PUBLIC ASKS QUESTION: Are law enforcement agencies in Alamance County more prone to stop and arrest black and Hispanic drivers – as the Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro has repeatedly claimed during demonstrations and news conferences that he has conducted in Graham?
ANSWER: Most drivers have, at one time or another, been on the receiving end of a “blue light special.” But the experience of being pulled by a police officer is, indeed, more common for black motorists – and that’s true regardless of whether they’re passing through Alamance County or traversing some other jurisdiction in the U.S.
The disproportionate rate of traffic stops among black drivers is quite apparent in the statistics that the N.C. Department of Public Safety routinely compiles for law enforcement agencies in North Carolina. These figures show that, since the beginning of 2019, black drivers have comprised between 31.8 percent and 45.1 percent of everyone stopped by the four largest local law enforcement agencies in Alamance County. Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, black residents accounted for just 20.9 percent of the county’s overall population in 2019.
This same discrepancy also exists across the state of North Carolina, where a black population of 22.2 percent was subject to 36.0 percent of the traffic stops over the same period of time.
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But this skew in the stats, which seems so starkly black and white at first glance, begins to look much grayer when the numbers are examined in detail.
A national quandary hits home
Among the factors that muddle the statistical picture are the initial reasons for traffic stops, the enforcement actions that follow, and the correlations between traffic stops and the calls for service that an agency gets. A further rub to any simple inference of discrimination is the data on Hispanic drivers, who are stopped at lower rates than their prevalence within the population – both in Alamance County and across the state as a whole.
These trends, as well the factors that complicate them, are also evident outside of North Carolina. In fact, the Open Policing Project at Stanford University, which has accumulated nationwide data on traffic stops since 2015, has noted the same incongruous stop rates for black and Latinos drivers.
“The data show that officers generally stop black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, and stop Hispanic drivers at similar or lower rates than white drivers,” the project’s authors point out in an introduction to their online database. “Examining stop rates is a natural starting point,” they add, “but they can be hard to interpret. For example, driving behavior and time spent on the road likely differ by race or ethnicity. The racial composition of the local population also may not be representative of those who drive through an area, especially when dealing with stops on highways.”
The problems inherit in traffic stop data were also underscored by Burlington’s police chief Jeff Smythe after the city’s police department received an inquiry from another news outlet earlier this year.
“The analysis of police traffic stop data is one of several tools the public and police agencies may use to evaluate potential unfair treatment of people,” the city’s police chief explained in his response to the inquiry. “This is a complex and nuanced practice that may or may not provide some insight into how the police work and treat people in a community…Traffic stop data, including search percentage by demographic, should not be analyzed alone, but rather with a full understanding of the daily interactions between the public and the officers of the Burlington Police Department.”
Sheriff least likely to stop black drivers
The analysis of traffic stops is made somewhat easier in North Carolina thanks to statutory reporting requirements that allow the state to gather comparable data from all state and local law enforcement agencies. This information, which is current as of the end of October, is readily available online from North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation, which organizes the data by categories that include the race and ethnicities of drivers.
The bureau’s figures for the past two calendar years show that a disproportionately large number of black drivers were pulled over by the office of Alamance County’s sheriff as well as the police departments in Burlington, Mebane, and Graham. In each case, black drivers make up a larger share of the agency’s stops than they comprise of the overall population – as estimated by an American Community Survey that U.S. Census Bureau conducted in 2019.
According to the SBI’s data for the office of Alamance County’s sheriff, black motorists constituted 31.8 percent of those stopped between January of 2019 and October of 2020. In contrast, the Census Bureau found the county’s black residents to comprise 20.9 percent of the population when it surveyed the community in 2019.
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The discrepancy is even greater in the county’s three largest municipalities. In Burlington, which has a black population of 27.9 percent, black drivers comprise 45.1 percent of everyone stopped by the city’s police force. In Graham, which is 27.6 percent black, 41.4 percent of the traffic stops involve black motorists, while Mebane’s black population of 24.7 percent represents some 37.7 percent of the stops made by the city’s police officers.
This disparity is equally glaring across the state as a whole. According to the SBI’s statewide data, black motorists have constituted 36.0 percent of the drivers pulled over since the beginning of 2019 although North Carolina’s overall population is 22.2 percent black.
No shortage of explanations
The high stop rates for black drivers haven’t exactly escaped the notice of the administrators in Burlington’s police department.
Alan Balog, a lieutenant with the city’s police force, concedes that he and his colleagues have struggled to make sense of the apparent disparity in their statistics.
“We don’t want there to be disparity in the data,” Balog said in an interview last week. “But I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about why it happens.”
Balog acknowledged that racial disparities can be an indication of explicit discrimination such as out-and-out profiling by police officers. He also alluded to other, more implicit forms of bias, which may stem from an individual’s unconscious anxieties about a particular race or ethnicity. Balog nevertheless added that statistical discrepancies can also result from an agency’s strategic allocation of resources to address particular problems or respond to the demands of the public.
“One of the things that you see in most police organizations is that they make decisions based on the data available to them,” he went on to elaborate. “If you look at the way we focus our traffic enforcement, it’s where you have most of the crashes…And stepping back from traffic, there are demands for service from 9-1-1 calls.”
