A new NC study says Black drivers are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by law enforcement. (Image via Shutterstock) New NC Traffic Study
A new NC study says Black drivers are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by law enforcement. (Image via Shutterstock)

The study, spanning 10 years of data, is likely to fuel claims that Black North Carolinians are targeted by law enforcement. 

A new state report says the rate of traffic stops for Black drivers in North Carolina is more than twice that of white drivers and almost 1.5 times that of other races.

The report published Wednesday by the NC Criminal Justice Analysis Center, part of the NC Department of Public Safety, draws on ten years of traffic stops by state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and local police.  

“The study will serve to identify key criminal justice measures which can help evaluate police interactions with the public and improve law enforcement services,” DPS Secretary Erik A. Hooks told WNCN.

Between 2009 and 2019, the rate of stops for Black drivers decreased by 15%. But in that same ten-year period, the rate of stops for white drivers fell by 28% and other races decreased 30%.

Although men were stopped more than women in North Carolina, the study found that Black women were pulled over more than white men between 2013 and 2019.

“White drivers and drivers of another or unknown race were stopped for speeding more often than the total, so more likely to be pulled over for speed limit violations than Black drivers,” the study found. 

When it came to vehicle violations, the reverse was true, the study revealed. 

Black drivers were pulled over at a higher percentage for vehicle regulatory and equipment violations than the other races.

Caroline Valand, Executive Director of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Crime Commission, told WITN that “it looks like the majority of traffic stop violations in North Carolina are either speed limit violations (40%) or vehicle regulatory or equipment violations (29%).”

The report said 86% of police agencies and sheriff’s offices in North Carolina complied with the report for the study.

“The message is very clear. It starts at the top about how we serve and treat the citizens of this county.”

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker

The disproportionate number of traffic stops for Black drivers disclosed by the study is sure to raise concerns. The high number of stops based on regulatory and equipment violations suggest that many of these are pretextual traffic stops, allowing police to briefly detain a person based on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause which is needed for arrest. 

Pretextual traffic stops prompted by minor infractions fuel the belief held by some that Black Americans are being targeted by law enforcement for “Driving While Black,” a designation immortalized by a 1999 landmark American Civil Liberties Union report examining racial profiling on American highways. 

According to political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Derek Epp and Kelsey Shoub, traffic stops are far and away the most common interaction that people have with law enforcement. 

“They therefore play a central role in forming our perceptions of the police and show us in turn how the police view us,” Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub wrote in a July 2018 email interview with The Washington Post. 

In their book “Suspect Citizens,” Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub took a deep dive into data from 20 million North Carolina traffic stops to determine how police officers treat ordinary citizens. 

“North Carolina became the first state to mandate the collection of traffic stops data in 1999,” the three political scientists wrote. “As a result, we have a record of virtually every traffic stop in the state since 2002.”   

“Frequent stops for minor traffic violations, especially if followed by a request to search the vehicle, send an unmistakable signal to those who experience them that they are viewed more as potential suspects than as full citizens,” Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub maintained. 

Black drivers are much more likely to be searched after a stop than white drivers, Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub also wrote, but they less likely to be found with drugs, guns, alcohol or other forms of contraband after discretionary searches. 

In addition to demeaning Black Americans, high frequency traffic stops have also turned deadly for the drivers. 

In July 2015, 28-year-old Black activist Sandra Bland was pulled over by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia for failing to use her turn signal. Three days later, she was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Her death was ruled a suicide. 

Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub noted that when Philando Castile was killed by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez in July 2016, research surfaced that showed he had been pulled over at least 46 times previously. 

“Someone surveilled so commonly by law enforcement understands that they are more a suspect than a citizen, in the eyes of the police,” Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub wrote.

The ramifications raised by the NC Criminal Justice Analysis Center’s report is not lost, at least on some members of NC’s law enforcement community.

“The message is very clear,” Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker told WRAL. “It starts at the top about how we serve and treat the citizens of this county.”