Racial Profiling: Fact or Fiction?

Glenn Smith, Post and Courier (Charleston), March 7, 2010

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North Charleston police have pulled over black drivers at a disproportionate rate over the past two years, with black men twice as likely to be stopped as their white counterparts, police statistics show.

Blacks make up about 49 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 65 percent of traffic stops that don’t result in a ticket or arrest, records show. That translates to some 25,000 traffic stops involving blacks. Some critics of the police department suspect that these ticketless stops are indicators of harassment or racial profiling.

Police officials insist it’s a reflection of a strategic, zero-tolerance crackdown on crime in several troubled neighborhoods where the population is predominantly black and where blacks commit the majority of crimes.

This approach has paid off with a more than 30 percent drop in violent crime over three years, North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said.

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Some civil rights leaders, however, find the numbers disturbing.

Taylor-Williams’ mother is Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Scott, a North Charleston resident, said her organization regularly receives complaints from black motorists who say they have been stopped by North Charleston police for no good reason.

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Proven anti-crime tactic

Zumalt denied that his officers are infringing on people’s rights or targeting people based on race. Instead, police are using a proven tactic of cracking down on even tiny violations, such as broken tail lights, to create an environment where crime can’t take root and prosper.

Boosting traffic stops and saturating high-crime areas with officers is part of the strategy police adopted to curtail retaliatory violence that fueled a total of 55 killings in 2006 and 2007, Zumalt said. Last year, the number of killings dropped to 11.

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{snip} [police] recently launched a “Sell the Stop” program requiring officers to identify themselves, explain what’s going on and why the stop is necessary, he said.

Zumalt said he will not tolerate people of any color being pulled over for no reason, but he has seen no evidence that that is occurring. The police department has received three complaints since 2007 about alleged racial bias by officers and, in each case, the officers were cleared, records show.

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Mary Ward, president of the North Charleston branch of the NAACP, said she isn’t sure where the complaints are coming from or why they’re going to Scott. Though she has cautioned police against using racial profiling, Ward said she has received no calls on this subject in over a year.

A hostile climate?

North Charleston police conducted nearly 61,000 traffic stops last year, double the stops recorded during violence-marred 2006. Police have no information on the race of those involved in traffic stops that led to arrests or tickets, as the department has no mechanism in place to track that data, Zumalt said.

Stops that led to no citations or arrests are tracked because state law requires police agencies to fill out forms on these encounters as a check on racial profiling.

The state data, as a whole, show police in South Carolina stopping black motorists at a rate that roughly reflects their percentage of the population. That is generally true for the communities surrounding North Charleston as well.

In Charleston, for example, blacks make up about 30 percent of the population and 35 percent of some 27,000 traffic stops in that city over the past two years, state records show.

The Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said statistics prove there is racial profiling in North Charleston, which long has caused many blacks to steer clear of the area.

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North Charleston police arrested about 3,700 people for disorderly conduct over the past two years, and around 67 percent of those cases resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts, according to municipal court records.

The court records do not include the race of those arrested, and police said they do not track that information.

Complaints to NAACP

Scott provided The Post and Courier with information from 10 complaints lodged with the Charleston NAACP about North Charleston police in the past year, including one regarding a confrontation she had with officers while trying to evict two tenants from a rental property.

The complaints range from racial profiling allegations and contested drug charges to a dispute over a ticket that a woman received for having a child not properly restrained in a car.

Half of those who complained about police harassment had previous criminal records, including three with multiple arrests for drugs or violent crimes, state records show.

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Numbers sow concern

The NAACP isn’t the only group to raise concerns about profiling. Participants at a diversity training session for new officers in November complained that some officers seem to use any excuse to stop young black men.

The Rev. Augustus D. Robinson Jr., pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, told the group that one man in his church had been pulled over 14 times in North Charleston. His church even shows an instructional film to young people to teach them how to act during a traffic stop to avoid a confrontation with police.

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“The first question I would ask is: If you pulled all of these people over and it did not result in a ticket, why did you stop them?” he said. “That is the key.”

Police have stopped people for myriad violations as part of a “zero-tolerance” approach to problems in troubled neighborhoods. It’s a strategy that proved effective in driving down crime in New York City, Los Angeles and other cities.

Zumalt said many of the stops didn’t result in tickets or arrests because officers chose instead to give people a break with warnings. He said officers issued warnings for about 40 percent of the violations found in traffic stops.

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Police officials also are watching to make sure officers are treating people appropriately, auditing records of stops, reviewing in-car videos and conducting customer-service surveys with citizens who encounter police, he said.

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