In this, the Big Data era, corporations sack employees and entire product divisions based on trendlines spit out by computer programs. The eye-opening data in a recent New York Times report on traffic stops in Greensboro warrants serious study, if not dramatic firings.
The report, published last weekend, included data on traffic stops across North Carolina from 2010 to this past April. The Times’ story focused on Greensboro, but the newspaper’s research included data from Charlotte showing African-American motorists here are nearly three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched by officers during stops. However, officers are more likely to find contraband when searching the cars of white motorists.
The Times’ findings mirror those in a UNC Chapel Hill study of 1.3 million stops made over 12 years by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. The UNC study, as reported by the Observer this spring, showed that while blacks make up less than a third of the city’s driving-age residents, police pull them over more frequently and search them twice as often as whites.
Then-Chief Rodney Monroe offered an internal analysis suggesting black motorists were stopped more often because they were in high-crime areas where officers more closely watch who is coming and going.
“Disparities,” Monroe said then, “do not always mean discrimination.”
Good point. But how much comfort is that for law-abiding African-Americans living in crime-plagued areas? They say they get stopped and searched for seemingly no reason, just like the folks who are up to no good. To some, that’s a reasonable cost to fight crime; rising tensions nationally suggest many others disagree.
Spokesman Rob Tufano told the editorial board Tuesday that CMPD is joining forces with university researchers on a deeper analysis of vehicle stop data. Officers must now file detailed reports after traffic-stop searches, and community members can file racial-profiling complaints. Eight have been filed since the agency began gathering and tracking them last year.
Additionally, CMPD has hired a staffer to analyze internal affairs data in search of any patterns of misconduct. And all officers are now equipped with body cameras.
Such measures aren’t about scapegoating or second-guessing officers. Above all else, such moves are aimed at protecting the most precious asset any police department has – the public’s trust.
Each viral video of excessive force chips away at police credibility among all races, not just African-Americans. Latest case in point: the South Carolina sheriff’s deputy who rips a disruptive student out of a desk and hurls her like a rag doll. Totally unacceptable.
CMPD is saying the right things about trying to strike the delicate balance between aggressive policing and protecting civil liberties. It must make sure its officers’ actions back up those words.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial should have clarified that the New York Times’ story focused primarily on Greensboro traffic stops. The Times’ research underpinning that story included data on traffic stops in Charlotte and other cities.