A comprehensive study of traffic stops and arrest data in Greensboro, North Carolina, uncovered wide racial disparities in police conduct.
The New York Times evaluated tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data and found that in Greensboro, police pulled over African American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search Black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white drivers, even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.
Police were more likely to stop Black drivers for no discernible reason, and they were more likely to use force if the driver was Black, even when there was no physical resistance.
These disparities were found across North Carolina, a state that collects detailed data on traffic stops. Traffic stops are the most common form of police contact with citizens, and they frequently lead to searches, arrests, and involvement in the criminal justice system that can have lifelong consequences, especially for poor people.
In Greensboro, like in Ferguson, Missouri, traffic stops disproportionately result in criminal charges for African Americans. Although Black and white people use marijuana at nearly identical rates, Black residents in Greensboro, which is 41 percent Black, are charged with marijuana possession five times as often as whites. More than four times as many African Americans as whites are arrested on the sole charge of resisting, obstructing, or delaying an officer (a minor offense).
In 2009, minority police officers in Greensboro, which is 48 percent white, sued their department for racial bias, but today the department remains 75 percent white. Police chief Wayne Scott said he is trying to recruit minority officers, discourage the use of Tasers, add training in unbiased policing, and investigate every credible complaint. Two years ago, Greensboro outfitted all officers with body cameras and required them to file any searches, but the videotapes are confidential, as are complaints against police officers.
In nearby Fayetteville, reforms have drastically reduced some of the racial disparities so evident in Greensboro. Police are instructed to stop drivers only for moving violations that cost lives (speeding, drunk driving) and to avoid resisting-an-officer charges unless some more serious offense has occurred, and they must obtain written permission for consent searches.
Law enforcement leaders are acknowledging that, like stop-and-frisk campaigns in New York and Chicago, aggressive traffic stops needlessly alienate citizens and undermine trust in the police. Former police chief Ronald Davis, who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said there is no evidence that increasing stops reduces crimes. “For any chief who faces those racial disparities” in traffic stops, he said, “they should be of great concern.”
Too many people in America are burdened with a presumption of guilt. An individual’s race is often seen as a basis for distrust or suspicion that marks a person as one to be feared, closely monitored, and targeted by police. The myth of racial difference used to justify slavery, lynching, and segregation persists and continues to burden communities of color. The Equal Justice Initiative believes that these problems will continue until we talk honestly about the history from which they stem.