Racial disparities in traffic stops increase in central NC, data shows

BySamantha Kummerer and Maggie Green WTVD logo
Friday, May 21, 2021
Racial disparities in traffic stops increase in central NC, data shows
An analysis by the ABC11 I-Team found that as the number of stops shrank, the disparities in who was stopped increased across departments.

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Durham resident Cordell Gibson said he learned long before he could drive that the rules of the road would be different for him as a Black man.

"Especially when I'm by myself at night, I'm very vigilant of my surroundings, and really just know the kind of cars that are around me," Gibson said. "It's a scary thing, and some people who have never been in that situation or not in the same demographic as I am may not get why."

Police lights in the rearview mirror are an unwelcome sight for any driver -- but for Black drivers, the meaning is heavier.

"At this point, it seems like every other day there's something happening to someone when they encounter law enforcement, and some of it can stem from the smallest of interactions," Gibson said. "So, I'm just more nervous now than anything."

Last month, Daunte Wright was killed in Brooklyn Center, Minn., during a traffic stop when former officer Kim Potter said she mistook her gun for a taser. The shooting reignited a conversation departments have been having for years--but especially since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in June 2020.

Departments around central North Carolina, including Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville, have made a concerted effort to reduce the total number of traffic stops officers have conducted each year--those numbers falling dramatically for every department in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Traffic stops were not something that we were going to prioritize once the pandemic really reared its head, so to speak," said Raleigh Police Department Deputy Chief Todd Jordan, adding that civil unrest in the city also pulled officers away from making traffic stops.

In a written statement, Durham Police Department said: "There was a 51 percent decline in total traffic stops from 2014 to 2020. There was also a 51 percent decline in stops of Black drivers over the same period, and a 54 percent decline in stops of White drivers."

However, an analysis by the ABC11 I-Team found that as the number of stops shrank, the disparities in who was stopped increased across departments. As Raleigh Police Department reported 47,485 fewer stops in 2020 than in 2014, Black drivers made up 11.6% more of the total number of stops while white drivers were stopped 11.4% less.

Raleigh Police Department representatives Deputy Chief Todd Jordan and Lieutenant Eric Goodwin said the disparities in who is stopped is because of where stops occur--predominantly in areas where there are high amounts of police activity.

"Areas where we have a higher concentration of police officers correspond to areas where a higher concentration of the residents that are African American lead to the higher frequency of police-public encounters that have a disproportionate effect," Goodwin said.

Goodwin and Jordan said the department does review this data and point to actions that happen after the stop. In Raleigh, the same percent of white and Black drivers who were stopped also received a citation.

"The data that we're looking at now looks at what happens after the car stopped? Is there an opportunity to say, 'Hey, there's perhaps bias here,' and we're not seeing it in these outcomes," Goodwin said.

However, data regarding stops that lead to searches continue to show disparities.

In 2020, Raleigh police officers were 2.3 times more likely to search Black drivers following a traffic stop than white drivers. In Fayetteville, during the same year, Black drivers were 3.1 times more likely to be searched, and in Durham the rate increased to 4.4 times as likely.

A spokesperson for Durham Police Department wrote: "An Officer's decision to search is based on a variety of factors established prior to and during the vehicle stop, none of which are the race or ethnicity of the driver and/or occupants." The spokesperson added that the rate at which contraband was found during searches was similar for both Black and white drivers in 2020.

A 2020 UNC study by Dr. Mike Fliss suggested the solution lies not in the number of stops, but the type of stops. The researchers found that reducing the number of equipment-related stops, for things like a broken taillight or expired license, led to fewer racial disparities.

"What is the public health good of stopping people who are too low income to keep the registration up to date, or they have a broken taillight?" Fliss asked.

Instead, his team recommended prioritizing safety stops like speeding, failure to stop at a stoplight, and drunk driving--which led to fewer disparities and traffic injuries.

"We found in the study that there did seem to be some ability to change a kind of policing pretty rapidly, almost on a dime," Fliss said.

If the aim of traffic stops is to protect the community, Fliss said more departments should be evaluating if they are having that impact.

