One traffic stop outside of Charleston has intensified the country’s debate on racial justice.
A new study of 1.3 million stops made over 12 years by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department illustrates the wariness between officers and black drivers.
Though African-Americans make up less than a third of the city’s driving-age residents, they are pulled over by police more frequently, receive more tickets and are the subjects of roadside searches twice as often as whites, according to the study by a UNC-Chapel Hill research team.
This past week, a witness released a video that showed a North Charleston, S.C., police officer fatally shooting an African-American driver he had pulled over for a broken brake light. The victim, Walter Scott, was 50.
Never miss a local story.
In Charlotte, black drivers account for almost 60 percent of the city’s so-called “vehicle equipment” stops by police. Black men 50 and above here have a better chance of being searched during a traffic stop than white and black women face in their lifetimes.
Yet, it’s younger black males, ages 16-30, who draw the most attention from Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. They are almost three times as likely to be searched as the average driver.
Attorney Harold Cogdell, a former chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, says police have singled out young minority males for years. He says he has had numerous black and Latino clients who have been pulled over then asked by police to agree to a search of themselves or their cars. If the drivers say no, they are frequently detained until they change their minds or police get a search warrant, Cogdell says.
“The question is: What’s the real intent of the traffic stop?” says Cogdell, who adds that he believes he has been racially profiled twice by Charlotte-Mecklenburg patrol officers in the past six years. Depending on race and location, he says, “Drivers are being treated in different ways.”
To be sure, the overwhelming majority of traffic stops in Charlotte and around the country are peaceful. But when roadside tensions do escalate, they are far more likely to do so when black drivers and passengers are involved, says UNC political scientist Frank Baumgartner, the author of the study.
Police officers report encountering force three times as often when black drivers and passengers are involved, Baumgartner says. Charlotte officers use force more than twice as often against black drivers and passengers as whites.
As part of their study, Baumgartner and his team analyzed the traffic-enforcement records of almost 500 CMPD officers. They found that more than a fourth of them searched blacks during stops at least twice as often as whites. Only 2 percent searched whites twice as often as blacks. The data did not include the race of the officers or where the stops were made.
Black communities in Charlotte and other cities have long complained about being targeted by police. Now both sides acknowledge that tensions between them have escalated because of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans in North Charleston, Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland – and Charlotte.
“There’s an overwhelming distrust on both sides,” says the Rev. Tiffany Thomas, pastor of South Tryon Community Church. “It’s not the police’s fault. It’s not black people’s fault. It’s not only Charlotte; it’s national. It could lead to violence if we don’t start working to heal it.”
Police Chief Rodney Monroe says the UNC data, which was compiled from CMPD’s own reports, does not prove his officers are improperly targeting black motorists and passengers.
Traffic stops, he says, often are part of broader crime-fighting strategies in neighborhoods, frequently minority ones, that need police help. The department’s own analysis, which CMPD released after the Observer raised questions about the issue, shows that many of the department’s traffic stops and searches occur in areas plagued by serious crime.
“Disparities,” Monroe says, “do not always mean discrimination.”
But in recent months, the chief and his department have taken steps to monitor the issue more closely.
▪ For the first time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers are now required to file detailed reports after they search a car, driver or passenger.
▪ Late last year, police also made it possible for residents to file racial-profiling complaints against an officer. Those complaints, according to the chief, can make it easier for police to spot troubling trends. So far, two have been filed.
▪ In October, all 1,400 CMPD officers are to begin wearing body cameras, which record their interactions.
▪ The department also plans to hire a consultant to quantify “accountability” and “professionalism” in assessing how police do their jobs.
While Monroe says “the overwhelming number” of his officers serve their community in an honorable way, he says isolated cases of racial profiling occur. Now, he says, police have “mechanisms to detect those concerns ... and to weed those out of the ranks who engage in that.”
In the meantime, Monroe and CMPD are taking part in community meetings around the city. In this charged climate, he acknowledges that police must re-evaluate how they’re doing their jobs.
“The conversation we’re having now and across America is starting to pull us in that direction ... in order for us to have a better understanding, and for us to have a real conversation in our community,” he says. “At the end of the day, law enforcement can only be effective ... if we have the public’s trust.”
Four years ago, Patrick Graham says he was pulled over on Statesville Avenue, in a predominantly black part of the city. He says the officer told him he had changed lanes without signaling.
Graham, an African-American who is president of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas, says he was lucky. After running Graham’s license, the officer came back to the car, called him “Dr. Graham” and sent him on his way.
According to Baumgartner’s study, whites in Charlotte are pulled over far more often for speeding, running red lights and stop signs, and driving while intoxicated.
