Are blacks being targeted in South Carolina?
BY BRETT BURSEY
You're driving along, minding your own business, when the blue lights come on behind you. What's the first thing you think? If it isn't "Damn - wrong color, wrong place, wrong time," you have never been stopped for DWB, or "Driving While Black." It isn't really against the law; it just seems that way to many black South Carolinians.
Stories of being stopped for a "routine license check" or vague and minor offenses are legend in the black community. "Most everyone I know has either been stopped unnecessarily or has a relative who has," said Rev. Joe Darby, vice-president of the state NAACP. "Extra attention by the police is a benefit of being a person of color in South Carolina."
While hard figures are impossible to come by, the practice of police paying "extra attention" to people of color in South Carolina was borne out by a survey of students at a black college in Columbia. Sixty of the 72 students who answered the survey were in the honors program at the college. Of the respondents, 43 percent said they were stopped by the police in 2000. Of those, 84 percent said that they thought "race was a factor" in their stop. Only 31 percent of those stopped received tickets.
It's not just young people who get special attention by the police. Black legislators, black professionals and even black law enforcement officers get the third degree.
"I was racially profiled," a middle-aged black police officer says, describing a stop two years ago in Horry County. "It was mid-afternoon, I was driving a new car and I was well-dressed," he recalled. "I wasn't speeding, but a deputy I had just passed whipped his car around and came up behind me with his blue lights on.
"When he walked close enough to the car to see inside, his expression changed. He saw the radio and light in the car and asked, 'Are you law enforcement?' I told him, 'Yes, and I want to know why you stopped me.' 'Well, I'm not sure,' was what he said. He turned around and walked off, and never said why he stopped me."
The officer didn't want his name used in this story, but said that he would testify in a public hearing if a racial profiling bill is debated in the legislature. "It's important," he said. "For every black officer who is let go after they realize he is a cop, how many black citizens are stopped?" Nobody knows for certain how many people are stopped and questioned by the police every year in South Carolina, or whether a disproportionate number of them are black, since no records are kept to reflect this data. Before this year, none of the more than 17,000 cops in this state (one of the highest per-capita cop ratios in the world) were required to keep records on who they stopped.
There are about two and a half million licensed drivers in South Carolina. The Department of Motor Vehicles isn't sure how many actual drivers there are, because they don't have a system to remove dead drivers from the list. The DMV recorded that 1,227,536 traffic tickets were issued last year. While citations record the race of the driver, the DMV computers do not include race in their calculated totals, nor indicate whether a traffic stop resulted in a search or non-traffic related arrest. The high rate of black arrests and the perception that blacks are more likely to be stopped has prompted calls for legislation to record police stops to enable tracking for instances of racial profiling.
"I believe that black people are more likely to get stopped, more likely to get searched and more likely to get arrested," said Kevin Gray, a board member with ACLU-SC. "Racial profiling plays a role in the fact that over half the black males between 18 and 25 have been arrested."
While we don't know the race of those stopped or ticketed, we do know who is being arrested for crimes other than traffic offenses.
In 1999, according to SLED statistics, nearly 10 percent of the entire black population of South Carolina was arrested for non-traffic-related crimes (compared to 4.1 percent of whites). Between 1996 and 1999, an average of 9.7 percent-nearly one out of every 10 black citizens, from toddler to senior citizen-was arrested each year. If you delete the extremely young and extremely old from the equation, the odds get worse for the remaining population.
There is no denying that America is an arrest-happy nation; it has an exploding jail population to prove it. In 2000, the United States passed Russia to become the world's leader in locking up its own citizens. According to the U.S. Justice Policy Institute, the United States, comprising just 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
South Carolina consistently ranks in the top states in incarceration rates, and blacks account for a majority of convictions here. According to the S.C. Department of Corrections, the white prison population decreased by 4 percent between 1988 and 1998. During that same time, the black prison population grew by 60 percent.Black South Carolinians are more likely to be arrested than anyone anywhere else in the world.
