Local News

Fayetteville mulls written consent policy for vehicle searches

Posted September 21, 2011 5:52 p.m. EDT
Updated September 21, 2011 7:24 p.m. EDT

— The Fayetteville Police Department is unclear about the direction the City Council is going with a new proposed policy that would require officers to get written consent from drivers before searching a vehicle, Lt. Chris Davis said Wednesday.

Davis defended the department's current search policy, saying it keeps guns and drugs off the streets. He said he wonders what the changes will mean for patrol officers trying to keep the community safe.

"We're actually a little confused as to what direction City Council wants us to go," he said.

The suggested plan, which is already in use by the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office and state Highway Patrol, addresses concerns from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People about racial profiling. The group's local chapter contends that police officers in Fayetteville are more likely to search vehicles of black drivers.

"There is a perception in the community, black and white, that is damaging the reputation of our police department. We have people mistrusting our policemen and that mistrust is growing," said Councilman Bill Crisp. 

An analysis of traffic stops over the past two years by the Fayetteville Observer seems to support the NAACP's contention. Black drivers account for three out of every four searches, the newspaper reported.

The department's current search policy only requires verbal consent from a driver to search a vehicle. Davis said the policy is in line with federal and state laws, but Mayor Tony Chavonne said Wednesday that city leaders would like to see officers go one step further. 

"We think it helps make sure citizens know their rights and allows the police department to continue to request consent searches," Chavonne said. "It seemed to be a good fit."

If an officer has probable cause, such as the smell of drugs or alcohol, no consent is necessary for a search. Otherwise, Davis said, officers use a number of criteria to deem a driver's behavior suspicious. Race, he said, is never one of those criteria.

"Absolutely not. The chief doesn't condone that. The department doesn't condone that. I think we've had a total thus far, that I'm aware of, of nine bias-based policing complaints," he said.

None of those complaints were substantiated, he said. 

The policy changes could take effect in the next couple weeks, after City Council formally votes it into place. Chavonne said he believes there's consensus among city leaders that the changes are needed and he believes the plan will be approved.