Local News

'I was terrified': Raleigh man says he became traffic-stop statistic

Posted July 28, 2015 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 28, 2015 6:51 p.m. EDT

— In some North Carolina cities, black men are two to three times more likely to be searched by police, according to state traffic stop statistics. For Raleigh resident John Hunt, who is black, those numbers became all too real last month on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 1 in Vance County.

Hunt was heading home to Raleigh when a Vance County sheriff’s deputy got behind him. Hunt says he didn't want to stop over the crest of a hill, so he turned on his flashers until he found a safer place to pull over. He says he was shocked when the deputy ordered him out of the truck, gun drawn.

“I thought he was going to shoot me,” Hunt said. “He had the gun on me the whole while and got behind the truck, instructed me to bend down on my knees. And when he did that, another officer, he took my hands, he snatched it back, and another officer came, turned to the side, pulled a gun on me, and the other officer that stopped me put the handcuffs on me.”

Hunt asked, but said he wasn't given a reason for the stop. Deputies didn't ask as they searched his truck, he said. “I was afraid. I was terrified."

On that roadside, Hunt became part of a troubling statistic.

Frank Baumgartner is a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Much of his research focuses on social issues and race, including traffic stops.

“Unfortunately, I'd have to say I'm not shocked (about Hunt’s story),” Baumgartner said. “We always like to think we're living in a society where these kinds of disparities are lessening, but we're not. Actually, they're getting worse.”

WRAL Investigates went through state traffic stop data going back to January 2014 and found black male drivers in Fayetteville and Durham were searched three times more often than white drivers. In Raleigh, Cary and Rocky Mount, black men were two times more likely to be searched, which is in line with the state average.

Baumgartner analyzed more than a decade of data for every reporting law enforcement agency in the state. He says black drivers, on average, were 75 percent more likely to be searched even though the rate of actually finding anything illegal barely registered.

He says he fears “the young men in the community are acting out more because they've become increasingly accustomed to being disrespected, and the officers are being increasingly aggressive because they're involved in a dynamic that's a downward spiral.”

Baumgartner is encouraged that communities like Durham and Fayetteville are responding to racial concerns with changes, such as written consent and added sensitivity training for officers.

“It's going to continue to be unpleasant, but we can't solve a problem if we don't have those difficult conversations,” he said.

As for Hunt, he says he knows “all officers are not like that. It’s just a small percentage that are like that.”

Deputies eventually let Hunt go with no charges, but the experience changed his outlook.

“I can see why people would run if someone (is) pulling a gun on you, because you're afraid … even if you haven't done anything wrong,” he said.

WRAL Investigates repeatedly asked the Vance County Sheriff's Department to comment about Hunt's stop, as well whether an internal investigation was conducted, but did not receive a response. Durham and Fayetteville police also declined to comment on their high rates of searching black drivers.