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An examination of traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, N.C., uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.
Rufus Scales, 26 and black, was driving his younger brother Devin to his hair-cutting class in this genteel, leafy city when they heard the siren’s whoop and saw the blue light in the rearview mirror of their black pickup. Two police officers pulled them over for minor infractions that included expired plates and failing to hang a flag from a load of scrap metal in the pickup’s bed. But what happened next was nothing like a routine traffic stop.
Uncertain whether to get out of the car, Rufus Scales said, he reached to restrain his brother from opening the door. A black officer stunned him with a Taser, he said, and a white officer yanked him from the driver’s seat. Temporarily paralyzed by the shock, he said, he fell face down, and the officer dragged him across the asphalt.
Rufus Scales emerged from the encounter with four traffic tickets; a charge of assaulting an officer, later dismissed; a chipped tooth; and a split upper lip that required five stitches.
That was May 2013. Today, his brother Devin does not leave home without first pocketing a hand-held video camera and a business card with a toll-free number for legal help. Rufus Scales instinctively turns away if a police car approaches.
“Whenever one of them is near, I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe,” he said.
As most of America now knows, those pervasive doubts about the police mirror those of millions of other African-Americans. More than a year of turmoil over the deaths of unarmed blacks after encounters with the police in Ferguson, Mo., in Baltimore and elsewhere has sparked a national debate over how much racial bias skews law enforcement behavior, even subconsciously.
Documenting racial profiling in police work is devilishly difficult, because a multitude of factors — including elevated violent crime rates in many black neighborhoods — makes it hard to tease out evidence of bias from other influences. But an analysis by The New York Times of tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data in this racially mixed city of 280,000 uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.
Those same disparities were found across North Carolina, the state that collects the most detailed data on traffic stops. And at least some of them showed up in the six other states that collect comprehensive traffic-stop statistics.
Here in North Carolina’s third-largest city, officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists — even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.
Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.
The routine nature of the stops belies their importance.
As the public’s most common encounter with law enforcement, they largely shape perceptions of the police. Indeed, complaints about traffic-law enforcement are at the root of many accusations that some police departments engage in racial profiling. Since Ferguson erupted in protests in August last year, three of the deaths of African-Americans that have roiled the nation occurred after drivers were pulled over for minor traffic infractions: a broken brake light, a missing front license plate and failure to signal a lane change.
Violence is rare, but routine traffic stops more frequently lead to searches, arrests and the opening of a trapdoor into the criminal justice system that can have a lifelong impact, especially for those without the financial or other resources to negotiate it.
CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times
In Greensboro, which is 41 percent black, traffic stops help feed the stream of minor charges that draw a mostly African-American crowd of defendants to the county courthouse on weekday mornings. National surveys show that blacks and whites use marijuana at virtually the same rate, but black residents here are charged with the sole offense of possession of minor amounts of marijuana five times as often as white residents are.
And more than four times as many blacks as whites are arrested on the sole charge of resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer, an offense so borderline that some North Carolina police chiefs discourage its use unless more serious crimes are also involved.
Greensboro police officials said most if not all of the racial disparities in their traffic enforcement stemmed from the fact that more African-Americans live in neighborhoods with higher crime, where officers patrol more aggressively. Pulling over drivers, they said, is a standard and effective form of proactive policing.
“The way we accomplish our job is through contact, and one of the more common tools we have is stopping cars,” Greensboro’s police chief, Wayne Scott, who is white, said.
Over the years, police officials in cities like New York and Chicago have used much the same argument to justify contentious pedestrian stop-and-frisk campaigns in high-crime areas. Criminals are less likely to frequent crime hot spots, the theory goes, if they know that the police there are especially vigilant.
But increasingly, criminologists and even some police chiefs argue that such tactics needlessly alienate law-abiding citizens and undermine trust in the police. Indeed, in Fayetteville, N.C., 100 miles southeast of Greensboro, a new police chief has discouraged officers from stopping motorists for minor infractions.
