Bias behind the badge
According to data from the state’s Department of Justice and the U.S. Census Bureau, black drivers accounted for 25 percent of traffic stops in Chapel Hill in 2014 — but only about 10 percent of the population is black.
“I don’t know that you’re ever going to be exactly in line with the demographics of your community,” said Josh Mecimore, a spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department.
Mecimore said the department does a quarterly review of its traffic stop data, and is aware of the numbers. While the number of black drivers stopped does not match Chapel Hill’s demographics, he said it is close to North Carolina’s overall demographics — about 21.5 percent black.
In Carrboro, 24.3 percent of traffic stops involve black drivers while about 10 percent of the town’s population is black.
The Carrboro Police Department is currently looking into this disparity, said Capt. Chris Atack, spokesman for the department. He also said comparing the number of traffic stops to the town’s population might not be fair because many people stopped are not Carrboro residents.
“Carrboro is not an isolated colony that has no interaction with the rest of the area,” Atack said.
UNC professor Frank Baumgartner analyzes data on vehicles that are searched after the initial stop. He is in the process of writing a report on traffic stops and vehicle searches for every police department in the state.
“Traffic stops need to be compared to the number of drivers on the road, but we don’t actually know that,” Baumgartner said. “I’ve really focused my research on searches, because in that case we know both the numerator and the denominator.”
In his reports on Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Baumgartner said black drivers are searched at twice the rate of white drivers during traffic stops.
“The findings are very consistent (across the state),” Baumgartner said. “But they differ to some extent in the degree of racial disparities we observe.”
Baumgartner also found that the racial disparities hold much more strongly for men, especially young men.
In an analysis of Durham traffic stops from 2002 to 2013, Baumgartner found that young black males were searched at twice the rate of young white males and 10 times the rate of white women.
“When I look at the data, I’m glad I’m not a young black man,” he said.
In his studies, Baumgartner controlled for variables such as time of day, reason for the stop, and whether or not the officer involved had a history of “high disparity,” meaning the officer searched black drivers twice as often as white drivers.
“It turns out, in most police departments, there are a few bad apples,” Baumgartner said. “But we wanted to know if you take those officers out of the picture, would you still see bias among the other officers. And the answer is yes.”
Research shows that most people have unwanted, unknown racial biases.
UNC psychology professor Keith Payne said everyone is vulnerable to racial biases, but they vary from person to person and also depend on the context of a situation, such as time and place.
“We all think in terms of generalizations and categories, and racial stereotypes are just one kind of category,” said Payne, whose UNC laboratory researches implicit bias.
Atack said the Carrboro Police Department is looking into implicit bias training for their officers.
“All humans have biases and police officers are no different,” Atack said.
The state mandates “Juvenile Minority Sensitivity Training” for all police officers.
The Chapel Hill Police Department holds two to eight hour training sessions for all part-time and full-time officers once a year. The topics of this training change each year — ranging from Facebook crimes to youth gang activity.
“We try to do training that helps officers identify their biases and ignore them and do their job,” Mecimore said. “They have a job, and their responsibility is to be fair and impartial, and not allow those things to influence their decision making.”
Other training regarding youth and minorities is covered in the 16 hours of required continuing education that officers participate in annually.
Bias is also covered in Basic Law Enforcement Training, which all officers undergo before being sworn to duty.
But training to overcome racial bias is largely untested, and researchers don’t know how training in a lab translates to split-second decisions made in the field, Payne said.
“I would not be optimistic that purely informational training is going to have a big impact,” Payne said.
For training to work well, it has to be experiential, he said.
“(People) have to go through making decisions in which being unbiased leads to good outcomes, as opposed to just telling them about the bias,” Payne said.
“When people are making decisions in a bias way, it’s usually not because they don’t have information.”
More than traffic stops
Racial bias is an issue for more than just traffic stops.
“In many places across North Carolina, and the nation as a whole, people of color are disproportionately targeted for marijuana arrests and for S.W.A.T. raids,” said Mike Meno, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
The ACLU is a nonprofit that advocates policy change and offers free legal help for people who feel their constitutional rights have been violated.
“When you have certain parts of the community being targeted more than others,” Meno said. “You’re going to lose that trust between law enforcement and the community that is so essential to keeping everybody safe.”
Baumgartner said the racial disparities in the data speak to why white people are much more likely to trust the police than black people.
As more data on racial disparities emerges, police stations across the state are taking steps to improve documentation and combat bias.
Carrboro is adding video cameras to their police car fleet in order to document traffic stops and provide a more objective record of police interactions for court cases.
On Oct. 1, following the release of Baumgartner’s report on Durham, the Durham police department created a policy that requires officer to obtain written permission to search a car without probable cause.
Fayetteville has also adopted a similar policy.
In most other cities, police are only required to ask permission before searching.
“Most people are so intimidated ... they will say yes,” said Baumgartner. “Even though, constitutionally speaking, you don’t have to give permission.”
A team of lawyers in Oregon created a smartphone application called “Driving While Black,” which aims to educate black drivers — especially youth — on how to safely deal with traffic stops and report any unfair instances.
“I’ve talked to so many black people who talk about their experiences with traffic stops,” said Mariann Hyland, director of the diversity and inclusion department for the Oregon State bar, who helped create the app.
“What it seems to me is there are kind of two sets of experiences,” Hyland said.
“What the dominant (racial) group experiences, and then what black people experience.”
Baumgartner encourages police stations to improve upon data analysis and collection in order to be more aware of bias.
The database he used for his research included many typos. Most traffic stop reports are handwritten by police officers, and are occasionally copied into the computer system incorrectly.
In other cases, the mistakes in data seem to be more deliberate, according to Baumgartner. Individual officers can be tracked through ID numbers, but some data entries had fake names such as “Batman” or “Babyface” in place of the officer ID.
Baumgartner said that police departments should utilize the data available on individual officers to improve law enforcement.
“Police departments now are quite accustomed to data analysis,” Baumgartner said. “They should incorporate this officer by officer data to see who is too easy or too harsh, or bias against whites or biased against blacks.”
The Chapel Hill Justice in Action Committee, whose mission is to ensure that the town remains committed to social justice, has been collecting testimonials of citizens who feel they have been racially profiled while driving in order to bring awareness to the issue.
“We don’t think there’s any single bullet that’s the key to progress,” said committee chairman Will Hendrick. “We need awareness of the issue, accountability of those responsible, action and response.”
In part, Hyland launched the “Driving While Black” application to give those affected by unfair traffic stops the opportunity for action. The app allows drivers to record a traffic stop and helps drivers find legal representation.
“What we’re seeing right now in America is that in general, people are wary and have lost confidence in our justice system,” Hyland said. “In part, that extends to the police.”
The numbers showing a racial disparity in the driver’s stopped and searched for traffic violations might be adding to that lack of confidence.
“The first step is recognizing the problem, and recognizing that this is not something that’s going to fix itself,” Hendrick said.
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