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Can Vehicle Search Consent Forms Diminish Racial Bias? Ask Fayetteville, NC

A state police car stopping a motorist
Cindy Cornett Seigle
Flickr/Creative Commons

On Thursday, the Durham City Manager will present the City Council with a recommendation that police officers be required to get consent in writing before searching a vehicle. This is part of a response to months of debate over reports of racial bias in the Durham police department.

Durham Deputy Police Chief Larry Smith would have to implement such a process. Smith recently presented to the city council two examples of how a consent form works now and how a search would work if an officer were required to get consent in writing. 

Say Smith is in a neighborhood where there have been recent shootings, a car goes by, and Smith recognizes the driver as a known violent criminal. And, if in this scenario, the car's tag is expired, Smith stops the car, but he has no probable cause to search the car - just enough to pull it over.

"But I really would like to know if he's one of the guys, especially if I suspect him as one of the shooters in the neighborhood," Smith says.

He is wondering whether or not there is a gun in the car. And because he doesn't currently need written permission, he simply poses a question to the driver.

"In that situation," Smith says, "I may say, 'Sir, do you mind if I search your car?'"

This is what's called a consent search. It's been the focal point of tensions between community groups and Durham police. Community groups say officers make these kinds of stops disproportionately on black drivers.

Advocates argue that if officers were forced to get consent in writing to search a car, everyone, including minorities, would be more likely to understand their rights.

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield initially was opposed to requiring these forms. However, the city council made it clear they wanted them. This week, Bonfield changed his recommendation.

Police are not eager to use this form. Again, here's Deputy Chief Smith with his hypothetical of pulling over a driver with an expired tag and maybe an illegal gun, describing what would happen if his officers were required to get consent.

"And then we go into the dynamic of, "Let me get this form and fill it out," Smith says. "And then when I re-approach him [he says] 'Look, I'd rather not.' And at that point, if he says 'no,' he drives off with the gun in his car, and we keep on doing police work and trying to do something different."

In the city of Fayetteville, police officers did try something different.

Traffic data in Fayetteville in 2009, showed that black drivers were three times more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers.

The controversy led to the departure of the city manager, and in 2012 the Fayetteville police started some revamping. Assistant Police Chief Katherine Bryant says officers are now required to get consent in writing if they want to search someone's car. The department has also reorganized patrol beats, assigning officers to work regularly in the same area, or sector.

"And so the people who live in that sector or work in that sector, they can become familiar with those officers who are routinely working in that same area," Bryant says. "It's those same officers who go to the school, the adopt-a-cop or all the other programs so we have more opportunities for engagement."

As the department was transitioning, it also got a new police chief, who made further changes. Chief Harold Medlock de-emphasized regulatory traffic stops, like ones for a broken tail light or an expired registration.

According to the Fayetteville Observer, traffic stops have dropped by 50 percent and searches by 60 percent since the consent forms were implemented.

Relations slowly began to improve between the police department and critical community groups.

One attorney who has been at odds with police in the past, Allen Rogers, says he can see the difference. For example since the changes, Rogers says, Fayetteville has had several instances where officers had to use deadly force.  Rogers has noticed that it's easier to communicate now.

"Well, while we may differ in terms of the particular facts, I think the civil-ness in which we've been able to address our differences is reflected in our effort to communicate better and be more transparent."

Consent forms have had a tangible impact.

According to the Fayetteville Observer, traffic stops have dropped by 50 percent and searches by 60 percent since the forms were implemented.

But it all comes down this: Rogers says police in Fayetteville have gone through a sort of philosophical change.

"I think they have created a new culture within the police department, and then they've worked the community as well," Rogers says.

In Durham, city council members say they hope consent forms will be the first step toward this kind of change. If the recommendation is endorsed, consent forms will be in patrol cars by October 1st.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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