be arrested for solely resisting, obstructing and delaying an officer.

“That is the type of charge that has the potential to go the most wrong,” she said. “If you’re having the resist-arrest charge, there should be something else that goes along with it.”

Responding in an interview, Scott argued that in some instances the stand-alone charge plays a legitimate role, emphasizing the police’s right to detain citizens for investigative purposes. He cited the 1968 US Supreme Court ruling in Terry v. Ohio, which has been used to justify controversial “stop and frisk” practices in New York City and Chicago.

The chief said he’s asked Lee Hunt, his director of information services, to bring back an analysis of the circumstances surrounding the department’s use of resisting arrest as a sole charge.

“There are different reasons for the charge: It could be physically resisting or giving false information,” Scott said. “If someone physically resists a lawful detention then I think it’s an appropriate charge. If it’s only related to information, maybe there are other ways we can approach it. I’ve always felt if we encounter a young person, even if they lie to me, I didn’t make that charge because I felt we had a chance to build a better relationship with them.”

Vaughan said she plans to speak with Chief Scott and has asked him to prepare a report on the police’s use of resisting arrest as a sole charge, along with a range of other minor offenses that disproportionately affect blacks in Greensboro for the next city council meeting on Nov. 10.

Vaughan cited a phrase used by Michelle Kennedy, executive director of the Interactive Resource Center — “the criminalization of poverty” — as capturing the insidious way minor charges can throw poor people’s lives into disarray if they don’t have adequate resources to navigate the legal system.

“She talks about when you give somebody a ticket for a broken taillight, then they don’t have the money to pay the ticket and they don’t go to court and they get ticketed and go to jail, and how something like that can be extremely life changing,” Vaughan said. “I think we should have more flexibility with something like that.”

Giles, whose car was towed after he objected to a police search, echoed that sentiment, noting that economic inequality only deepens the frustration of people who feel like they’ve been singled out by the police because of race.

“If you look at situations like Ferguson, I want you to understand that this type of policing aggravates things like Ferguson; it makes them more possible,” he said. “Economic disparities make them more possible.”

Since 2002, the Greensboro Police Department has maintained a written policy against bias-based policing, and Chief Scott said if any signs of racial profiling are found, “that’s not going to be tolerated in our organization.”

Scott said he accepts the veracity of the data about racial disparities in traffic stops and searches, but wants to understand whether the numbers are affected by outside factors such as law-enforcement resources being directed to address spikes in crime or requests for enhanced presence by residents of particular neighborhoods. In July, the department enlisted two researchers at UNCG and NC A&T University to analyze the data and bring back reports in January.

“The numbers are alarming,” Scott said. “What I’m asking is, what can we do to determine what’s causing it?”

Although Chief Scott expressed an interest in reviewing traffic stop data in an interview with Triad City Beat in April, it wasn’t until July, when Baumgartner and his colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill released a slate of new research highlighting Greensboro, that the department moved into action.

During a recent interview, the chief stood by his comment in the New York Times that traffic stops are a valuable policing tool that allows officers to maintain contact with citizens. He pushed back against the notion that high numbers of traffic stops might undermine efforts to reduce crime by eroding trust in the police, citing a strategy known as Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, or DDAC.

“DDAC tells you the opposite,” Scott said. “If you put traffic units in the area, then crime will fall in that area.” He hastened to say that the Greensboro Police Department has experimented with DDAC but has not adopted it as guiding strategy, adding, “I’m not sure it’s a fix-all.”

Scott said the first he had heard that the police chief in Fayetteville discourages officers from making stops for minor infractions was when he read it in the Times story. He said he’s intrigued by the approach and has put a call into Chief Harold Medlock to hear his perspective.

Giles said he’s glad racial profiling is getting attention, but it’s nothing new.

“Everything you’re seeing has been going on all along,” he said. “The only thing that’s new is recording. Now you get to see it. This didn’t just start. This has been the reality of black men all along.”