Racial disparity in traffic searches prompts investigation

2
170

by Eric Ginsburg

In the wake of a UNC-Chapel Hill study that alleges a high rate of racial disparity between who Greensboro police officers search in traffic stops, the city has assigned crime analysts to prepare a report of its own.

The number is staggering: Black motorists in Greensboro are more than twice as likely to be searched by the police as white drivers. That’s according to a study of traffic stops and searches across the state, conducted by several researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, which was released this spring. It’s based on more than a decade of recent, detailed data and shows that black males in particular are more likely to be searched in a traffic stop than any other demographic.

While the Greensboro Police Department doesn’t accept the findings as accurate, it does raise red flags for Chief Wayne Scott. And now two crime analysts in the department are assigned to look into it part-time, tasked with generating their own report.

Scott, who was recently promoted to the position after serving as a deputy chief, said he wants to break down the numbers and incorporate more data to determine if something needs changing.

“I quite honestly believe there are some holes in [the study] and that drives us to want to take a deeper look at it,” he said last week. “Until we know what the numbers really mean, we can’t fix it…. In fairness, if there’s a problem, we want to fix it.”

Lee Hunt, a PhD and manager of information services, oversees the crime analysis unit that is conducting the department’s internal research. Scott said it is the only thing Hunt is working on, but Hunt contradicted him in a separate interview the next day.

Hunt said it’s something “we’ve been working on intermittently for the last two years” since an initial version of the study was released.

“I have not myself seen the most recent report — the crime analysts have,” he said, adding that there are two people “dedicating a good bit of time” to the research, though that time amounts to less than one day weekly.

The latest traffic stop and search study is a continuation of research released two years ago, Hunt said, with the latest version now providing information about specific police departments. The department began looking at the original information under former chief Ken Miller, Hunt said.

“We were trying to do it internally and we were doing it at a time when we were short staffed,” he said. “It’s a lengthy project.

Hunt said his staff have been focused on a beat and zone realignment for the last 12 to 18 months, which was recently completed but took priority. Chief Scott recently rebooted the traffic stop and search research effort, he said.

“It was restarted when that report came out a few months ago,” Hunt said. “We started putting more time into it. We have lots of research projects on our plate, pretty much at the same time.”

The UNC report includes the listed reasons for stops and searches, breaking the data into categories such as driving impaired, speed limit and stop light/sign for stops and consent, search warrant and protective frisk, among others. White and black motorists were searched in equal number based on a search warrant, consent, probable cause and protective frisk searches had a more than double percentage rate of search. “Incident to arrest” search ratios were almost double for black motorists as well.

Chief Scott said the numbers are “somewhat skewed” because the overwhelming number are listed as consent searches. Of the data from 2002 to 2013, 13,808 or the 24,011 total searches are listed as consent, trailed by “incident to arrest” searches with 5,746. Just because an officer obtained consent from the motorist doesn’t mean that the officer didn’t also have probable cause, Scott said, adding that it is best practice to ask for consent even when an officer has a legal right to search the vehicle.

“The best I can tell from the study is it doesn’t tell us what got us to the search,” he said. “The decision to search a motorist is a totality of the circumstances an officer encounters.”

Scott said there are “literally a million” factors that play into any given search, some of which could account for the alleged racial disparity. It could be due to a “disproportionate amount of contact” based on calls for service in a given area, and he pointed out that the study doesn’t factor whether the search happened in a high crime area or a bevy of other important issues to consider.

The study shows that of the overall number of traffic stops, 40.07 percent of motorists were white and 49.78 percent were black. That’s about the inverse of the local population based on recent Census data — 40.6 percent of the city’s residents are listed as “black or African American alone” while 48.4 percent are listed as “white alone” — though motorists stopped in Greensboro do not necessarily live in the city.

Black motorists in Greensboro were stopped at a higher rate than white motorists in all of the nine categories, with the exception of “driving impaired.” Seat-belt stops were the most disproportionate, with a ratio of 3.25 to 1. Black motorists accounted for a higher percentage of searches in all five of the study’ listed categories except for a tie for search warrants, by far the least common reason for a search.

The study also broke out some of the data by officer, showing that only one officer searched white motorists at more than twice the rate of black motorists. Meanwhile, 59 officers searched black motorists at more than twice the rate of white ones.

The police department contacted the State Bureau of Investigation and requested the same set of raw information provided to the Chapel Hill researchers, Hunt said. After double-checking the results of the study, Greensboro crime analysts will use additional information including geography, crime rates and crime hotspots, calls for service and whether specific officers are making disproportionate or unreasonable stops or searches, he said.

The two analysts have already begun working, and Hunt hopes to have a finished report by the end of 2015.

“At this point they have imported the data provided to us and have started to analyze the data using the same descriptions and methodology that was described [in the study],” he said. “What we want to be able to do is provide the larger context.”

Police Attorney Jim Clark said the study also demonstrates that motorists, even those who are stopped by police, are very rarely searched, a statistic that should ease concerns. The data collected from 2002 through 2013 covers 488,754 stops. Of those, only 24,011 — just below 5 percent — resulted in a search.

But the disparity alleged in the study is enough to merit concern, Clark said, which is why the department is looking into it.

“Does the number disturb us like it disturbs everybody else? Yeah,” he said. But it isn’t clear whether the department is responsible for the traffic-search ratio or whether it is a symptom of a deeper cause, he said. “We do know we don’t want to be the cause.”