Ronald L. Davis, a former California police chief who now runs the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, questions whether there are any benefits to intensive traffic enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods.
“There is no evidence that just increasing stops reduces crime,” he said, pointing to a recent Justice Department review in St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson. The study showed — less convincingly than in Greensboro, because of less-specific data — that the police treated black motorists more harshly than white ones.
“For any chief who faces those racial disparities, they should be of great concern,” Mr. Davis said.
Some Greensboro officials are indeed worried. In private meetings with black community leaders, Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who is white, has asked: “Are we the next Ferguson?” At a recent gathering of hundreds of citizens, she told them, “We need to have this conversation before it’s too late.”
A national uproar over racial profiling erupted in the 1990s after New Jersey state troopers were found to have focused on minority drivers for traffic stops in hopes of catching drug couriers. Thousands of local law enforcement departments and more than a dozen state police agencies began collecting traffic-stop information as a result.
In the seven states with the most sweeping reporting requirements — Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Rhode Island — the data show police officers are more likely to pull over black drivers than white ones, given their share of the local driving-age population.
By itself, that proves little, because other factors besides race could be in play. Because African-Americans are, for example, generally poorer than whites, they may have more expired vehicle registrations or other automotive lapses that attract officers’ attention.
More telling, many researchers agree, is what happens after a vehicle is pulled over — especially whether officers use their legal discretion to search a car or its occupants and whether those searches uncover illegal contraband. An officer can conduct a “consent search” without any justification if the driver grants permission. A search can also be made without consent if an officer has probable cause to suspect a crime.
In the four states that track the results of consent searches, officers were more likely to conduct them when the driver was black, even though they consistently found drugs, guns or other contraband more often if the driver was white. The same pattern held true with probable-cause searches in Illinois and North Carolina, the two states that carefully record them.
In four states that best track stops, blacks were more likely to be searched with their consent than whites, even though the police found contraband less often.
The chance black drivers or their cars were searched,
compared with white drivers.
Conn. State Police
Equally likely for blacks and whites
Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Illinois State Police
N.C. State Highway Patrol
Rhode Island State Police
The chance black drivers who were searched had contraband,
compared with white drivers.
Conn. State Police
Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Illinois State Police
N.C. State Highway Patrol
Rhode Island State Police
Of these jurisdictions, only the Rhode Island State Police found
contraband more often among blacks.
Searches are not common — officers in North Carolina, for example, conduct them in just one in 40 traffic stops. But they have an outsize impact on police-civilian relations. Surveys show that minorities, especially blacks, are much less likely than whites to say officers acted properly at a traffic stop. But far fewer drivers of all races rate the police positively if they are searched.
In most of the states that monitor traffic stops most intensely, officials acknowledge that this close attention has not had a discernible effect. In Missouri, which has collected data for 15 years, Chris Koster, the state attorney general, has said the differences in how black and white motorists are treated are bigger than ever. Similar racial disparities are revealed in the data that the Nebraska Crime Commission has collected since 2001, but the commission lacks resources to delve into causes or solutions, said the agency’s information chief, Michael Overton.
“Quite honestly, every year I have to pick up my jaw a little bit because the numbers are very, very consistent,” he said.
But Rhode Island and Connecticut have each revised practices. After studies in 2003 and 2006 found racially disparate treatment at traffic stops, Rhode Island revamped its law enforcement training regimen. A 2014 study indicated that officers had become more judicious, conducting fewer consent and probable-cause searches of vehicles, but finding contraband more often.
“It really seemed to have a good impact,” said Jack McDevitt, the lead researcher and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University. “It showed officers can be smarter about searching.”
Beginning last year, Connecticut measured every law enforcement agency against seven benchmarks, including whether officers stopped minorities more often in the daytime, when a driver’s race is easier to detect. In three cities and two of 12 state police districts, state officials said, racial differences in the treatment of motorists were unmistakable.