Yet black drivers dominate the violations – seat belts, vehicle registration and equipment – where police have more discretion in pulling someone over. Blacks are three times more likely to be searched during a seat-belt stop, and 80 percent of the passenger searches during seat-belt stops involve African-Americans.
While Graham credits Monroe and CMPD for working to establish better relationships across the city, he says he believes traffic stops remain the “most intimate contact” some minority communities will ever have with police.
“If being pulled over is your only point of reference,” Graham says, “that will leave a bad taste in your mouth.”
Based on the law enforcement agencies Baumgartner has studied, Charlotte is among about a dozen North Carolina cities, including Raleigh, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Hickory and Mooresville, with higher racial disparities in traffic searches, he says.
The racial gaps in these cities, he says, are comparable to what investigators found in Ferguson, Mo., which became an international symbol for police-community strife after a white policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in August.
“Charlotte is not an outlier. Ferguson is not an outlier,” Baumgartner says. “The information for all these cities is similar, and it’s all troubling.”
Baumgartner and his team have spent about a year analyzing 18 million North Carolina traffic stops by individual law enforcement groups. Charlotte is his most recent report. The Observer also studied 2014 state traffic-enforcement statistics for Charlotte and other N.C. cities collected by the N.C. Department of Justice.
All the data points to the same finding: The racial gap in the frequency of traffic-stop searches in Charlotte is widening.
Since 2002, the likelihood of blacks being searched compared with whites has almost doubled.
Monroe, the city’s first African-American police chief, says the statistics tell only part of the story.
Unlike the UNC study, CMPD’s own analysis plots where the stops took place. The additional information, Monroe says, shows a direct correlation between the city’s traffic enforcement, geography, demographics and crime.
According to police statistics, blacks in Charlotte account for about 66 percent of adult arrests for all crimes over the past 10 years.
During the past three years, the areas with the most traffic searches frequently are also the ones with the most murders, rapes, robberies and assaults, police say.
In the Metro division, which covers Beatties Ford Road and the Johnson C. Smith University areas in west Charlotte, African-Americans make up 86 percent of the population and 85 percent of the traffic stops, police say. Blacks also make up about 90 percent of the area’s victim-identified suspects and eventual arrests.
In and around SouthPark, blacks comprise 7 percent of the population, 17 percent of the traffic stops and 24 percent of the arrests.
In neighborhoods where drugs, burglaries and other types of crimes are highest, traffic stops help police learn “who’s coming in and out of a neighborhood,” Monroe says.
In these cases, he says, the stops are deliberate. Traffic data alone can be misleading. Police aren’t “out there just arbitrarily profiling people. We’re out there trying to address issues as to what’s going on in a community.”
Still, some of the numbers raise questions.
In Charlotte, the UNC study found that while whites are pulled over more frequently for speeding and running red lights, blacks stopped for those same offenses were searched up to 2 1/2 times more often.
One CMPD officer with more than 300 stops over the course of the study searched whites 5 percent of the time. He searched blacks 40 percent of the time. The data Baumgartner used did not include the location of the stops or the race of the officers.
Asked if percentages like these indicated racial profiling, Monroe said, “It could. But before I cast one large net over it, I think we have to continue to look at the data and understand the data.”
Cogdell says using traffic stops as a crime-fighting tool comes at a cost.
“Many good law-abiding folks live in areas that have elevated crime,” he says, and they get pulled over, too.
‘What’s going on’
This summer, the first Charlotte officer charged for an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years goes on trial. Officer Randall Kerrick is charged with voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell, who had wrecked his car nearby and was unarmed.
Members of the legal community say Kerrick’s trial could be influenced by the video shot in North Charleston of Walter Scott’s killing.
In recent years, community leaders say CMPD has taken a leading role in an ongoing effort by courts, schools and other groups to eliminate racial bias. Monroe started requiring anti-bias training for all rookie officers, and the chief and most of his commanders have gone through a Charlotte-Mecklenburg racism workshop that has drawn national acclaim.
“They are the anti-Ferguson,” says Mecklenburg County District Judge Lou Trosch, one of the leaders of the anti-bias and anti-racism movement. “Way before Ferguson or Staten Island, even before Trayvon Martin, the Charlotte police have not only been a partner but a leader in our efforts.”
Yet, the police department still struggles to add diversity to its ranks. In a city that’s 35 percent black and 13 percent Latino, CMPD is less than 18 percent black and under 4 percent Latino.
Race still matters in how North Carolinians view racial profiling. A new statewide poll by Public Policy Polling shows that 56 percent of African-Americans believe profiling takes place; 31 percent of whites do.
Cogdell, like others, credits CMPD for making changes, but he says more reforms are needed. Too many Charlotte police still “embrace an us-vs.-them culture,” he says.
