For years I have represented young black male and Hispanic drivers who describe being stopped for no good reason, and searched without result. One of my clients was TASERed for refusing to extinguish his cigarette after he was stopped for what a judge later determined was no legitimate reason.  ( ) These people feel like victims of a bully that they cannot stand up to. I have long fought racial profiling as a disease in our beloved community. People should not be treated like criminals, targeted for investigation, because of the color of their skin. It is humiliating.

Racial profiling has long been something that is discussed as a sporadic phenomenon, an isolated failure of our system caused by a rogue police officer or two. Until recently, the evidence of racial profiling has been largely supported only by anecdotal evidence.  Victims of racial profiling live in silence. They are stopped repeatedly for no reason on the way home, and don’t think people will believe them. No one likes to “play the race card.”

Now, however, thanks to statistics collected since January of 2000 as a result of NC’s data collection statute, and an analysis of more than 13 million stops, we know that racial profiling is a tragically real part of our system of law enforcement. In a report released to select policymakers this spring, UNC Professor Frank R. Baumgartner (and graduate assistant Derek Epp) analyzed this data for each of the Counties in North Carolina. ( )  The statistics for Durham are startling:

Black motorists are more than 200% more likely to be searched by law enforcement as a result of a routine traffic stops for speeding, seat belt, and stop sign violations.

  • Black suspects are nearly nine times more likely to be incarcerated for criminal conduct than White suspects.

(Note: This statistic on racial incarceration in Durham comes from a study conducted by the Racial Justice Task Force at the North Carolina Advocates for justice, and not the Baumgartner report. The Task Force’s analysis of June 30, 2011, data, collected from the North Carolina Department of Correction’s Research and Planning Division, show that African Americans make up 57% of North Carolina’s prison population, but only 22% of the State’s population. In Durham County, African Americans are nearly nine times more likely to be incarcerated for criminal conduct than Caucasians, with Edgecombe and Warren Counties close behind with ratios of 7.5 to 1, and Mecklenburg with a ratio of 6.9 to 1.;;; )

  • Blacks arrested for drug crimes are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than White suspects.
  • Hispanics are 3.8 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than white residents.
  • Blacks are 13.6 times more likely to be designated as a habitual felon.

These statistics do not do justice to the humiliating reality of being treated as a criminal just because of your race. These statistics confirm that racial bias is deeply embedded in our criminal justice system in Durham.

If we are to be the beloved community, we must face the problem of race in our court system. We must meet this challenge head on with open, honest dialogue.  We must have conversations at every level of our community – at schools, businesses, universities, libraries, court rooms, police training sessions, in the jail. Our leaders owe it to us to address these statistics and make changes that will change the trend.  Some of these changes might include:

  • regularly posting the racial stop data for every Durham police officer;
  • requiring police to inform people of their right to refuse consent searches and to fill out a form consenting or declining a search incident to a stop; and
  • creating a Racial Truth and Reconciliation commission composed of leaders, professionals, citizens, and victims of racial profiling to review the data, create a complaint review process, to investigate and listen to people affected by racism in our criminal justice system. We need our Durham Crime Cabinet to take a look at these statistics and recommend reforms for our law enforcement agencies and court system.

Although these statistics show that most officers engage in racial profiling, and that it is not just a few “bad apples,” I do not believe that most officers intentionally target people for investigation solely because of their race. I have encountered a few racist police officers; however, these are rare exceptions.  Most officers take great pride in being professional and treating people fairly; and yet, the odds are they disproportionately stop people of color.  How can this be?  We live in a culture of unconscious racism. Racism is built into the very fabric of our institutions and culture. It is in the air we breathe and we can’t even identify it, or talk about it in healthy and open ways.

We will need strong, courageous leadership to address this institutional and cultural racism. We will need to get past defensive reactions, denials, and inadequate explanations. If our leaders will not take up the mantle of ending racism in our criminal justice system, then we must find a way to address the inequality ourselves. Our justice system is supposed to provide equal protection of the law regardless of race, and we in Durham have failed to measure up to this founding constitutional principle.