In 2013, the FADE Coalition, a collective of Durham organizations and individuals concerned about the way drug enforcement feeds mass incarceration, called out racial profiling in the Durham Police Department.
FADE, which stands for Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement, issued five recommendations with the aim of reducing racial disparities in policing: require officers to get written permission to conduct so-called consent searches, make marijuana the department's lowest enforcement priority, require periodic reviews of traffic stop data, strengthen the Civilian Police Review Board, and mandate race equity training for the department.
Four and a half years later, with new policies and a new police chief in place, the DPD has significantly reduced traffic stops and searches and marijuana-related arrests, but racial disparities still persist in both areas.
There's been some progress on all five recommendations, says Nia Wilson, codirector of SpiritHouse and a FADE member. "But we don't ever just want to stop with some movement. We always want to do better," Wilson told the Durham Human Relations Commission last week.
When FADE made its recommendations, tensions were high in the Bull City. Durham police had shot and killed two men—Jose Ocampo and Derek Walker—earlier that year, and that November, according to authorities, seventeen-year-old Jesus Huerta managed to shoot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of a DPD patrol car. Community outrage over racially disparate policing prompted then-Mayor Bill Bell to ask the Human Relations Commission to investigate.
The HRC, building off of FADE's requests, presented its own list of thirty-four recommendations to the city council. Most have been addressed. As for FADE's recommendations, three have been fully implemented: written consent, traffic records review, and race equity training.
When it comes to making marijuana the agency's lowest law enforcement priority, the DPD has not exactly followed FADE's advice, although the number of drug violations issued is down by half since 2015.
Even under former chief Jose Lopez, marijuana wasn't considered an enforcement priority. In 2016, Chief C.J. Davis reinforced this by directing officers to cite, not detain, people for misdemeanor charges. The department has also been referring a growing number of marijuana cases to the Misdemeanor Diversion Program to keep them off of offenders' records.
But there are quite a few exceptions to the citations directive: if the person has previous criminal charges other than non-impaired traffic offenses, has outstanding warrants, doesn't have a valid ID with him, or is facing accompanying charges.
In cases where the only charges are for misdemeanor possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, the people being charged are almost all black.
According to city reports, there were 854 charges for misdemeanor possession of marijuana or paraphernalia in 2016, compared with 1,406 in 2013. The reports only break down by race cases in which only those charges were filed. In 2015 and 2016, there were 144 such cases. In 2015, 80 percent of those charged were black. In 2016, it was 84 percent—although research shows no significant racial differences in who uses pot.
Delvin Davis, a research analyst with Self-Help, told the HRC that, in recent years, these charges have been concentrated in east Durham, a historically black part of the city. According to a 2015 Self-Help report, residents in census tract 10.01—the focus of the city's Poverty Reduction Initiative—were three times more likely to be charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession than elsewhere in the city.
Self-Help argued that such enforcement is counterproductive to the Poverty Reduction Initiative because a conviction could carry up to $374 in court fines and fees and have collateral consequences for a person's employment and housing.
Officers are choosing citations over arrests more often for pot offenses. The report for 2017 (expected out this summer) could reveal even more citations in light of Davis's 2016 policy change.
The number of traffic stops and vehicle searches has fallen drastically since October 2014, when the DPD began requiring written permission for consent searches, in which probable cause or a warrant aren't required.
According to data presented to the HRC by Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which operates OpenDataPolicing.com, the DPD stopped fourteen thousand fewer drivers in 2017 than it did in 2013, and black drivers accounted for about 60 percent of that reduction. Yet black drivers are still being disproportionately stopped and searched by Durham police.
According to Mance, Durham police were executing about one hundred consent searches per month. Since the policy change, that number has dropped to about fifteen.
Over the past five years, black drivers have accounted for about 59 percent of drivers stopped by Durham police, while white drivers have made up about 27 percent and Hispanic drivers about 11 percent. Since 2008, the share of drivers searched who were black has hovered between 75 and 85 percent. About 38 percent of Durham's population is black.
"One of the animating reasons for the written consent policy was to reduce racial disparities," Mance says. "It has not had that effect. The disparities remain. That said, I do think the policy has been effective and it's a good policy."
Jason Schiess, a DPD data analyst, told council members last week that while traffic stops were down 22 percent from 2016, the demographics of the drivers stopped remains "relatively unchanged," and black drivers were searched at a rate 2.8 times higher than that of white drivers, though officers find contraband in their cars at the same rate as white drivers.
Council member Charlie Reece asked Davis about that disparity.
"We'd have to look closer at the data to see whether or not we have any other problems or other disparities that would say an officer might have a tendency to search one car more so than another," Davis replied.
FADE is asking the city to consider prohibiting stops for equipment and regulatory violations.
According to Schiess, these accounted for 26 percent of stops in 2017. According to Mance, 38 percent of black drivers were stopped for these reasons, compared with 25 percent of white drivers. Mance said that, in other jurisdictions, prohibiting such stops was "one of the few things that has made a meaningful difference" in racial disparities.