The state is pushing police administrators to explain why. Analysts are also comparing traffic-stop data from officers who patrol similar beats, which some researchers consider the most reliable way to uncover bias, implicit or overt. One change is already in place: Officers now must give every stopped motorist a card explaining how to file a complaint.
“Racial profiling is a very real phenomenon, and in some places it is much worse than others,” Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said.
Across the country, the latest outcries over police-minority relations have revived interest in monitoring: California just passed a law requiring officers to record both traffic and pedestrian stops.
In North Carolina, mounds of traffic-stop data lay dormant for a decade before academics like Frank R. Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina political science professor, began sifting through the statistics for evidence of bias in 2011. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Durham, has used the patterns of racial disparities to bolster demands for restrictions on searches and other changes.
Chief Scott, who assumed his post seven months ago, said he was withholding judgment until his own staff analyzed his department’s data.
“We are not afraid to ask these questions,” he said. But so far, he added, “I don’t believe there is an underlying, systemic issue” of racial profiling.
Greensboro has long cherished its reputation as a Southern progressive standout. This was the first Southern city to pledge to integrate its schools after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, although it was among the last to actually do so. And when four black freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University occupied the orange and green stools at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, Greensboro midwifed a sit-in movement that spread through the South.
CreditJack Moebes/Greensboro News & Record, via Corbis
But this is also where hundreds of National Guardsmen suppressed black student protesters in 1969 and where, a decade later, five protesters were murdered at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally conspicuously devoid of police protection.
And it was here, in 2009, that 39 minority police officers accused their own department of racial bias in a lawsuit that the city spent nearly $1.3 million fighting before agreeing to settle for $500,000. In a city that is 48 percent white, 75 percent of Greensboro’s force of 684 sworn officers remains white.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a civil rights leader here since the 1960s, contends that like Greensboro as a whole, the Police Department “has a liberal veneer but a reactionary underbelly.” An activist group he heads recently established a citizens’ board to hear complaints about the police, arguing that official investigations too often are shams.
“This is not about one officer,” Mr. Johnson said at a recent meeting about police behavior at the Beloved Community Center. “This is about a culture, a deeply saturated culture that reflects itself in double standards.”
The Times analyzed tens of thousands of traffic stops made by hundreds of officers since 2010. Although blacks made up 39 percent of Greensboro’s driving-age population, they constituted 54 percent of the drivers pulled over.
While factors like out-of-town drivers can alter the racial composition of a city’s motorists, “if the difference is that big, it does give you pause,” Dr. McDevitt of Northeastern University said.
Most black Greensboro drivers were stopped for regulatory or equipment violations, infractions that officers have the discretion to ignore. And black motorists who were stopped were let go with no police action — not even a warning — more often than were whites. Criminal justice experts say that raises questions about why they were pulled over at all and can indicate racial profiling.
In the past decade, officers reported using force during traffic stops only about once a month. The vast majority of the subjects were black, and most had put up resistance. Still, if a motorist was black, the odds were greater that officers would use force even in cases in which they did not first encounter resistance. Police officials suggested that could be because more black motorists tried to flee.
In an interview, Chief Scott said that overall, the statistics reflected sound crime-fighting strategies, not bias. They have produced record-low burglary rates, and most citizens welcome the effort, he said.
Deborah Lamm Weisel, an assistant professor of criminal justice at North Carolina Central University in Durham, said the best policing practices “involve officers making proactive contacts with citizens, and traffic stops are the main way they do that.”
But many criminal justice experts contend that the racial consequences of that strategy far outweigh its benefits — if, indeed, there are any.
“This is what people have been complaining about across the nation,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It means whites are ‘getting away’ with very low-level offenses, while people who are poor or people of color are suffering consequences.”
“It amounts to harassment,” she said. “And police cannot demonstrate that it is creating better public safety.” To the contrary, she added, it makes minority citizens less likely to help the police prevent and solve crimes.
