Black North Carolinians arrested more often than white counterparts, I-Team investigation shows

BySamantha Kummerer and Maggie Green WTVD logo
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Black North Carolinians arrested more often than white counterparts, I-Team investigation shows
In 2018, black people were arrested on average at a rate five times higher than that of white people across the US. Among 250 jurisdictions, the rate was 10 times higher.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The almost daily protests after George Floyd's murder are pointing out a poignant reality: if you're black in America, you're more likely to get arrested.

"When a situation involves people of color and non-people of color, people of color are usually the ones being apprehended, being questioned and being judged immediately," Gerald Givens, president of the Raleigh-Apex NAACP, said. "That has to stop in our society."

The local chapter's leadership said case managers are reviewing some 450 discrimination complaints--including 70 involving police.

"Unfortunately, it's become a part of life," Givens said. "This is a pattern in all of the major cities in our country and even in some small towns in America."

In a special investigation, the ABC11 I-Team collaborated with ABC News and ABC Owned Television Stations in reviewing more than 5 million arrest records submitted to the FBI by some 800 local law enforcement agencies.

Our analysis--and the numbers--show that Givens' assessment is more than a hunch: in 2018, black people were arrested on average at a rate five times higher than that of white people. Among 250 jurisdictions, the rate was 10 times higher.

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In the Tar Heel State, the numbers are a bit better, but nothing to brag about; on average, North Carolina agencies arrested black individuals at a rate 2.5x higher in 2018, but an I-Team analysis finds 40% of the agencies reporting even higher arrest disparities.

A look at three years worth of data, moreover, reveals an increase in the average disparities in arrests across the state.

Showing our work: How ABC11 did the math

Indeed, context is critical to sifting through statistics, so the ABC11 I-Team went beyond exploring the absolute numbers of arrests. Instead, we factored in demographics and population to find rates of arrests.

For instance, in Apex, FBI data shows a greater number of white individuals being arrested in 2018, but black people only make up 7% of the population.

When factoring that in, black people make up 33% of all arrests, thus revealing one of the largest disparities in the state. In 2018, thus, there were 12 white people and 72 black people arrested per 1,000 residents--a 600% difference.

"Apex Police Department is entirely and completely committed to equitable, constitutionally based policing," deputy chief Mitchell McKinney wrote in a statement to ABC11. "We are focused on continuous improvement and I am confident the training we have engaged in over the last several years to specifically address bias in police service has and will continue to ensure we are providing equitable service to the Apex community."

Apex police officials also pointed to a few factors they said affect the rates, including arrests of non-residents, as well as warrants served in Apex but initiated by other agencies.

"We are also committed to ensuring our staffing demographics mirror the demographics of the community," the deputy chief said.

Apex Police issued a response to this story. You can read that in full here.

In responses to ABC11, officials from other departments highlighted the fact that the FBI arrest data is based on the number reports, thus allowing for several arrests being tied to one individual.

"Systemic racism is insidious," Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. "The pain it causes is real. I understand we are part of that system."

FBI data showed Orange County arrested black people four times as often as white people. The Orange sheriff shared the office's own data that excludes criminal processes initiated by other entities, but our analysis revealed even greater disparities.

"We pledge to focus our energies on making these numbers more equitable," Blackwood said.

The Raleigh Police Department and other agencies not included in this analysis did not report their data to the FBI in 2018.

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"The Hard Truth"

ABC11 cast a wide net for responses and reactions to our data, including to some of the largest police unions and associations in the Southeast.

John Midgette, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the Southeast States Police Benevolent Association, agreed that the data is not a good look on law enforcement.

"Like anybody, you would be alarmed at just the numbers themselves," Midgettes said. "What's happened is in trying to do our due diligence to fight crime, it has shown very stark numbers that also appears like we're targeting people of color which is just not the case."

The SSPBA's North Carolina chapter has a membership of some 14,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies.

"People deserve better answers from us," Midgettes said. "(Officers) are seeking to make the community better by trying to target hot crime areas and places where crime has been committed, and they're being called to scenes by victims."

