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Report: Durham PD Drug Unit Disproportionaly Stopped Black Male Drivers

Nathan Rupert via Flickr Creative Commons

Durham Police officers disproportionately pulled over black male drivers during traffic stops from 2010 to 2015, and officers focusing on drug and law enforcement were more likely to stop black drivers than those in any other unit, according to a study released Thursday.
The study, which determined racial disparity by comparing daytime versus nighttime traffic stop data, found officers pulled over black males 20 percent more often during daylight, when a driver’s race is more easily identifiable. Meanwhile, officers in the High Enforcement Abatement Team, which focuses on drug and gang violence, were 44 percent more likely to pull over black males during the day.

The study, conducted independently by RTI International, appears to confirm complaints by community groups that have long argued that Durham police officers enforcing drug laws have racially profiled black males.

But Interim Chief Larry Smith said it’s unclear whether the disparity occurred because drug enforcement officers were patrolling areas with higher minority population or because of racial profiling.

“We don't know what causes it, exactly. The report doesn't show that,” Smith said. “To say definitively that that’s the cause of the entire disparity, I can’t say that. But I know that’s something we have to accept and deal with as part of that problem.”

Kevin Strom, director of RTI's policing investigative science program, presents a study on racial disparity in Durham Police traffic stops.
Credit Jorge Valencia
Kevin Strom, director of RTI's policing science program, presents a study on racial disparity in Durham Police traffic stops. Seated: RTI President Wayne Holden; RTI Criminologist Travis Taniguchi; Durham Police Interim Chief Larry Smith; and Deputy Chief A. R. Marsh.

Durham police asked RTI Institute to analyze data from more than 150,000 traffic stops as the department has been working to improve its operations and relations with minority groups, Smith said. RTI paid for the study.

Scott Holmes, a Durham attorney who has represented clients claiming racial profiling, said he was encouraged by the study and welcomed the department’s efforts to improve policing, but that the study’s findings weren’t surprising. Community groups such as Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement and Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods have long asked the department to address complaints of racial profiling.

Findings also include that:

  • The rate at which officers disproportionately stopped black males declined from 2010 to 2015. By 2014, black males were stopped at almost the same rate during daylight versus dark. “This improvement may have been the result of changes in Durham Police Department training or policies,” said Travis Taniguchi, an RTI criminologist.
  • There was no evidence that female drivers were stopped disproportionately depending on the time of day.
  • While HEAT, the unit focusing on drug and gang violence, stopped black males 44 percent more often during daylight, there was no evidence that officers in the unit dedicated to traffic law enforcement disproportionately stopped black males.

Read the full study at RTI's website.

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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