NC city's policing analyzed by New York Times
Five years of police data backup racial disparity claims, a New York Times analysis found
By Joe Killian
News & Record
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was a shock to most of the city — though many said the story it told was all too familiar.
The headline: “The disproportionate risks of driving while black.”
The subject: The continuing struggle between the Greensboro Police Department and the city’s black community, who say they’re unfairly targeted and routinely mistreated because of their race.
Five years of police data back that up, a New York Times analysis found. According to the newspaper, black drivers in Greensboro are more likely to be pulled over for routine traffic violations — a statistic common in many cities.
What the analysis revealed about what happened after those stops was more surprising.
Black drivers are more than twice as likely to be searched when pulled over, the study showed. That’s despite white drivers being found to have contraband more often during searches.
Black drivers also were four times more likely to be charged with resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer — a charge so ubiquitous that some police departments discourage its use unless an incident involves other, more serious crimes.
Black drivers were five times more likely to be charged for possession of small amounts of marijuana, despite studies showing marijuana use is virtually the same among blacks and whites.
“It really shows something that we already know,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan said Monday. “There is a difference between interactions with the police between black and white, between East Greensboro and West Greensboro.”
Vaughan said that’s something the City Council has addressed publicly and has discussed with Police Chief Wayne Scott, who was appointed seven months ago.
“I don’t think we have a bad police department,” Vaughan said. “I think there are a lot of good men and women in our police department, and I think we’re doing a lot to address the issues that we have. I wish The New York Times story had talked about that more.”
The police chief sent an email to City Council members on Sunday criticizing the Times story and the methods of its reporters. He also questioned the veracity of accounts from Greensboro residents who told the Times that they were profiled and abused by police.
Scott said the department is currently doing its own analysis of the data, much of which was previously presented in a racial disparity study by Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Concerned about both the fidelity of the data in the study, and public perception resulting from its publication, I had already directed our crime analysis section to analyze our data to try to determine if these disparities were problematic, any indication of bias, or an indicator that our policing efforts were not equitable,” Scott wrote in his email Sunday.
His department has hired experts from N.C. A&T and UNC-Greensboro to help analyze the data, Scott wrote in the email.
According to Scott’s email, some studies don’t make a convincing link between racial disparity in police behavior and racial bias.
But by Monday afternoon, when Scott was interviewed by the News & Record, he adopted a more conciliatory tone.
“The numbers, we believe at this point, are accurate,” said Scott in a phone interview from Chicago, where he is attending a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “We’re trying to get a better sense of what they mean for Greensboro.”
Scott said that black drivers being pulled over more often is likely the result of more officers being assigned to areas of the city with higher crime and which tend to have higher African-American populations.
Why the data shows black drivers are searched at much higher rates is more difficult to answer, Scott said.
“Those are disturbing numbers to me,” Scott said. “But we need to understand it.”
‘There’s No Easy Fix’
North Carolina is one of the states with the best-kept police data — one reason the Times examined cities in the state. The Times found that on some of the disparity measures, Charlotte and Raleigh’s numbers were even worse than Greensboro.
But the statistics don’t tell the whole story, Scott said.
Sometimes when an officer asks to search a car, Scott said, the officer already has probable cause. The officer will still ask for consent to search in order to make possible convictions that much more secure, Scott explained.
The data doesn’t make it clear how many searches are asked for by officers without a pre-established cause, Scott said, and might therefore be driven by bias. “Long-term we’re going to have to be more specific in how we record our data,” Scott said.
The department’s analysis of traffic data should be presented to the council by January, Scott said.
Councilman Tony Wilkins said Monday that he wants to hear more about that data before he comments.
Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann said she doesn’t like seeing negative stories about the city on the front page of one of the world’s most prominent newspapers, but it does mean the data is available and the city can use it to correct problems.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some outliers,” Hoffmann said. “The reputation and issues with our police department have gone on for several decades now. I would like to see that come to an end. ... I think the expectation is that this data is going to help us do that, and really, we’ve already started addressing it.”
The city is currently working to recruit more minority police officers.
“I think on the whole our police department is doing a good job,” Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson said. “But racism still exists in this world in every institution. ... I think the chief has a great opportunity now when we see with these numbers what is going on, to correct it in his department. And we have to hold him to doing that.”
Councilman Jamal Fox agreed. “There’s no easy fix to this,” he said. “It’s so deeply rooted, not only in our police department but across the nation.”
It can be unpleasant to see statistics like those in the Times story, Councilman Justin Outling said. Still, the availability of the data speaks to the transparency of the police department and means the chief and City Council know the scope of the problem.
Outling added that it may be embarrassing to see Greensboro’s problems spotlighted so prominently in a national publication, but the problems are what should worry people, not the spotlight.
“We can’t waste energy worrying about the perception of the city,” Outling said. “We need to spend our energy solving these problems — then the perception will take care of itself.”
At least one councilman said the Times had blown the issue out of proportion.
“I don’t think The New York Times needs to come to Greensboro to get negative police stories,” Councilman Mike Barber said. “They have plenty of those to write in New York.
“The truth is that Chief Scott has taken neighborhood policing to a new and a better level. He’s done bias training and he meets with members of the community and neighborhood groups weekly. The lines of communication between the various communities and our police department and local government have never been better in my lifetime.”
Barber said the Times piece manipulated statistics in a way that was deceptive and spotlighted Greensboro for no apparent reason.
“We are dealing with this issue just like a lot of cities are dealing with this issue,” Barber said.
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