That critique is ascendant in Fayetteville, about two hours by car from Greensboro. Fayetteville is three-fourths as big but equally diverse: Forty-six percent of its 204,000 residents are white, and 42 percent are black. More than three years ago, an uproar over reports that black drivers were disproportionately stopped and searched led to the departure of the police chief and city manager.
CreditJames Robinson/The Fayetteville Observer
The new chief, Harold Medlock, who was appointed in January 2013, is overhauling the department. Like Chief Scott of Greensboro, he deploys more officers in high-crime areas and faces constant demands from citizens to assign even more. But, Chief Medlock said, “they are not asking for more traffic stops.”
He said he had told his officers to focus on drivers who speed, drive drunk or ignore traffic lights and stop signs — the violations that cost lives. Because officers typically cannot see who commits a moving violation like speeding, he said, it also “tends to eliminate the disparity in who is being stopped.”
Using dashboard videos, Chief Medlock said, the department also pushed out two officers who were accused of singling out black motorists. At his request, the Justice Department is conducting a review of his department’s practices.
Traffic data show the impact of Fayetteville’s shift. In the three years before Chief Medlock arrived, slightly more than one-third of the black motorists who were stopped had committed a moving violation. The police today are still more likely to pull over blacks than whites. But so far this year, nearly two-thirds of them were stopped for a moving violation, nearly the same proportion as white motorists.
Fayetteville, N.C., drastically cut consent searches and largely eliminated the racial gap in search rates. Greensboro’s searches have dropped as well, but blacks are still far more likely to be searched.
Percentage of stops that result in consent searches among:
“Chief Medlock is godsent to Fayetteville,” said Mark Rowden, the pastor of Savannah Missionary Baptist Church. “There was a lot of distrust between African-Americans and the police. That has turned around.”
Not everyone is cheering. This month, Chief Medlock, who is white, found a racist flyer in his front yard that he regarded as a personal threat. On the back was an application for the Ku Klux Klan.
In a certain percentage of traffic stops, the officer’s motivation is not to write a traffic ticket but to search for signs of crime. An officer, however, cannot stop a motorist without evidence of a traffic violation or probable cause to suspect a crime.
Yet traffic codes are so minutely drawn that virtually every driver will break some rule within a few blocks, experts say. “The traffic code is the best friend of the police officer,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police behavior and search-and-seizure law.
When a Greensboro officer pulled over Keith Maryland and Jasmine McRae, who are black, in Mr. Maryland’s burgundy Nissan early one evening in March, even that vast authority was exceeded, claimed Mr. Maryland’s lawyer, Graham Holt.
In an interview, Mr. Maryland said Officer Christopher Cline had told him that his registration had expired, although it was clearly valid for 15 more days. The officer then said Ms. McRae, sitting in the back seat, “looked like someone” and asked to search her purse. Officers do not have to tell drivers or their passengers that they have the right to refuse, and like the vast majority of people, Ms. McRae agreed. The officer found a small amount of marijuana and several grams of cocaine and arrested her.
Mr. Holt said the stop was illegal because there was no traffic infraction. And in fact, a police corporal summoned Mr. Maryland to the station the next day and scrawled VOID across the ticket for an expired registration.
But the department and a city review board still found that the officer had acted lawfully. And Ms. McRae ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. She was sentenced to probation, incurring hundreds of dollars in fees.
CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times
Police officials would call Ms. McRae’s search a successful “hit.” But most consent searches in Greensboro are not, especially when a stopped vehicle’s driver is black. Since 2010, officers searched blacks more than twice as often but found contraband only 21 percent of the time, compared with 27 percent of the time with whites.
The same gap prevailed when officers cited probable cause to search without permission. Officers searched blacks at more than twice the rate of whites, but found contraband only 52 percent of the time, compared with 62 percent of the time when the driver was white.
If those statistics are true, Chief Scott said, “we need to figure out how we can better serve our community in a fairer way.”
Fayetteville officials believe that they have an answer. Faced with similar data, the City Council required officers in 2012 to obtain written permission for consent searches — a requirement endorsed this year by a White House task force on policing. Since then, the number of consent searches has plummeted to about one a week. Probable-cause searches dropped by more than half.
