Driving while black in Asheville, City Council member Keith Young said, “is real.”
Young, who is African-American, said data on racial disparities in police traffic stops presented to Council at its Tuesday, April 24, meeting validated his personal experiences and anecdotal observations about unequal treatment of black and white drivers by Asheville police.
Council heard a report on the data by Ian Mance, an attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Black drivers in Asheville, Mance said, are subject to 33 percent of all searches related to traffic stops, even though black people make up 13 percent of the city’s population. And that’s in spite of data that show searches of white drivers are more likely to reveal contraband than those of black drivers.
The disparity data isn’t breaking news: Mance has been presenting the information to groups in Asheville since November.
Mance’s organization initially began presenting the data at the request of the local chapter of the NAACP, Mance told Mayor Esther Manheimer. He has appeared at meetings of the Citizens Police Advisory Committee and City Council’s Public Safety Committee, as well as at smaller meetings with Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper and her staff.
On Open Data Policing’s website, Asheville traffic stop data for the past 15 years is available. North Carolina, Mance said, was the first state in the country to require police departments to collect demographic data for each traffic stop, and the Open Data website uses data reported to and provided by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Though police departments are required to report the data, Mance said an analysis he and local data specialist Patrick Conant performed raises questions about whether the Asheville Police Department is fully complying with the law. According to the Open Data website, in 2010, the APD reported 1,259 searches related to traffic stops. That year had the most searches of any since data has been collected. In 2016, that figure had dropped to 172 searches.
To try to understand whether the reduction in searches might be attributable to a lack of reporting, Mance said he and Conant audited 50 court cases related to traffic stops. They cross-referenced the date of each stop with the demographic information of the driver in the SBI data. In 58 percent of the cases, no demographic data corresponding to the date of the stop appeared in the state database.
Though Hooper was present during Mance’s presentation, she did not comment at the Council meeting. Asked on Wednesday for comment, APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse responded by email, “Chief Hooper is reviewing the information that was presented and will submit a report to Council regarding her findings and a response to the [report’s] suggestions, per Council’s request.”
Mance recommended four low- or no-cost policy proposals he said several police departments in North Carolina have implemented.
First, the APD should scrutinize and correct any shortcomings in reporting the data. “It does seem that a large number of stops are going unreported for whatever reason,” Mance said.
Next, Asheville should follow the lead of other police departments in North Carolina and around the country to dial back equipment-related stops. After a New York Times article showed that a majority of traffic stops involving black drivers in Greensboro were initiated due to minor equipment violations, Mance said, the Greensboro police chief quickly announced a plan to reduce those stops. In the year that followed the policy change, Greensboro experienced a 10 percent reduction in black-to-white search disparity rates.
Mance recommended requiring officers to receive written, rather than spoken, consent to search a vehicle when no specific grounds for a search are present. Although this policy change doesn’t generally result in a change in racial disparity data, Mance said, it is “a more racially equitable policy,” since studies show that black drivers experience greater social pressure to allow a search than white drivers. And while the intent of the policy isn’t necessarily to reduce searches, it does cause officers to be more thoughtful about performing a search, which has resulted in an 11 percent reduction in searches where the policy has been implemented, he said.
Finally, Mance said, Asheville could implement periodic, routine audits of individual officer stop-and-search data through a confidential section of the Open Data website. Using a tool on the website, police chiefs can enter an officer’s unique code and instantly create a report on the officer’s enforcement history. If the data appears to be out of line, Mance said, it “provides an occasion to have a conversation.”
Several members of Council signaled eagerness to move quickly to implement what Council member Cecil Bothwell, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, called Mance’s “very reasonable policy suggestions.”
Given that the data has been presented to various committees already, Young said, routing the proposed changes back through the committee process “feels like a punt.”
After a discussion, City Manager Gary Jackson said Hooper would present either an “interim or full report” to Council at its May 9 meeting.
In an email on Wednesday, April 26, however, Jackson wrote Council members that Hooper “is scheduled to be out of town on May 9.” Council will receive a written response that “will nonetheless offer an update on the strategy and action plans of the Asheville Police Department.” Finally, Jackson wrote, “we hope to outline the legal framework and possible policy role(s) of Council.”
Council member Brian Haynes commented, “Though this data was not surprising, it’s still extremely disturbing. I don’t feel like we can let this go any longer than we should. We should address this as soon as possible.”
Local business leader and City Council candidate Dee Williams spoke to Council during the public comment portion of the meeting. She emphasized the importance of the role of the local NAACP chapter, whose Criminal Justice Reform Committee she chairs: “I know that there is no micro-aggression intended, but if you want to have pertinent input, and our data, and coordination, you need to properly address us. We are the initiators, the conveners and the leadership here.”
Williams accused the Police Department of violating state law by not reporting its data. Despite that concern, she continued, “You [Council] are looking at throwing additional dollars, $1 million are being asked for the Police Department.” More funding should not be provided, she said, until the department’s “qualitative issues” are addressed. “Please don’t throw money at an existing problem,” Williams said. “We have documented, and you have the data.”