The unequal distribution of 9-1-1 calls has also struck folks at the local sheriff’s office as a plausible source of the disparity in their own agency’s data.
Michelle Mills, the sheriff’s community engagement and diversity coordinator, acknowledged that her agency’s deputies conduct a fair number of operations in the town of Green Level, a historically black community that relies on the sheriff’s office for its law enforcement services.
“One reason [for the high stop rates among black drivers] may be the increase in traffic enforcement at the request of community members,” Mills went on to explain. “For example, due to increased violent crime, Green Level has requested the sheriff’s office to have additional patrols and traffic stops in their area.”
Low rates for Latinos
A somewhat tougher conundrum for local law enforcement officials has been the relatively low rate of traffic stops among Hispanic motorists.
The SBI’s figures suggest that, for Alamance County’s sheriff, Hispanic motorists have comprised 9.3 percent of his agency’s traffic stops since the beginning of 2019. The Census Bureau, meanwhile, has estimated the county’s Hispanic residents to be 13.1 percent of its overall population.
This same tendency is also apparent in Burlington, where Hispanics drivers make up 12.8 percent of the traffic stops in a city that’s 19.3 percent Latino. Meanwhile, Hispanics represent 14.4 percent of Graham’s traffic stops and 17.6 percent of its overall population, while in Mebane, which is 6.9 percent Latino, Hispanic drivers comprise 7.9 percent of those stopped by the city’s police force.
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Across the state as a whole, Latinos constitute 8.6 percent of the drivers stopped by law enforcement and 9.8 percent of the overall population.
Mills said that one reason for the low stop rates among Hispanic drivers could be the state’s decision to “decriminalize” the charges of driving with no operator’s license and driving with a license that has been revoked.
Another potential explanation may lie in the state’s I.D. requirements for driver’s licenses, which have fluctuated in their attainability for illegal immigrants over the past couple of decades.
In the years following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, changes in these rules made it much harder for undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses in North Carolina. The potential fallout from these restrictions was highlighted in 2012 when the U.S. Justice Department sued Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson over claims of discrimination that focused, in part, on his agency’s contemporaneously high rates of traffic stops and arrests for Latinos.
When the Justice department’s case went to trial in 2014, the sheriff’s defense attorneys argued that this apparent disparity in the statistics could be attributed to the difficulty that illegal immigrants had in acquiring licenses at the time that the federal agency had filed its lawsuit.
Since then, the state’s licensure requirements have been relaxed for immigrants who were eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA – the Obama-era initiative that attempted to normalize the status of illegal immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children. The new DACA-inspired rules had been implemented while the Justice Department’s case wound its way through the federal courts system.
In the end, a federal judge threw out the federal agency’s claims against Johnson, whose agency currently has a stop rate for Latinos that’s nearly 4 percentage points less than the proportion of Alamance County’s residents who are Hispanic.
Leveling the field
Whatever the cause of the disparities in stop rates for various groups, local law enforcement officials insist that they’ve struggled mightily to remove any inkling of bias from the equation.
Balog said that Burlington’s police department has been especially eager to eliminate bias, whether explicit or not, from its own operations.
“We recognize that distrust in the police is the worst possible thing that can occur in a community,” the Burlington police lieutenant went on to explain. “There’s all of these bad things that can happen if people don’t trust the police. So, we want the public to have confidence that we’re doing things the right way…And we do that through training, through mentoring and coaching, through administration and with good policies and procedure.”
According to the city’s police chief, Burlington’s police department has adopted a number of measures to prevent biased policing. The first line of defense against bias is the department’s accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). In order to obtain CALEA’s seal of approval, the department must implement policies and procedures to ensure “fair and impartial policing.”
The department’s supervisors also conduct routine audits of body cams to make sure their subordinates follow proper procedures. In addition, the department has revamped its training to teach officers how “to recognize explicit and implicit bias during interactions with the community.” Its recent offerings include a course on “understanding bias,” which is provided to all officers; a yearly primer for the entire police force on “fair and impartial policing”; and a “racial equity workshop” that has been offered to most of the agency’s “executives.”
The sheriff’s office has implemented a number of similar measures, according to Mills, who assured The Alamance News that training and policy are crucial components of the agency’s arsenal against biased policing.
“The sheriff’s office has a bias-free policing policy that all new officers must read and sign,” the sheriff’s diversity coordinator elaborated, “and we also participate in extensive training.”
As vindication of their efforts to filter out bias, both the sheriff’s office and Burlington’s police force point to their relatively low numbers of bias-related complaints.
According to the city’s police department, a total of 10 complaints about biased policing have been lodged with the agency since 2016. The department ultimately determined all of these allegations to be unsubstantiated after internal reviews of their merits.
Mills admitted that a detailed breakdown of her own agency’s complaints isn’t readily available in light of the effective closure of the sheriff’s administrative operations due to the spread of coronavirus infections.
“Every single complaint gets documented and investigated,” the sheriff’s diversity coordinator proceeded to add. “The chief [deputy] is not aware of any complaints filed for biased policing at the Sheriff’s Office since 2018. However, no one is available to verify this information due to everyone [in administration being] out sick or in quarantine until early next week.”