Data raise concerns of racial profiling

Data raise concerns of racial profiling
When Fayetteville police officers search a driver’s car, chances are good that he’s black
By Andrew Barksdale
Staff writer

Black drivers accounted for three of every four searches made by Fayetteville police during traffic stops in the past two years.

Police also were far more likely to cite erratic or suspicious behavior as a basis for searches involving black drivers.

Those were among the findings of a Fayetteville Observer analysis of more than 63,000 traffic-stop records between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec.31, 2010. The Police Department is required to report the statistics to the state.

Some residents, criminal defense lawyers and at least two Fayetteville associations representing minorities say the discrepancies suggest that police may be violating black drivers’ civil rights.

Police Chief Tom Bergamine, who has denied his force is doing anything improper, has responded to the complaints by calling for a federal review of his department, speeding up the installation of in-car cameras and requiring officers to better document why they conduct searches during traffic stops when there is probable cause. Police don’t have to explain their reasons for a search when the driver gives permission.

Critics say the new documentation policy doesn’t go far enough. They want the police to stop conducting consent searches altogether, or at least to better explain the reasons for them. They say the burden is on the Police Department to show there is no racial profiling.

City Councilman Bill Crisp said the percentage of black drivers searched needs to come down, but he stopped short of accusing the department of racial profiling.

“Those numbers are disturbing,” Crisp said. “They are completely out of whack with the population and everything else.”

Other findings in the Observer’s review of the data include:

Black drivers account for 58 percent of all traffic stops by Fayetteville police. The 2010 U.S. Census shows that blacks make up 42 percent of the city’s population.

Almost 61 percent of all stops between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m. involved black drivers. The most common reason cited for all stops during that time was a vehicle regulatory violation, such as an expired tag or an overdue inspection.

About 82 percent of warrantless searches based on probable cause involved black drivers, compared with 16 percent for white drivers.

More black drivers (37.5 percent) than white (29.7 percent) got citations when stopped for vehicle equipment violations, such as a broken tail light, tinted windows or an oversized tag frame.

The figures were more equitable in other areas. Police found contraband, such as weapons or illegal drugs, during searches at the same frequency (about 24 percent) for black and white drivers. And both races had the same chance (about 31 percent) of avoiding a citation or arrest for a traffic offense.

The vast majority of traffic stops in the past two years did not lead to a search. Of the nearly 3,800 stops that included searches, the driver was black 75.1percent of the time, compared with 22.5 percent for white drivers. Male drivers were usually the target of searches.

The courts say police must have reasonable suspicion to stop a driver, unless the officers are conducting a roadblock or checkpoint to catch drunken drivers or for other limited purposes.

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