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Driving while black: Carolina city crafts racial awareness police policy

With higher rates of targeting for traffic stops, African-Americans in Durham welcome new law enforcement changes

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Racial enforcement of drug laws in Durham, North Carolina, means those driving while black are three times as likely as white drivers to be targeted for police traffic stops and searches, civil rights advocates charge.

The revelation of racial profiling spanning more than a decade of the city’s traffic stop data has led to intense community pressure to reform police policies and priorities.

The development comes at a time of heightened national awareness of racial tension with law enforcement after last month’s eruption of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after police shot dead a young unarmed black man. The unrest prompted a national debate over race and the increasing militarization of local police forces.

But some community organizers in North Carolina hope Durham can be an example of how a community tackles the issue of race, and the city has come up with a series of changes it wants to make to its police force.

After months of policy scrutiny, Durham cops will undergo racial awareness training and begin regularly analyzing traffic stop data. Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield said the changes were geared to “repairing and rebuilding of a trusting relationship” between the police and the community. The city will also investigate “the unexplained racial disparity” in an 18-month period ending June 30 that found blacks accounted for 86 percent of misdemeanor drug arrests, he added.

“It is well documented that racial profiling is one of the most complex issues facing law enforcement professionals today, not just in Durham but throughout the country,” he wrote in response to recommendations made by the Civilian Police Review Board and a city commission that spent months investigating the racial profiling charges. “Of particular concern are the arrests for possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana."

‘It is well documented that racial profiling is one of the most complex issues facing law enforcement professionals today, not just in Durham but throughout the country.’

Thomas Bonfield

city manager, Durham

Despite the moves to tackle the issue, areas of controversy remain. While police will begin requiring written consent to conduct searches in homes, the policy change will not extend to traffic stops, Bonfield said.

In a city where a black motorist is 165 percent more likely than a white motorist to be ordered out of his car and subjected to a vehicle search, written consent is vital, local activists say. Requiring that a driver give consent in writing clarifies the right to refuse a car search and would allow assertion of that right without an individual’s seeming overly defiant, they say.

“Even well-intentioned systems can produce racist outcomes if people aren’t conscious about what is happening,” said Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham.

“One of the reasons we want written consent is because we believe that police are regularly disregarding people’s rights, that people are saying no to searches and they’re being searched anyway,” he said. “If you’re really getting consent at the rate you claim to be, prove it.” 

Durham data showed that police search black drivers at almost three times the rate as the statewide average. “Last year 83 [percent] of all vehicle searches pursuant to traffic stops were African-American motorists,” which is more than double the African-American representation of the city, Mance said.

Vehicle consent searches are typically situations in which police don’t have probable cause to think a crime has been committed or don’t have reasonable suspicion to think a person is armed and dangerous, he said. “When you have such a high rate of consent searches relative to your overall searches, that is indicative of a lot of fishing expeditions.” 

Civic organizers last week pressured the Durham City Council to go further and require written consent for automobile searches as well as designate marijuana enforcement as their lowest enforcement priority. “We know that when people are made aware of their right to refuse, that they are more likely to refuse,” Mance said. “As a matter of law, if a person says no to a request to search, that is supposed to end the encounter.” 

‘Last year 83 [percent] of all vehicle searches pursuant to traffic stops were African-American motorists.’

Ian Mance

attorney, Southern Coalition for Social Justice

Racial tension between the community and Durham police has steadily escalated in recent years, story by story. In September of last year, a black bicyclist, John Hill, was slammed to the ground and arrested during an argument with an officer, who said Hill ran through a red light. A Durham County district court judge dismissed the charges against Hill in May after reviewing video footage of the incident.

Earlier this year, a string of heated protests questioning police department procedure broke out in Durham after the November 2013 death of Jesus Huerta, a teenager who died while in police custody. The State Bureau of Investigation found that the 17-year-old shot himself in the back of the head while handcuffed in police custody with a gun that had gone unnoticed by cops during his arrest.

“I would say that Durham and any number of cities in America are one catastrophic incident away from what’s happening in Ferguson,” said Roland Staton, a vice president of the Durham NAACP.

The policy changes, while not going far enough, are a step forward, he said. “The city manager’s report reflects his office’s earnest and honest attempt to process the data from a wide range of community concerns as well as to preserve and improve the integrity of the police force,” he said. “This journey is not complete.” 

“This tension that has gotten national attention because of the way that things happened in Ferguson — it’s actually something that’s happening all over the country,” said Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, a Durham-based organizing group that is part of the Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement Coalition, which advocates for policy change. Focus, she says, should stay on changing institutionalized policies as opposed to fixating on the actions of individual officers, “because we can get lost in that.”

While training officers on racial sensitivity can help shift their thinking, it can do only so much if racist policies are in place, she said.

“The thing that I appreciate here is that the community is coming forward and talking about their experiences with city officials,” Wilson said. “I do believe that the way that we’ve done this is a model for ways other communities could move it forward.” 

In that, city officials have embraced changes. “They’re courageous enough to actually look at the data and then try to make changes,” she said. “It does take a certain amount of courage to look at this data and see if something is wrong.”

“I think that one of the things that’s important to understand about what’s been happening in Durham and what’s been happening in Ferguson is the power of the community. The people are understanding and exercising their power in ways that haven’t happened in a long time,” Wilson said.

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