"If you're not asking what is the negative consequence of making tens of thousands, a 100,000 traffic stops to save how many lives, you're also taking money from communities, putting people in jail for minor drug offenses and causing harm as well as trying to prevent harm," Fliss said. "Policing for many years has gotten away with not really having to consider or be accountable to its negative consequences."

He said without asking these questions and reevaluating policies, communities are missing the chance to consider applying other interventions that could generate fewer negative consequences.

In 2020, white drivers were 1.1, 1.6, and 1.5 times more likely to be pulled over for speeding than Black drivers in Fayetteville, Durham and Raleigh respectively. In Raleigh and Durham, white drivers were 2.3 and 2.8 times more likely than Black drivers to be pulled over for driving while intoxicated.

Conversely, Black drivers were 1.8 times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over for a vehicle equipment violation in both Fayetteville and Durham in 2020, and 1.2 times more likely in Raleigh.

"It's the intentional aspect of what number are we trying to drive down--fatalities, traffic fatalities, accidents, speeders. So the data that we get from the increase in traffic accidents--especially in a particular neighborhood or particular street, anything that's around school zones--we intentionally go in those areas to focus on the the things that are most detrimental to society: the speeding, fatalities and accidents," Fayetteville Police Department Chief Gina Hawkins said in a phone interview. "So, focusing on that gives us directions and gives us goals."

Fayetteville Police Department's efforts between 2013 and 2016 served as the poster child for the study -- former Chief Harold Medlock at the heart of those changes. During his tenure, the percent of Black drivers stopped by Fayetteville officers dropped by nearly six percent.

"When you start to address the issue of traffic safety with your motoring public, it changes the dynamics," Medlock said. "We are not asking for consent to search, you're simply conducting that traffic stop for the sake of traffic safety, and the officer goes back, gets in their car and moves on. It changes the dynamics of the interaction with the public."

During Medlock's time, the department actually increased the number of stops but by the end safety stops accounted for 80% vs. 30% of initial stops.

Medlock added that targeting accident-prone areas for stops and requiring implicit bias training led to a decrease in citizen complaints, injuries and uses of force.

Medlock now consults police officials across the country and said applying similar change nationally isn't as easy due to funding models tied with traffic tickets.

"Most other states, cities and counties rely on those fines to survive. They are actually using traffic violation funds or fines to operate the city and in many cases operate the police department," Medlock explained. "That creates a tremendous pressure and burden on the police chiefs and the sheriff's in the states."

In North Carolina, fines and fees associated with traffic stops do not fund the general fund of cities or counties.

However, Medlock said every department across the state can easily review the benefit of consent searches that many times do not turn up contraband.

"At the end of the day, you may get nothing or you may get something that is so relatively small that you simply are spending an enormous amount of officer time, deputy time, that could be spent doing other things, engage in the community, do some problem solving, doing some real meaningful work, establishing relationships and building trust," Medlock said.

Medlock attributed much of his success to listening to the community.

Medlock added that change can't come without listening.

"Building those relationships requires having the conversations, as I did with my officers and all with my staff, but it's also having those conversations with the community because we have to know as police leaders and as police officers we have to know what the expectations of the community is," he said.

The disparities in who has been stopped have risen again in the years since he left the department, however, Fayetteville officers continue to prioritize safety stops over equipment-related stops, and are more likely to issue a warning than write a ticket during a traffic stop.

"The individual officers not only are engaging with the persons they're stopping, but they're offering kind of like grace," Hawkins said. "They might be listening to the motorists. The motorists might say, 'hey, I didn't realize that, I'm sorry.' In the end, the ultimate goal is to change the behavior."

Medlock said changing how police approach traffic stops can have a ripple effect throughout the community.

"There is a relationship between our police professionals and our sheriff's deputies and our community, a lack of understanding from all perspectives," Medlock said. "We need to somehow start to repair that."

Hawkins added that she encourages the community to come together to bring their concerns to the Fayetteville Police Department and have discussions, so officers can educate themselves about community issues.