In 1999, before North Carolina Senator Jay Chaudhuri was a politician, he was a law student at North Carolina Central University in Durham when he noticed the red and blue lights of a police cruiser light up behind him. Chaudhuri, who is Indian-American, pulled over his car and waited anxiously as a police officer approached him.
His alleged infraction? Turning on his left turn signal too early.
“I was alarmed and shocked,” Chaudhuri says. “I was completely unaware of his charge and I had to challenge his reason for pulling me over.”
Chaudhuri was lucky; he was a third-year law student who understood his rights and walked away without even a citation. But the incident didn’t sit well with him. Nearly two decades later, a study would elaborate why: “driving while Black” was a very real phenomenon, especially in Durham.
An analysis of 18 million traffic stops in North Carolina between 2002 and 2013 revealed young Black men were pulled over, searched, and arrested far more than any other group despite the fact that contraband was discovered less often among those drivers.
Racial bias was driving the traffic stops, the study found. Even worse: the racial disparities in policing appeared to be getting worse over time.
“Daunte Wright was pulled over because of a non-moving violation and I think it raises a host of questions as to whether traffic stops are worth the cost or not,” Chaudhuri told the INDY. “I think the evidence certainly suggests that it is not.”
Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was killed by a white police officer after he was pulled over for having expired registration tags. A struggle ensued and the officer, Kim Potter, claims she thought she was deploying a taser when she fatally shot Wright.
While police training and accountability are necessary to address the over-use of force by police, Chaudhuri believes reworking policy and ramping up the state’s data reporting could stop the problem at its source: the traffic stop. Last month, Chaudhuri, along with Durham Senator Natalie Murdock, filed a bill that would formally designate a racially profiled traffic stop a civil rights violation, and aim to curtail the use of racial profiling through state-mandated studies and policy changes.
“That’s the most common police-citizen interaction that takes place. When you overlay that with the disproportionate number of drivers are people of color that are pulled over, it certainly increases the risk,” Chaudhuri says. “Studies show that a fraction of traffic stops are really for the purpose of traffic safety. A traffic stop occurs either because there’s a need to raise revenue or a minor traffic stop is used as a pretext to investigating people for something completely unrelated to traffic safety.”
Most of the time, Chaudhuri says “few traffic stops result in the public safety purpose.”
If the police were no longer allowed to pull over anyone for non-moving violations that don’t threaten public safety, how many instances of police brutality could be avoided? Furthermore, what would happen if those resources were redirected toward public safety—pulling over only vehicles that posed a direct danger to the public?
The answer to that experiment already played out in Fayetteville. Former Chief Harold Medlock gained national attention for dramatically changing the role of police within his community. After he was hired as chief in 2012, Medlock found a community distrustful of the police department and decided to take a new approach, partly motivated by his tenure overseeing Charlotte’s traffic unit. He’d seen his fair share of death and destruction on the roadways from drunk drivers and speeding. Expired plates or tinted windows, on the contrary, weren’t killing anyone.
“I determined that we were going to stop making traffic stops based on regulatory or equipment violations,” Medlock told the INDY. “We were going to focus on the things that kept people alive and kept them from being injured.”
It was an unwritten policy—more a philosophy—but it worked. Over time, the result was not only fewer fatalities on the road, but the racial disparities in traffic stops began to lessen. Furthermore, with officers spending more time building relationships in neighborhoods rather than pulling over everything that moves, community trust began to rebuild.
Chaudhuri hoped what was learned in Fayetteville could benefit the police departments throughout the state through increased data analysis and policy reformation.
Unfortunately, like the majority of Democrat-sponsored bills in the North Carolina legislature, Chaudhuri’s bill was referred to the rules committee where it was not taken up before the crossover deadline, leaving it functionally extinct unless a Republican chooses to take it back up.
He’ll likely refile the bill in two years in hopes that lawmakers can push it forward then. In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping police departments and sheriffs from adopting their own internal policies to combat racial profiling.
“It has to be the leader’s will, it has to be the leader of the agency who says, ‘We need to take a hard look at who we are and what we’re doing,’” Medlock says. “Change is hard. It’s hard to change, especially after you’ve been doing it one way for years or even decades.”
Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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