There is a downside, Chief Medlock acknowledged. Fewer weapons are being confiscated. But because consent searches seldom turned up much contraband anyway, he said, the losses are minimal.
Carlyle Phillips said he had no trouble with the police when he was growing up in New Jersey. And he has had none in Maryland, where he now lives. But as a student at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, he said, he had one run-in after another. And he said he saw how routine traffic stops can become a springboard into a criminal justice system that can be hard to escape.
As a college junior in January 2010, Mr. Phillips said, he was pulled over in a predominantly white section of Greensboro for failing to wear his seatbelt — even though, he insisted, he was buckled in. He said he neither used drugs nor had had any with him. But that day, he said, he watched as the officer searching his car planted a plastic bag in it, then claimed it was evidence of drug use.
Mr. Phillips was charged with possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana, joining a long list of Greensboro blacks charged only with that offense since 2009. Five times as many blacks as whites were arrested on that charge, despite evidence whites use marijuana about as often.
Mr. Phillips hired a lawyer, and a judge dismissed the charge. But nine months later, another traffic stop bore more serious consequences.
As Mr. Phillips and another black student, Gian Spells, drove through downtown one night, they said, a police officer pulled alongside, looked at them, then dropped behind and flashed his lights.
“You cut me off,” Mr. Spells said Sgt. Thomas Long had told him, according to a complaint the students later filed alleging racial profiling. “Clearly, you’ve had too much to drink.”
Mr. Spells said he had not had any alcohol and asked for a test. Instead, the officer ordered him out of the car — a command within his authority. When Mr. Spells refused, the officer threatened him with pepper spray. Worried he might be framed again, Mr. Phillips said, he raised his hands in the air and told a second officer that he wanted to remain in his seat, only to be threatened with a Taser.
The students spent the night in jail, apparently because the officers said they were intoxicated. But they were never charged with drunkenness or reckless driving. They were charged only with resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer, or R.D.O., in police parlance. Since 2009, the Greensboro police have filed that charge — and no other — against 836 blacks but only 209 whites.
A judge eventually dismissed their cases. But in the meantime, Mr. Phillips said, a job offer was thrown into limbo when a background check turned up the pending criminal charge.
“That was probably one of the hardest things I had to face,” said Mr. Phillips, now 27, who was eventually hired. “Maybe missing out on a great opportunity because some police officer takes offense at something.”
The students’ complaint of racial profiling was rejected. To this day, Mr. Phillips said, he does not understand why he and his friend were arrested. But Lewis Pitts, a well-known retired civil rights lawyer in Greensboro, sees no mystery.
If a black motorist “does anything but be completely submissive and cower, then you get the classic countercharge by the officer that there was resistance, or disorderly conduct or public intoxication,” Mr. Pitts said. “Then they end up in jail.”
In Fayetteville, Chief Medlock said he had instructed his officers to avoid resisting-an-officer charges unless some more serious offense also occurred. “I tell my folks, if that’s all you have, don’t charge somebody. Find a way to move them on down the road,” he said.
Through a police spokeswoman, the Greensboro officers named in this article, all of whom are white, declined to comment. And partly because North Carolina law treats complaints against police officers as confidential personnel matters, accounts like Mr. Phillips’s remain one-sided. Two years ago, Greensboro equipped all of its officers with body cameras and required them to film any searches. But those videotapes are confidential, too.
Chief Scott said he believed that if the state allowed the police to share them, at least with the citizens involved in the encounters, it would help dispel suspicions of racial profiling. “I am in favor of more transparency,” he said. “Numbers don’t say it all.”
His department is striving hard to improve police practices, he said. It is trying harder to recruit minority officers, discouraging the use of Tasers, bolstering training in unbiased policing practices, he said, and making sure every credible complaint is investigated.
