Durham County

Durham traffic stops, searches down; concerns about disparities continue

The number of Durham police traffic stops and searches have dropped significantly over the last year. But once stopped, searches are three times more likely to occur in vehicles with black drivers, according to figures provided by the Durham Police Department.

From 2010 to 2016, traffic stops and searches dropped by 54 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Out of the 14,785 traffic stops in 2016, 58 percent of the drivers were black and 11 percent were Hispanic. Of the 783 traffic searches, 83 percent were associated with a vehicle with a black driver.

The city’s racial population breaks down as roughly 48 percent white, 40 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.

The decreases in stops and searches follow concerns about racial disproportionality in traffic stops and searches and subsequent shifts in Durham police policies, including requiring in October 2014 a signature on a form before consent searches.

The changes have resulted in a remarkable decline in the numbers over a two-year period, City Councilman Steve Schewel said.

“I don’t think we should underestimate the positive effect on hundreds of lives that this new policy is having,” Schewel said. “This is a tremendous improvement. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve further, but this is a tremendous improvement.”

Nia Wilson, executive director of community organizing nonprofit SpiritHouse, said the continuing disproportionality raises questions.

“We are moving in the right direction, but we definitely can see that we have to have further conversations around race, racial disparity and the criminalization of people of color,” Wilson said.

SpritHouse is part of the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition. The coalition was among the groups complaining of profiling and other racist behavior by police that prompted Mayor Bill Bell in September 2013 to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. After months of hearings, the commission concluded that racial bias and profiling existed within the department.

City Manager Tom Bonfield has since overseen a number of changes, including requiring police to review and share traffic stop data semi-annually.

Bonfield eventually forced former Police Chief Jose Lopez to retire at the end of 2016 under mounting criticism on his response to concerns about racial bias and a rising violent crime rate.

Police Chief C.J. Davis, who started in June, has said she is evaluating how the department is deploying resources to ensure it’s targeting crime, not communities, and training officers on making prudent decisions regarding enforcing minor traffic offenses.

“Training is provided for all sworn staff that includes cultural awareness, implicit bias and racial equity in order to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for community trust and expectations,” Davis wrote in an email. “Also, the department routinely evaluates data associated with traffic stops to ensure quality enforcement consistent with the law and departmental policies, and shares data more openly for transparency with the community we serve.”

Traffic stops

From 2010 to 2016, traffic stops peaked at 32,227 in 2010. By 2015, traffic stops declined to 20,780 and 14,785 in 2016.

Factors that led to the decrease in traffic stops likely include a reallocation of limited resources and a more focused approach by officers on addressing serious and ongoing criminal offenses occurring in the community, Davis wrote.

From 58 percent to 60 percent of the drivers who were stopped over that time were black. The percent of drivers stopped who were Hispanic ranged from 12 percent to 14 percent.

Stops for vehicle equipment and regulatory violations dropped from 39 percent of the stops in 2010 to 29 percent in 2016, said Jason Schiess, the department’s analytical services manager.


Total traffic-stop searches dropped from 1,613 in 2010 to 1,369 in 2015 and 783 in 2016.

Most of the 52 percent drop over that period can be linked to a 42 percent drop between 2015 and 2016.

In 2010, 77 percent of searches were associated with vehicles with black drivers. That percentage rose to 86 percent of the searches in 2015 and dropped slightly, to 83 percent, in 2016.

Another way to look at the figures is 2 percent of the white drivers pulled over were associated with searches in 2015 and 2016. About 10 percent and 8 percent of the black drivers pulled over were associated with searches in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

About 4 percent of the Hispanic drivers pulled over were searched in 2015 and 2016.

About 73 percent of the searches in 2015 and 2016 were probable-cause searches, marking a significant shift since the policy change requiring a signature for consent searches in 2014.

Probable cause searches are based upon specific articulable facts which does not include race, Davis wrote.

UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner, who has been analyzing traffic stops and searches in Durham and across the state, described the search disparities as “very high.”

Durham is moving in the right direction, but there is “a lot of improvement still to be made,” he said. On average, across the state, there is about a two-to-one disparity, Baumgartner said.


The overall instances in which police found illegal contraband, such as drugs or weapons, during a search was 29 percent of searches in 2010 and 35 percent in 2016.

Broken down by race, the search “hit rate” associated with vehicles with white drivers in 2010 was 24 percent compared to 31 percent of searches associated with black drivers.

The hit rates rose in 2016 to 33 percent of searches associated with white drivers in 2016 and 35 percent with black drivers.

For Schiess, the rising and similar hit rates indicate that police are producing more quality searches based on probable cause.

“Whether that is sufficient to justify the rate of search is really an opinion-based question,” Schiess said.

Baumgarter described the contraband hits as low and the arrest rate following as much lower.

Fewer than one in 1,000 stops have led to arrests, he said, and these have been extremely targeted at blacks since 2007. Typically police are finding a small amount of drugs for the contraband, such as marijuana residue or a couple of pills.

“It really makes you wonder what is the public safety value of all the searching,” he said. “We know what the public cost is in terms of community trust, and that cost is really high.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges