Data backs up ‘driving while black’ concept, UNC professor says

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Targeted by police while behind the wheel because of the color of your skin.

Some even call it driving while black.

In an effort to curb racial profiling, North Carolina was the first state to demand the collection and release of traffic stop data.

But is it working?

CBS 17 wanted to know the chances of a person of color being pulled over and their vehicle searched by Raleigh police?

CBS 17’s research finds those chances are high. But why?

“I went to get some wings from Wingstop and I came down Capital,”​ said Frankie Dixon.

He is a driver by trade.

From semi-trucks to Uber, he makes his living behind the wheel. But behind the wheel is where Dixon believes he’s also a target. ​​

“I fit the description of a Hispanic. So, he pulled me over and I told him he didn’t have probable cause. I didn’t do anything. I had nothing to do with it and he put me in a police car and they took everything out of my car and put it on the ground.”​​

Dixon said he’s seen the blue lights flashing in his rear-view multiple times over the years.  

Each time, he says the officers stopped him for a supposed traffic violation which lead to a search of his car. ​

“I think they think I have drugs or something. I think they think I’m selling drugs. It’s got to be something because I always keep my car clean,” he said.

CBS 17’s Marius Payton looked into Dixon’s public records and it’s pretty clean. Yet he continues to get pulled over.​

 “Once every 10 to 15 years perhaps one might be pulled over or asked a few questions. But that’s not the reality in what the police would refer to as a high crime area,” Frank Baumgartner said.​

Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, literally wrote the book on traffic stop searches and racial disparity in North Carolina.

In his book “Suspect Citizens,” Baumgartner looked at 22 million traffic stops over 20 years.

The numbers are all self-reported by law enforcement agencies throughout the state. ​​

“Well everyone has heard of the concept ‘Driving While Black’ so I was curious about whether there would be strong statistical evidence to support those allegations,”​ Baumgartner added.​

What that data showed left no doubt in his mind.

In the state of North Carolina, black male drivers are about 96 percent more likely to be searched once pulled over than their white male counterparts.​​

“A young black man walking on his way to school or going to work has a very high probability of being pulled over and investigated and it might not be very pleasant,” Baumgartner said.

Officers are allowed to search vehicles during a traffic stop if the officer suspects the driver of criminal activity. ​​​

Here’s a look at the numbers in Raleigh:

From January 2014 to January 2019, Raleigh police recorded 9,504 traffic stops with searches involving male drivers.

A total of 6,612, or 70 percent, of those male drivers stopped are black.

Raleigh’s African American population is just 29 percent. ​​​

Baumgartner said the racial disparity in the numbers just don’t add up that the police are first deciding they want to have a look at that

Baumgartner said then they’re using the traffic code or the vehicle code to find an excuse to, a legally testified excuse, to have a conversation with that person.

CBS 17 requested a sit-down interview with Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to discuss the racial disparity in stops and searches in her department.

After asking at least three times, CBS 17 received a one-sentence email saying, “The Chief is not available for this interview.” ​

​Other local departments like Chapel Hill have seen the numbers, noticed the issues and it’s made them rethink their policies.​​”

We de-emphasized an awful lot of low-level kind of traffic enforcement that the numbers really show have a disproportionate effect on communities of color,” said Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue. “Our officers are still making traffic stops, the quality of their traffic stops has gone up, the number of unnecessary searches has gone down.”

 As for Dixon, he said he’ll continue to drive and obey the law but says his confidence in law enforcement continues to deteriorate.​​

“It makes me feel like there’s nobody out here protecting us at all. If something really happens that serious at the end of the day then you might as will handle it yourself,” Dixon said.

Baumgartner said Fayetteville is another example of a city that’s gone away from using traffic stops as a form of investigating potential crimes.

He said since they’ve changed how they make traffic stops, community trust has improved.

And the numbers indicate the crime rate has gone down as a result.

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