A more appropriate approach, Midgettes said, is to explore why so many minorities are living in poverty, and explore those societal factors outside of policing.

"While it's still a disturbing pattern, it is based on crime and what police are supposed to do," Midgette said.

Others disagree, however, including researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, said he's found racial disparities in traffic stop data.

"Everybody from the top down--citizens, lawmakers, police chiefs, municipal leaders, anyone with influence and a conscience--needs to ask hard questions about what could we do better," Baumgartner said. "We can't have a system where we say, 'Well, nothing's broken, we'll continue on business as usual.' I think we do have to, we have our responsibility to ask hard questions."

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Baumgartner pointed to factors like where and how officers are policing as one factor of where there are disparities--not just in arrests but types of crimes.

"Let's say there's two 16-year-old boys that live in the two different neighborhoods and they both smoke some pot once in a while. The one that lives on the poor side of town is much more likely to be arrested for that just because there's a lot of police around on a more routine basis, and those police officers are behaving much more aggressively."

UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner explains how disparities in policing can lead to differing arrest rates between neighborhoods.

Where we go from here

There are some positive takeaways in the data, including from Edgecombe County, where the data shows the sheriff's office maintains equally proportionate arrest rates from 2016-2018.

Sheriff Cleveland "Clee" Atkinson said in an interview he reviews every ticket issued, and his department regularly undergoes racial equity training and has informal conversations about race.

"When we sit down as a group, nothing or anything with an agenda, we just talk, and we learn, 'Wow! How did you handle that?' and I think those stories help," he said.

He also attributed community policing to part of the agency's success.

"We don't just police and leave the area," Atkinson said. "We live in our neighborhoods, we go to church in our neighborhoods... we are the neighborhood, so we don't just come in and police people and leave out. So, when we see things that are disrupting our neighborhood, it hurts us."

WATCH: How Edgecombe County Sheriff Atkinson addresses race, community issues with staff

Edgecombe County Sheriff Cleveland Atkinson said he has regular conversations with his staff about race.

In recent years, some agencies said they've already worked to make adjustments to counter disparities.

Black individuals were four times more likely to be arrested by the Wake County Sheriff's Office in 2018. A spokesperson said the data doesn't reflect the changes made in recent years and the change in leadership.

"Sheriff (Gerald) Baker believes in community policing," spokesman Eric Curry wrote to ABC11 in a statement. "For instance, deputies have been encouraged, if possible, to determine whether citing a subject for a minor offense, instead of taking them to jail. This creates better relationships in the community while reducing arrests for minor infractions."

The agency also started mandatory diversity training and created a more diverse leadership team.

While some agencies have already started thinking about combating these statistics, many more nationwide are reviewing policies and practices that might factor disproportionate numbers in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder in Floyd's death after kneeling on his neck during an arrest for eight minutes and forty-two seconds.

"We've learned so much. We've learned that this is not just a law enforcement issue. There are a few systems that need to be fixed and worked on. I think sometimes law enforcement is the bullseye, and so I can tell you that there are some great men and women that serve in all our communities. We take that pain home too," Atkinson said.

Many others agree; this isn't a simple fix or just a law enforcement issue.

"You have to look at economics, education, labor, law, politics. All of those things have a role into what shapes and develops a community," Raleigh-Apex NAACP President Gerald Givens said.

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In Edgecombe County, the sheriff said his agency is going to start fostering more conversations with the community through events that ask residents to voice their concerns about the agency.

And beyond police leadership, the advocates for the "rank and file" officers and deputies are promising to do the same. Many agencies told ABC11 that after seeing the data, they are internally reviewing their numbers and having a conversation about what it means.

"If we're not working on this together, then we're not solving the problem," said SSPBA NC director Midgette. "You cannot have people understand anything unless they're brought into the world you're in."

About the data: The ABC National data team analyzed 2018 FBI data that is reported by police agencies themselves to the FBI. This information was compared with 2018 population and demographic information provided by the 2018 U.S. Census estimates.