Open Government Group Compiles Data on All Traffic Stops in North Carolina

The list will launch with information provided by public records for every traffic stop over the last 15 years in the state, and will break down the information by race and ethnicity.

by Thomasi McDonald, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) / December 17, 2015

(TNS) -- A nonprofit civil rights organization – with support from the White House – will launch a website Thursday that will contain up-to-date information about nearly 20 million traffic stops made by every police department and every police officer in North Carolina over the past 15 years.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice will launch Thursday morning in Durham. The website, the first of its kind in the United States, will rely on public records on police traffic stops, vehicle searches and use of force – broken down by race and ethnicity – since 2000.

The new website is part of a larger revolution in government transparency, said UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner. Where someone used to have to comb through onerous paper files, he said, the Internet offers immediate access to data that will make government more accountable.

“Anytime we can know more about what the government is doing, that’s a good thing,” Baumgartner said. “Not only the police, but government transparency is good.”

The website is a realization of a recommendation in May by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to “embrace a culture of transparency” by publishing information about traffic stops “aggregated by demographics.” The initiative also follows fatal encounters between police and African-American men across the United States and a report by Baumgartner that indicated blacks are more likely than whites in North Carolina to be stopped and searched by police.

Baumgartner and a graduate student analyzed all traffic stops in the state since 2000, and their results, published in 2012, were widely reported across the state. A handful of cities, including Durham and Fayetteville, now require police officers to obtain written consent rather than verbal consent to search motorists or their vehicles.

Newly elected Durham City Council member Charlie Reece participated in the 2014 campaign that changed the Durham Police Department’s search policy. Reece said having access to traffic stop data was critical to the city’s decision-making process.

“The ability to access and analyze officer stop data was essential to showing that the racial disparities were real but also to convincing city leaders that policy changes were needed,” Reece said.

Baumgartner said the open data website comes with a couple of caveats.

“We don’t know how the driver was driving,” he said. “We might know the car was stopped for speeding, but we don’t know how fast the driver was going. Was he going 5 miles or 20 miles over the speed limit?”

Baumgartner said it’s difficult to determine how race factors in without being in the car with an officer observing a traffic stop.

“Maybe some, maybe all of the stops are justified. Obviously, we don’t know,” he said. “That’s the caveat. We always have to keep that in mind.”

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Charlotte-based Major Cities Police Chiefs Association likes the idea of open data and has been supportive of the White House open-data initiative.

“I have always believed that the more open that police can be the better opportunity we have for improving trust,” Stephens wrote in an email Wednesday.

Stephens’ primary concern with the new website is that is makes comparisons based on population proportions without considering other factors such as reported crimes or calls for police service.

“Both are higher in our high poverty areas and put police in greater contact in some of these areas, which provides some explanation for the disproportionate contacts,” Stephens wrote. “Some explanation of the complexity of these interactions would help people understand the variances better.”

In 1999, North Carolina became the first state in the country to mandate the collection of data whenever a police officer stops a motorist. Baumgartner described the information as “the most complete data collection in the country.”

The data are available to the public through the state’s Department of Justice website. But Ian Mance, an attorney with Southern Coalition and developer of its website, said in a press release Wednesday that the data have thus far remained largely inaccessible “for largely technological reasons.”

“Open Data Policing closes the technology gap by putting all of the data online in a readily searchable format, complete with easy-to-understand charts and graphs that detail the stop, search, use-of-force, and contraband seizure patterns for police departments and individual police officers (whose names do not appear on the site), all broken down by race and ethnicity,” the statement said. Officers are identified by a number known to them and their supervisors.

In addition, Baumgartner said, until his report in 2012, the state has never issued analytical reports of the data it has collected.

“Other states’ district attorneys submit annual reports of the analyzed data,” he said. “North Carolina has never done an official report. Strangely, the law requires the state to do so, but it’s never been done.”

“Traffic stops are the most common way that citizens interact with police officers,” said Mance. “So it’s important that we understand as much as we can about the various dynamics at play. This site enables anyone who engages with these issues – whether they be police chiefs, courts, lawyers, or policymakers – to ground their conversation in the facts.”

©2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.