By that last measure, police officials point out, most citizens seem satisfied. Greensboro averages about 300,000 calls for police assistance every year. Only 64 people filed complaints in 2014. The department’s own investigators deemed about two-thirds of the allegations without merit. Most complaints were about rudeness; only five concerned bias.
Marie Robinson, 60, and James Fields, 52, are skeptical of that picture. Their run-in with two Greensboro officers ended with them offering an apology. But in fact, they said, they were owed one.
Early one afternoon in April 2013, they were sitting in Miss Robinson’s black Honda Accord in front of Mr. Fields’s house because Miss Robinson, who has diabetes, had a plunge in her blood sugar level, a recurrent problem that often causes her to lose consciousness. Mr. Fields said he had just brought her some apple juice from his kitchen when Officer Jesse Hillis approached and demanded to know what they were doing.
Mr. Fields said that he had explained, but that the officer had countered: “I think you are a drug dealer and she is a prostitute.” Then he ordered him out of the car and pushed him against it, he said.
“What is your problem?” Mr. Fields said he had demanded, turning toward the officer. “Why are you stereotyping a black man?” He ended up facedown on the pavement, handcuffed.
Miss Robinson said she had staggered faint-headed from the car, only to be thrown back in, hitting her head. “I don’t care,” she said Officer Justin Kivette had told her. “You don’t have a sign on you saying you’re diabetic.” For more than 90 minutes, Mr. Fields said, the officers refused to summon a paramedic.
CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times
The two were charged with resisting an officer, although both insist that they offered no resistance. When she asked why she was being charged, Miss Robinson said, one officer pointed to his partner and said, “How about you hit him?” Mr. Fields also was charged with assaulting a public officer.
For eight months while the charges were pending, Mr. Fields was suspended from his job as a department supervisor at the local Walmart. He fell behind in his rent and mowed lawns to make ends meet. Miss Robinson, whose previous brushes with the law consisted of two minor traffic tickets, said the whole experience “kind of took the life out of me.”
Mayor Vaughan, who is also diabetic, discussed the episode with Miss Robinson at a community meeting. “I felt she was very believable,” she said. But police officials apparently did not.
The department not only rejected all allegations in the complaint that she and Mr. Fields filed, they said, but the complaint seemed to backfire. Every night for a month after they filed it, Mr. Fields said, a patrol car parked outside his house.
Desperate to reclaim his job, Mr. Fields said, he agreed to write a letter apologizing to both officers. His charges were dismissed, as were those against Miss Robinson, who wrote a similar letter.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to stand up in court and apologize to them,” Mr. Fields said. “I am still very much upset. I almost lost everything I had because two police officers stepped out of line.”
“Every time I see a police officer, I get a cold chill,” he said. “Even if I needed one, I wouldn’t call one.”
Rufus Scales, who landed in a hospital emergency room after being dragged from his pickup during his 2013 traffic stop, said he shared that sentiment. The steps he and his brother took to deal with it made their latest encounter with the police, in August 2014, a vivid illustration of why that mistrust exists.
One summer afternoon last year, the two men were walking down the residential street where their grandmother lives when a white officer passed them in his cruiser.
CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times
“Get out of the street, you morons,” they said the officer, Travis Cole, had yelled at them, although the street has no sidewalks. When the officer asked for their IDs, Rufus Scales said, he responded with a curse word. Officer Cole then forced him to the ground and handcuffed him, he said.
“You can’t come out here running your mouth and cursing out in the middle of the street,” the officer lectured.
Both men were arrested on charges that they had impeded traffic on the deserted street. Rufus Scales was also charged with being disorderly and drunk, although, he said, he was neither.
This encounter differed from the traffic stop in one crucial respect: Devin Scales pulled from his pocket his newly purchased hand-held camera, recorded the episode and posted the video on Facebook.
After the brothers filed a complaint with the police, a prosecutor dropped all the charges. Officer Cole was suspended for two days. The city manager apologized.
As Devin Scales wrote in the Facebook posting, which he said had drawn 10,000 “likes”: “This wasn’t the first time.”