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Police and racism: The truth is in the numbers

Though few police are required to collect racial data during traffic stops, what they report is troubling.

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Kimberly Easley's home sits off a hilly street in a quiet corner of Mooresville. From her back deck she points to a private lake barely discernible through tall trees, admitting it's easier to spot during the winter, when the leaves are gone. She has no nearby neighbors, which affords her a kind of serenity she never experienced growing up in crowded cities like Houston and, later, Atlanta. It also helps — she laughs when she reluctantly admits this — that her 19-year-old twin boys are out of the house.

Even though she is worlds away from Atlanta and Houston, some aspects of her quiet suburban life feel all too familiar. She can recall many instances in which her boys, Jamal and Jermaine, were harassed by local police. This one stands out: One of the boys was in the backseat of a car with his friends, who were all white, when a police officer pulled them over, he said because they were speeding. The officer approached the vehicle and asked Easley's son, and only him, to get out. After a series of questions, the officer allowed him to return to his friends' vehicle. The experience wasn't unlike many of Easley's ex-husband's, who was pulled over at least three times a month when the family lived in Houston, or when he was traveling between Houston and Atlanta, their other home base. Officers asked the same questions — who does this vehicle (a Mercedes) belong to? What do you do for a living? How long have you had this vehicle? — before giving the "legitimate" reason for pulling him over.

"It's the constant threat that something may go wrong at any time," she says. "Your heart just pounds."

Among the racist vitriol that has come in the aftermath of the recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in which a white officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black teen, is the completely baseless argument that police do not target black males any more than they do whites or Latinos. Data collected by officers themselves (when the data is collected) proves police departments' actions are still, on the whole, racist.

Believe it or not, in 1999 North Carolina became the first state to pass a law requiring police officers to take note of someone's race during a traffic stop, to determine whether racial profiling was a problem.

An analysis of more than 13 million traffic stops between 2000 and 2011 by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that not only are blacks and Latinos stopped more often than whites in this state, but they are more likely to be searched (blacks by 77 percent and Latinos 96 percent). Whites are more likely to be let off with warnings than other racial and ethnic groups.

Laws mandating racial data collection during traffic stops exist in only six other states, including South Carolina, and are absent in almost every other Southern state, the West and much of the Northeast. And some states' laws come with major loopholes. Data collecting is mandatory in Texas but becomes optional if a cop car is equipped with video equipment, as many are, or if a department has simply requested recording devices, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU report outlines ways in which North Carolina's data collection law can be strengthened, including requiring officers to record the exact location in which they make a traffic stop.

Experiences with local police vary. Recently, a resident of McCrorey Heights, an older, relatively affluent and predominantly black neighborhood on the west side with a strong voting record, told CL her neighbors have forged a relationship with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. So much so that when the power went out in the neighborhood this summer, cops patrolled every few minutes and advised residents to go to a movie to kill time until the lines were fixed.

Unlike Ferguson's police department, which is 6 percent black while the city is 67 percent black, Charlotte's PD has a racial makeup that is closer — though not close enough — to the population it serves. Charlotte's population is 35 percent black, and the police department is about 17 percent black. The department also has a black chief.

Rodney Monroe acted quickly after a white officer in his force shot and killed an unarmed black man in Charlotte last year. Jonathan Ferrell's shooting occurred in the early morning hours of a Saturday in September. By that night, Officer Randall Kerrick had been indicted and arrested for manslaughter. Kerrick's name and mugshot were all over the news, accompanied by Ferrell's college portrait. Monroe said that even if it was determined that Ferrell had not complied with officers' commands to put his hands up before he was shot, that did not justify the use of deadly force against him.

By contrast, Ferguson's police department refused for days to release the name of Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for Brown's death. They released his name only after allowing him to leave town and, in the same press conference, implicated Brown as the suspect in a "strong-arm robbery." The department gave reporters video footage of the incident, despite knowing the robbery didn't factor into Wilson's decision to confront Brown. Consequently, the image of Brown news outlets have been using is one of him getting aggressive with a store clerk. The only available photo of Wilson? Him receiving an award for service. Eyewitnesses say Brown had his hands in the air when he was shot. After being gunned down, his body was allowed to lay in the street for hours, in full view of the entire neighborhood, as if he were an animal who'd been struck by a car. As of press time Wilson had yet to be indicted.

Advocates for reform in police departments say body cameras on officers will change their behavior. They're correct, to an extent. As CL recently reported in "CMPD using body cameras to protect and observe," City Council has allowed CMPD to buy body cameras for officers. But whether footage would be released to the public, especially in an incident that involves a shooting, is still unknown. The video Kerrick recorded the night he shot Ferrell has yet to be released.

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