Monroe acknowledges that bias in his department likely exists. Data alone “will never give us what’s inside of an officer’s heart and mind,” he says.
“I’ve seen individuals who have taken advantage of this badge. For a chief or anyone to say that our department is immune from this is telling the community that they’re not really in touch with what’s going on.” Staff writer Gavin Off and researcher Maria David contributed.
12 years of Charlotte traffic stops and searches
5.34% Overall search rate during traffic stops.
3.57% Search rate for whites.
7.2% Search rate for blacks.
15% Search rate for black males 20-24.
6% Search rate for white males 20-24.
Source: UNC-Chapel Hill study of CMPD traffic stops, 2002-13.
CMPD efforts on outreach, officer accountability
▪ Community meetings, including one at 3 p.m. Sunday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, 500 Bilmark Ave.
▪ A new way for citizens to complain about police profiling.
▪ Officers are now required to justify in a report why they searched a person or vehicle.
If you are stopped ...
▪ Under most circumstances, police must have your permission to search you or your car.
▪ Police can detain you while they get a search warrant. But warrants normally require proof or strong suspicion of illegal activity.
▪ Police don’t need a search warrant if they arrest you. Likewise, officers can do a warrantless search if you’re on probation and they suspect you’ve violated probation.
In their own words ...
“You should not look at a police officer and wonder ‘Am I in trouble? Am I doing something wrong?’ You should look at them as someone who is there to serve and protect you, not your enemy.” The Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of Little Rock AME Zion Church.
“This is a very complex relationship because you have some community policing officers who are connecting with people. On the other hand, there is a large portion of police who lack the cultural competence to deal with the communities they are in.” Patrick Graham, CEO of The Urban League of Central Carolinas.
“It tells you a couple of things – how much racial suspicion and how much racial fear plays into it.” Charlotte attorney James Ferguson on the search-rate disparities between blacks and whites in Charlotte.
Latinos and traffic stops
▪ Latinos, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are not a separate race, so they are included in Baumgardner’s black-vs.-white traffic study within the race they belong to, which is predominantly white.
▪ A separate analysis in the traffic study shows that within the subset of whites, Latinos are searched almost twice as often during traffic stops.
▪ If Latinos were removed from the count, the black-vs.-white study would show a bigger disparity.
To file a profiling complaint against a CMPD officer
▪ Call Internal Affairs: 704-336-2336 or 704-336-2183.
▪ Online: Go to charmeck.org/city/charlotte/CMPD and click on “File an officer complaint” at the bottom of the page.
▪ By mail: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, Internal Affairs, 601 E. Trade St., Charlotte NC, 28202
▪ In person: Go to 601 E. Trade St., any division office, or ask to speak with a supervisor at the time of the event.
Police will accept anonymous complaints but say those can limit their ability to investigate.
The personal side of traffic stops
The Rev. Tiffany Thomas, South Tryon Community Church
About a year ago, Thomas was riding with a friend when she says their car was pulled over on Interstate 485. The officer (state troopers normally patrol interstates) asked to search the car. Thomas’ friend, a former assistant district attorney who is black, told him no. “The officer said, ‘What are you hiding?’ It got very tense,” Thomas says.
Over the next 20 minutes, the officer asked several more times for permission to search, Thomas says. “My friend said, ‘You haven’t arrested me. You can’t hold me here any longer.’”
The officer eventually let them go, but not before writing a ticket. Says Thomas, “It was ridiculous how long we were out there.”
Harold Cogdell, Charlotte attorney
About five years ago, Cogdell, a former elected official, says he was pulled over near Central Avenue and Sharon Amity Road. He was wearing a Brazilian soccer jersey, and he says the white CMPD officer started out talking to him in Spanish, asked him how long he had been in the country and said his windows were tinted too dark.
Then he asked to search the car. Cogdell told him no. “He told me I had to wait, that he was calling in additional officers and that I might be arrested for a window-tinting violation.” He said he waited about 15 minutes before one of the other arriving officers recognized him, and Cogdell was allowed to go. “This is not something new and unusual,” he says. “It’s something that’s been occurring for years.”
Rodney Monroe, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief
He left with his 5-year-old daughter. On the drive home, he pulled into a fast-food drive-thru.
“Suddenly, we were surrounded by officers, guns sticking through the windows, demanding to see my hands,” Monroe recalls. “My daughter was hysterical, grabbing for me, and all I can think of is keeping my hands on the wheel, that something bad could have happened if I reached for her.”
Eventually, the police identified Monroe and apologized.
“Do I fault the other officers? No. Do I believe I was profiled? No. I was a black man with a gun,” Monroe says. “They explained why they stopped me. And we moved on.”