A welcome decline

While officials acknowledge more change is needed, it’s promising that the Durham Police Department stopped and searched far fewer vehicles last year.

Traffic stops and searches have been the cause of considerable and justifiable community concern in recent years, in large part because black drivers were far more likely to be subject to each than white drivers. The jaundiced view that motorists were being stopped for “driving while black” was a part of a larger climate of distrust and alienation that permeated many neighborhoods.

To their credit, police leaders, prodded by council members and City Manager Tom Bonfield, shifted polices and procedures. Most significantly, police were required in late 2014 to get signed forms assenting to “consent searches,” a move that helped drive down the number of searches. From 2010 to 2016, traffic stops dropped by 54 percent and searches by 52 percent. Much of that drop occurred between 2015 and 2016, after the written consent requirement was imposed.

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

Police Chief C.J. Davis, who started in June, six months after her predecessor was forced into retirement amid community anger over racial profiling and rising violent crime, has pushed changes in process and culture in the department.

“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 last week. The department evaluates data about traffic stops and searches “to ensure quality law enforcement consistent with the law and department policies” and shares data with the community.

The greatest cause for concern in the new data is that once stopped, black drivers are more than three times more likely to be searched than white drivers. Hispanic drivers are about twice as likely to be searched as white drivers.

“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,” said Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, a community organizing nonprofit that has advocated for police change.

The need for further progress is clear, but it is equally clear that a determined effort to tackle the issue is beginning to pay off, for the community and for the police department that needs that community’s trust and support.