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Traffic-Stop Bias Scrutinized In Greensboro, N.C.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The New York Times examined police in another city, Greensboro, N.C. Reporter Sharon LaFraniere asked what has happened to citizens in recent years who are found to be driving while black. She's on the line. Welcome to the program.

SHARON LAFRANIERE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: I want to mention, you begin this story with an anecdote. Many people have heard anecdotes like this - two black men driving in a car, they're pulled over by police. Nothing much seems to happen, but suddenly, one man is tasered and dragged on the asphalt. Awful, awful story, but it's an anecdote. What did you find when you tried to determine if this anecdote fits some broader pattern?

LAFRANIERE: The most telling sign was that police in Greensboro use their discretion to search black drivers twice as often as white drivers, even though they've consistently found weapons, drugs and other contraband more often on whites. And that pattern was true in North Carolina as a whole and also in Illinois. So that suggests that police are inexplicably more suspicious of black motorists, and it also suggested that they were, to a certain extent, wasting their time by over-searching blacks when they were more likely to find contraband on whites.

INSKEEP: You've said twice as likely to stop and search black drivers than white drivers. And this is based on, what, thousands of cases you looked at.

LAFRANIERE: It's tens of thousands of stops, and it was twice as likely to search. They're more likely to pull over black drivers everywhere. But it's more significant what happens after you're pulled over. If the rate of search is higher, then you would expect that you would have a higher rate of finding contraband, but that didn't prove to be true. And it's not just an inconvenience for black drivers to be over-searched. That means that they're at greater risk of being found, for instance, with small amounts of marijuana and falling through the trapdoor into the criminal justice system. And in Greensboro, five times as many blacks face the charge of possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana, and only that charge, as whites. And four times as many of them were charged with resisting an officer and no other charge.

INSKEEP: So how is this affecting people's behavior?

LAFRANIERE: You can't prove profiling unless you know the officer's motivation. And most criminologists, I think, say that these days, if we're talking about bias, we're talking about implicit bias, not overt bias. But the black drivers whose cases we describe believe that they had been profiled. And as a result, they would not summon the police even if they needed them. And there's other hidden consequences that minorities feel they're unfairly harassed by police, it makes them less likely - criminologists will tell you - to help police prevent and solve crimes.

INSKEEP: You also describe a man who, after being in a traffic stop that turned rather violent - one of the people involved never leaves home without a handheld video camera and a number for a lawyer.

LAFRANIERE: Right. And people are videotaping the encounters. And in Greensboro, the police would like to be able to present their own videotapes. But their proposal to share those with the public or at least with the people who are captured on them, and thus, their counter-allegations of racial profiling was beaten down in state legislatures.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Miss LaFraniere, thank you very much.

LAFRANIERE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Sharon LaFraniere. She's a reporter for The New York Times, which investigated tens of thousands of traffic stops in and around Greensboro, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.