"These arrest statistics give rise to a concern that people of color are being targeted by law enforcement," said Rep. Joe Neal (D-Richland). "If we are arresting 10 percent of the black population, how many are being stopped and questioned? I fear that black civil rights have fallen victim to the war on crime and drugs. We need to know if race is a factor in stops and arrests and have a state-mandated mechanism for finding out." Neal is preparing to introduce legislation similar to the "Traffic Stops Statistics Act" that has been enacted in seven states since 1999. These laws, with varying degrees of coverage, require police to keep records and make reports on the race of those stopped.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan has introduced the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act into Congress every year since 1997. Conyers says a federal law is needed that "responds to concerns that minorities are disproportionately subject to harassment through unwarranted traffic stops. If the constitutional guarantee of equal protection means anything, it has to mean that it is unacceptable for our citizens to be stopped and searched on account of their race."
Conyers' bill would require the U.S. attorney general to conduct a nationwide study of traffic stops, but doesn't require any record keeping on the part of the states.
In 1999, upon signing the first law to track racial profiling, N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt said, "North Carolina isn't the only state where minorities feel targeted by law enforcement officers, but we are the only state that is doing something about it." The North Carolina law only covered state troopers, unlike legislation passed in Missouri last year.
The Missouri law requires all police to fill out a 12-question form for each traffic stop, including those that don't result in a ticket. The forms take about 30 seconds to fill out, and record the reason for the stop, the race, age and gender of the driver, as well as if there was a search or arrest. The law also requires police departments to file a one-page annual report that summarizes their traffic stop information.
Mat LeMieux, executive director of Missouri ACLU, has been appointed to a task force charged with implementing the bill. LeMieux's only regret about the bill (which is the model of the ACLU's national campaign against racial profiling) is that it only covers traffic stops.
"The argument the bill should only apply to traffic stops and not stops for suspicious behavior seems to have won," he said. "That's a loophole that should be closed."
LeMieux was surprised at how little opposition the bill encountered. "Nobody testified against it in the committee hearings," he said. The bill's victory was ensured when "some well-respected African-American legislators got on the floor and told of their experiences with racial profiling."
The Highway Patrol generally gets good reviews in discussions about racial profiling. Most of the complaints are about county and city officers. The 739 state troopers on patrol duty, who make up less than 5 percent of the police in the state, wrote more than half (676, 720) of the state's traffic tickets last year.
After a nationally publicized video of a South Carolina highway patrolman terrorizing a black woman motorist in 1999, the agency was forced to address the problem of racial profiling.
"Even before the late unpleasantness," Boykin Rose, director of the Department of Public Safety said in an interview last May, "we had sensitivity training for the Highway Patrol on cultural diversity and Kingian nonviolence."
The only South Carolina cops whose arrest reports have been regularly tallied for race are the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement (ACE) team of the Highway Patrol.
The ACE team is a special division of the Highway Patrol whose mission is to keep the state's interstates free of drugs. As part of a federal grant for the program, the team is required to regularly report on the race of those arrested. The records show that 27 percent of those arrested last year by the ACE team were black, which roughly reflects the state's African-American population.
"As of January, we began a system to track the racial makeup of all motorists stopped for violating South Carolina's laws," Rose said. "We are convinced that the data collected will prove that DPS officers do not engage in improper conduct." The DPS policy only covers state troopers and state transport police.
Also in January, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott implemented the state's first policy of requiring all stops, not just traffic stops, to be reported. "We have just started a system that requires and officer to report by radio the race, age and gender of everyone they stop," said Chief Hugh Harrell, head deputy for Richland County. "The dispatcher won't clear the call until the questions are answered." The results of the reports will be tallied monthly and reviewed by the sheriff.
"There's been very little grumbling," Harrell said. "Good cops don't mind proving they're doing a good job. It's prompted a lot of dialogue in the department, and that's good. Officers are asking, 'If I stop somebody in a black neighborhood, is that racial profiling?' We are infringing on a person's rights when we stop them, and you have to examine why you make every stop."
Sheriff Lott sees no reason a system like the one his agency is using can't be implemented by most police agencies in South Carolina. "It takes no time and costs no money," he said, "and it's the right thing to do."