Project puts racial disparity in NC traffic stops on display
Posted December 16, 2015
Updated December 17, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A new project by a Durham-based nonprofit allows users to explore the racial disparities of traffic stops by law enforcement across the state – stops that disproportionately affect minority drivers.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice launched the website Open Data Policing NC, using more than 10 years of law enforcement data reported to the North Carolina Department of Justice. The site allows users to explore traffic stops broken down by race and ethnicity, as well as other statistics including use of force and discovery of contraband.
News organizations from The New York Times to the Greensboro News & Record have used the state's data in the past year to show that black drivers – and particularly black males – are more likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement on North Carolina roads.
Although the data have been available online through the DOJ's website, the interface makes analysis difficult for most users.
"There's a lot of data that's collected by DOJ that's not reported online," Ian Mance, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition who led the creation of the new site, said. "Our site fills some of those holes."
Not every agency is represented in the database, since departments are required to report only if they serve populations greater than 10,000 people. But Mance said the more than 20 million records dating back more than a decade provide a comprehensive look at law enforcement's most common interaction with the public.
"This is not a snapshot of enforcement activity – this is a portrait of enforcement activity," Mance said. "By and large, this site captures all traffic stops that have occurred during the time period in the state."
Statistics show wide disparities
In the Triangle, the statistics show minorities are overrepresented in the traffic stop data relative to their population.
- Black drivers made up 45 percent of the Raleigh Police Department's traffic stops since 2002, even though census data shows blacks make up 29 percent of the city population. Whites make up 58 percent of the population but were stopped 52 percent of the time.
- In Durham, black drivers made up 58 percent of the stops since 2002. Of the drivers searched by police in traffic stops, three out of four were black. Blacks make up 41 percent of the population in Durham, according to the census.
- Since 2002, black drivers made up 24 percent of the Chapel Hill Police Department's stops, despite the fact that blacks make up just 10 percent of the population there. Black drivers also made up 41 percent of searches.
The site does not provide data showing how often drivers were cited after stops, but it does compare how much more or less likely minority drivers are to be stopped for several different types of violations, from impaired driving to speeding.
The Chapel Hill Police Department did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, and Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael declined to comment about the project aside from pointing out the department was not involved. Michael said the Durham department does analyze its own traffic data, however, and the most recent review examined the first six months of statistics from 2015.
Raleigh Police spokesman Jim Sughrue declined to comment about the statistics directly, saying they'd have to "speak for themselves at this point" because the department hasn't analyzed them.
"Law enforcement agencies across the state have submitted traffic stop data over the years in accordance with the statutory requirement, but I'm not aware of a statewide evaluation that goes beyond raw numbers, and the RPD has not individually conducted one," Sughrue said.
In the past few years, however, academics have looked to traffic stop data to explore racial disparities in policing. The research opportunity was particularly good in North Carolina, where state laws have required police reporting since 2000.
"We were the first state in the country to pass a data collection statute, so we have more data than anywhere else in the country," Mance said.
In a 2012 report by political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Derek Epp, an analysis of more than 13 million traffic stops from 2000 to 2011 showed black and Hispanic drivers were subject to search at "consistently higher" rates than whites. The researchers also found minorities were more likely to be arrested for the same type of infraction that would earn white drivers a warning.
Mance said this kind of analysis has prompted policy changes in places such as Durham, where city leaders re-examined their policies on traffic stops and searches in an attempt to tackle racial disparities.
A platform for the public – and the police
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice will formally launch the project at an event in downtown Durham on Thursday and will be joined by new Durham City Councilman Charlie Reece and Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock.
In Fayetteville, where blacks make up 42 percent of the population, data shows black drivers made up 57 percent of traffic stops since 2002 and 71 percent of searches conducted during those stops.
Medlock took the helm of the Fayetteville police in February 2013 and sought a review of the department by federal officials soon after his tenure began in an effort to improve community relations. In response, a U.S. Department of Justice report released Wednesday recommended improvements to the police force's use-of-force policies and better data gathering on citizen complaints.
Medlock was unavailable for comment Wednesday but said in a statement that he plans to work the website into his management of the department.
"The sharing of this information allows for a better interpretation of the data and for the evaluation to be done at a quick rate that was previously not available," Medlock said. "This platform presents the information in a manner that increases the transparency of the Fayetteville Police Department and improves the community and police relationship."
Mance said that, although the site is online and available now, his team plans to improve it with feedback from the public and law enforcement leaders. They're also planning to launch new features where they can, such as location data for traffic stops from agencies willing to provide it.
Now that it's launched, he said the organization will update the site with new data monthly so users can continue to track trends over time.
"This is really about informing the public and being transparent about what's happening on our streets and highways," Mance said.