Report: Racial bias seen in Durham traffic stops

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Racial bias documented in report on Durham traffic stops.

"Cautiously optimistic," is how Fred Foster, the president of the Durham branch of NAACP, describes his feelings on a new study released by the Durham Police Department.

That study was presented to him as well as leaders of other advocacy groups in Durham about two hours before it was presented to the media.

On Thursday, the department called a news conference to release the findings of a study by research group, RTI International. The department's interim police chief, Larry Smith, reached out to this group to look into possible racial bias when it comes to traffic stops. This is part of an effort on the department to be more transparent and to achieve a better understanding of its operations.

RELATED: Read the full traffic report here (.PDF)

DPD provided RTI with more than five years of data from 151,700 traffic stops. When researchers poured over the information they found that black male drivers were disproportionately pulled over in traffic stops from January 2010 through October 2015. They found that the odds of the driver pulled over and being a black man, were 20% higher. They pulled these numbers from daytime traffic stops, believing that race is more obvious in daylight.

No evidence of racial disproportionality was found among female drivers.

Researchers say their results also suggest that racial disproportionality went down during the time period studied. They said while the numbers were at their worst from 2010 through 2013, by 2014 the numbers improved.

Interim Chief Smith hopes that's a sign that a number of their newer initiatives are already working.

"We believe the improvements in the disproportionality are a result of the changes in our policies, procedures and training that we've instituted in the past few years. This shows that we are willing to listen to our community and make adjustments in our policing practices when necessary," Chief Smith said.

DPD has progressively established procedures to ensure fair and balanced policing during stops:

  • HEAT, Patrol and Traffic Services units have been outfitted with in-car cameras to capture interactions during stops

  • The department conducts semi-annual traffic stop data reviews, analyzing data pertaining to the initial purpose of a traffic stop, the enforcement action and the potential for being searched during a stop (DPD traffic stop data is also reviewed by the state of North Carolina)

  • Biannually, the department performs a detailed analysis for any officer with at least 25 traffic stops and a 75 percent or higher stop rate of minorities. The analysis includes the time and location of the stop, whether a search occurred, the demographics of the driver, and a random review of the in-car camera video for the officer's stops

  • Monthly reviews of in-car camera footage are done by division commanders

  • Complaints resulting from traffic stops are thoroughly investigated by the Professional Standards Division in an attempt to identify patterns

  • Signed written forms are required for all consent searches during traffic stops

  • DPD has taken additional measures to enhance police-community relations:

  • All officers have completed Fair and Impartial Policing training and the training is now included in the Basic Law Enforcement Training curriculum for all incoming new recruits

  • Officers have recently received verbal conflict and de-escalation training and select personnel have been trained as trainers through the U.S. Department of Justice on procedural justice and police legitimacy

  • In addition to semi-annual traffic stop data reviews, DPD will now utilize RTI's free tool to continue to track traffic stop data

  • The study also shows that the police unit with the higher number of disproportionate traffic stops was in the High Enforcement Abatement Team, or HEAT. This is a unit that focuses primarily on drug, vice and gang violence. There was no evidence of disproportionality in stops by DPD's Traffic Services unit.

    RELATED: Read the news release from RTI International here (.PDF)

    "Our HEAT teams have been asked over the years to go out in our highest crime communities, which unfortunately are often mostly minority communities, to try to help us deal with the crime problem in Durham, and if you're not careful when you do that, you can feed into that implicit bias," said Chief Smith. "When you know that the vast majority of your victims of violent crime are African American and the vast majority of suspects, particularly, are African American males, yes that means that's where we're doing a lot of our policing and interactive policing. But then when you have a study like this, you have to be sure that you're not drifting over into making assumptions."

    Durham Mayor Bill Bell was also at the news conference when the findings were presented. He pointed out how it was just last year that the Durham Human Relations Commission found racial bias in the police department.

    "Although there has been disagreement between the police department and the human relations commission on the existence of racial profiling in the Durham Police Department, I also want to commend Chief Smith and his command staff and his leadership in his request for this report," said Mayor Bell.

    Foster said he is pleased with the findings, although he said they've brought similar findings to the department before. Nevertheless he's happy everyone seems to be sitting at the same table right now.

    "We've got to find a way to bring us back together," Foster said.

    "It's essential that we get an objective view of our operations and in turn be willing to not only accept the findings, but continue to work toward putting the necessary tools in place to correct the issues this analysis revealed-and ensure that bias of any kind is never a part of police operations," Chief Smith said.

    It was also pointed out in the news conference that researchers took the same approach with studies in state-sourced traffic stop data from Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro. They noted that there was no evidence of racial bias in those cities.

    "Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro have all had long-term media attention on the racial composition of drivers stopped by those departments," said Dr. Travis Taniguchi, research criminologist at RTI. "Our analyses of these cities failed to identify evidence of racial bias. Media attention and benchmarks against census population appear insufficient to reliably identify disproportionate minority contact in traffic stops."

    RTI International did not charge for this study, instead researchers said it was a service to the community. They are also developing a free online tool that will allow law enforcement agencies to conduct analysis on their own traffic data. That information would also be available to the public.

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