Search rates for blacks in Durham high, groups says

Jan. 22, 2014 @ 10:42 PM

Police in Durham are searching the black motorists they stop at rates that easily top those of peer cities in North Carolina, a lawyer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice told a city advisory group Wednesday.

In 2013, 82.5 percent of the motorists Durham police searched were black, the coalition’s Ian Mance told the city Human Relations Commission.

To the west, police in Winston-Salem targeted blacks with about 60 percent of their vehicle searches and their counterparts in Greensboro did likewise in about 70 percent of theirs, Mance said.

Motorist searches in both cities were less common across the board, he added.

“Overall, Durham police search motorists at a rate much greater than the statewide average,” Mance said. “Our search rate for black men is off the charts. We are the worst of the worst.”

The Durham Police Department’s search rate started climbing in mid-2006, when it was still under the command of former Chief Steve Chalmers.

Now, under Police Chief Jose Lopez, the practice of asking motorists to consent to a search even when there’s no probable cause to think them involved in a crime has “effectively been institutionalized,” Mance said.

He tied the trend to launch of the department’s “Operation Bull’s Eye” crime-fighting initiative in North-East Central Durham.

But that initiative got underway in the summer of 2007. A rise the year before would’ve coincided with a peak in the city’s violent-crime rate, which the department was under City Council pressure to bring under control.

The Police Department has not contested the search numbers, which coalition analysts derived from its reports to the state.

It has, however, acknowledged that most of the people it arrests are black.

That involves “no targeting of the group” on racial grounds because the numbers line up with what crime victims report to police about the people who wronged them, Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh told the Human Relations Commission in December.

Mance didn’t address that argument head-on, but he did say it’s likely police are using traffic checkpoints in the Bull’s Eye area as cover for drug-law enforcement that disproportionately affects minorities.

He mentioned the license checkpoint on Holloway Street last year that yielded the arrest of former UNC basketball star P.J. Hairston on charges of marijuana possession and driving without a license.

Prosecutors later dropped the charges, saying Hairston had completed a drug assessment and shown he had a valid license.

But the incident wound up ending Hairston’s basketball career at UNC, as he’d been driving an SUV rented by a convicted felon, Haydn “Fats” Thomas, a fact that sparked questions about possible violations of NCAA benefits-to-athletes rules.

Mance said the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over North Carolina has accepted the idea that it’s not proper to use traffic checkpoints as cover for drug enforcement.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is one of several groups that have challenged the Police Department’s enforcement practices, accusing it of racial profiling.

The coalition is Durham-based and headed by a board that counts among its members former City Councilman Farad Ali.