Traffic stop raises questions about racial profiling in Winston-Salem

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by Jordan Green

New details emerge about a 2012 traffic stop by Winston-Salem police that the motorist characterizes as racial profiling. The police and the citizens’ police review board for the most part found no wrongdoing on the part of the officer, but some are uncomfortable with how an in-car camera failed to record the episode. The motorist alleges that he continues to experience harassment from the police.

An African-American East Carolina University student contends that he was racially profiled in 2012 when he was detained by a Winston-Salem police officer after a late-night traffic stop in the affluent West End neighborhood.

David L. Brown II asserted in a complaint that Officer BK Ayers stopped him without reasonable suspicion, subjected him and a friend to racially tinged comments and abusive treatment, and brought in a drug-sniffing dog that tore up his car without probable cause to carry out the search.

Scott Cunningham, who was the Winston-Salem police chief at the time, ruled that Ayers did not violate any policies with either the vehicle stop or the search. Brown appealed to the city’s citizens’ police-review board, which declined to hear the case although some members expressed concern about an in-car camera failing to record the encounter.

Brown and a friend had planned to visit a nightclub on Northwest Boulevard on the evening of March 9, 2012, but decided not to stay because there were only a few cars in the parking lot. As he was traveling away from the club, Brown said he noticed a police vehicle behind him. He found himself in the West End, an unfamiliar neighborhood, and slowed down to try to get his bearings. Ayers activated his lights and stopped Brown at West End Boulevard and Broad Street, Brown said in an interview with Triad City Beat.

“The first thing he said was, ‘What are you doing in my area?’” said Brown, adding that he interpreted the question as a reference to him driving through a predominantly white neighborhood. After looking at their ID cards, Ayers ordered them out of the car and had them sit on the curb in handcuffs, Brown said. Throughout the detention, Brown said, Ayers continually accused him of being a drug dealer and asked him how he could afford his car, a 2004 Infiniti G35. With several other police officers called in for backup, Brown said Ayers humiliated him and his friend by yanking their pants up to their crotch seven or eight times. He complained that the other officers smirked as they witnessed the frisk.

Triad City Beat published a story about the encounter in December, based on details provided by Jon Epstein, a member of the citizens’ police review committee. The name of the complainant was not available to the newspaper at the time. The story detailed concerns about a video camera — installed for the purpose of promoting police accountability and transparency — failing capture crucial portions of the encounter. The story reported in error that the vehicle stop involved a Lexus and a police body camera, based on information provided by a source. Chief Barry Rountree has since stated that the device in question was an in-car camera, a fact that is substantiated by an official email obtained by Triad City Beat.

Cunningham acknowledged Brown’s complaints, including that Ayers treated the two young men with discourtesy, in a June 2012 response to the complaint.

“With regard to the basic reasons for the traffic stop and his contact with you, Officer Ayers acted in accordance with the guidelines of established departmental policies and procedures and did not violate any policies or rules of conduct,” wrote Cunningham, who now serves as chief of police for the town of Kernersville.

Cunningham added, “However, he failed to properly utilize part of his issued equipment; as a result appropriate action was taken.”

Cunningham declined to respond to a question about whether the equipment referenced in his letter was an in-car camera, noting that he is no longer affiliated with the Winston-Salem Police Department. The letter also did not explain what appropriate action means. Cunningham referred questions about the matter to Rountree, who declined to comment for this story.

The former chief’s letter did not directly address the allegation of abusive and disrespectful treatment.