by Raul Pinto, Staff Attorney, ACLU-NCLF

Anyone who has ever been stopped by police officers on a state road can attest that it can be an unnerving experience.   The unsettling nature of a stop can be exacerbated if the driver believes that the officer’s biases played a role in the officer’s decision-making process.  Racial biases, conscious or unconscious, can be the most damaging because they create a perception that people are treated differently in the eyes of the law in violation of their civil rights.

The term “racially biased policing” was coined to cover overt discriminatory treatment of minorities, as well as subconscious biases that may affect police decision-making.  In 1999, North Carolina was at the forefront of recording data to prove or disprove whether minorities are stopped and searched at disproportionate rates by enacting a law requiring police to record demographic information about detained drivers.  Other states also adopted data collection as a tool to diagnose whether racially biased policing is a problem in their communities.  However, in North Carolina, recent analysis of the data collected as a result of the law gives cause for concern.

Data collection has benefits recognized by the law enforcement community, including the Police Executive Research Forum.  First, data collection can provide significant information about a department’s traffic stops and their results, which can improve a department’s efficiency.  It can help departments discern whether racial disparities are rooted in the department’s culture or in a small number of officers who may need additional training.  Most importantly, data collection can help guide dialogue within communities about racially biased policing and show affected community members a police department’s willingness to work with them in addressing the issue.

However, efforts to adopt a national standard for traffic stop data collection met recalcitrance from some law enforcement circles.  Police officers fear that the data collected, and the analysis thereof, may harm the agency and damage morale within the department.  In North Carolina, the law has been in effect for more than a decade, and its requirements have not substantially changed officers’ duties.

Consequently, there are specific ways in which the North Carolina law could be improved to benefit both the public and law enforcement.  This report focuses on recommending three ways in which policy-makers at the legislative or administrative level could strengthen the data collection law to improve transparency and community engagement.  The three recommendations are:

  1. Require law enforcement to record and provide with specificity the location of each traffic stop.
  2. Develop a standardized system so that every officer in North Carolina has a unique and anonymous individual officer identification number.
  3. Train officers on the importance and benefits of data collection, as well as how to fill out the required forms, as part of the standard law enforcement training programs.

These recommendations should be part of a larger strategy to combat racial disparities in traffic stops.  Strengthening the current laws with simple, common-sense changes is the first step to a better road ahead.

Read the full report here.