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Uninformed Electorate Meets Inaccessible System


By Leslee Kulba – “I need to tell the media and everybody in the room that the NAACP criminal justice committee pretty much orchestrates all of this…. I know that there’s no microagression intended, but if you want to have pertinent input and other data and coordination, you need to properly address us. So, I wanted to make that clear, that we are the initiators, the conveners, and the leadership here.

“I am, too, grossly disappointed in just the response. Anecdotally we already knew that there were some problems here. One of the things that I want to say to you is, that from a business perspective, you got the fact that you are in violation of a state General Statute by not apparently reporting data, that your funding could be cut. And yet you’re looking at throwing additional dollars – $1 million has been asked for by the police department.

“We’ve got some qualitative issues to address here in this city, and we’ve offered our help as best we can. We don’t want to be obstructionist, and we certainly don’t want to continue to leave the area to try to get help and recognition for our problems. But we have no choice. Now, a lot of folks heard your responses, and it seems like it’s been kicked down the road, and they got up and left. So, certainly one of the things that I want to do is I’m not going to leave. We’re going to ask for help from other advocacy groups and we certainly do appreciate the Southern Coalition, Patrick, and all of our allies, but we don’t seem to be getting much help here.

“And it seems like you want to give the money away to an agency that has no qualitative things at all as far as policing, and we ask to have input into that. But I say to you, please do not throw money at an existing problem. And we’ve documented and you have the data, so with that, just please contact us. Don’t try to step over us because we are the initiators and the local leadership.”

The words came from Asheville City Council Candidate Dee Williams during the public comment portion of the last meeting of city council. She was referring to recommendations in a presentation earlier in the meeting by Ian Mance, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, made at Williams’ recommendation.

The problem is motorists of African descent are being stopped more frequently than Caucasians in Asheville. The problem elsewhere in the country was sensationalized last year when Philando Castile was shot by a cop during a traffic stop in Minnesota, after having been stopped 52 times in fourteen years.

The Data –

Among other things, Mance explained the Southern Coalition, “makes use of North Carolina’s first-of-its-kind data collection statute to promote racial equity in policing.” §143B-903 requires officers to report about forty-one data points for each traffic stop, one of which is the race of the driver. The reports can be retrieved from the state or from the Southern Coalition’s website

Mance started by saying the City of Asheville is not in compliance with the statute. The number of Asheville Police Department vehicle stops reported dropped precipitously from 15,000 in 2010 to 6500 last year, and searches fell from an average 1200 to 1300 a year to 170. To see if this was more attributable to officers slacking on the job or being bad at reporting, the Southern Coalition and a local group, PRC Applications, pulled 50 random traffic citations from the court calendar and found twenty-nine of the related incidents were not reported to the State Bureau of Investigation.

The OpenData website shows since 2012, twenty percent of drivers stopped in the city have been Black, while Black people make up 12.6 percent of the population. While the number of motorists searched during vehicle stops is declining, the percentage of Black motorists searched has always been about 10 percent higher than that of their white counterparts. This year, for the first time, the total number of Blacks searched exceeded that of any other race.

Another dataset shows the percent of traffic stops that included searches, by race and for various types of violations. In the early 2000s, hundreds of Whites and Blacks were being searched annually; now, typical numbers in most categories are below twenty. In other words, the alarming 2367 percent greater likelihood of Black drivers getting searched for seatbelt violations in 2016 represents three searches in 240 stops.

But even though Blacks are disproportionately stopped and searched, Mance said the percentages of Whites and Blacks found to be carrying contraband trend essentially equal, as they historically have across the state. Over the last fifteen years, contraband was reported to be found in 30 percent of the 9000 cars searched in Asheville. And since there is no reason to believe contraband is only carried by bad drivers, it would appear the city has a problem far worse than racial profiling. But that wasn’t the point; the Southern Coalition also campaigns against the War on Drugs.

Another statistic Mance highlighted was that 56 percent of APD traffic searches in the last five years were consensual. It took a while for members of council to establish if this was good or bad. Councilor Julie Mayfield said other options would be searching involuntarily with probable cause or declining to search. Mance said a fourth option, upheld by the Supreme Court, was limited protected frisks. Mance explained police departments generally view a percentage of consensual searches higher than forty as indicative of organizational cultures supportive of fishing expeditions. Concord was second to Asheville in the state with twenty-one percent of its searches consensual. Fayetteville’s held its percentage down to three.

The Recommendations –

Mance then suggested council consider four policies adopted in other cities at no cost: (1) scrutinizing reporting to ensure compliance with statutes; (2) prohibiting or deemphasizing traffic stops for minor automobile infractions that don’t impact public safety like crooked license plates; (3) instituting a mandatory written consent-to-search policy; and (4) periodically auditing stop and search data for early warnings of racial bias. The first and fourth recommendations were viewed as no-brainers.

Elaborating, Mance said equipment-based traffic stops, “are known to disproportionately impact poor and minority drivers. They are a significant driver of racial stop disparities.” Mance said Greensboro’s police chief deprioritized pulling people over for mechanical imperfections after a New York Times article burned his department for racial profiling. Fayetteville followed suit, and policy changes in Chapel Hill and Durham are in process. Mance indicated the change could be wrought either with a city ordinance or a policy decision by the police chief.

Written consent forms, he said, would help reduce racial disparities because, “Black motorists experience greater social pressure to accede to requests to search;” and “although written consent generally does not make a significant dent in racial search disparities, it is a more racially-equitable policy.”

The point of the extra paperwork was lost. Were officers claiming searches were voluntary when they weren’t? Or was it hard to believe so many Ashevillians carrying contraband consented to searches? Unprobed and unsearchable issues included whether these documented consents would work like behavioral voluntary commitment where the alternative posed is arrest, or like opting out of a TSA naked body scan only to be told by so doing one gets the frisk and the naked body scan.

Council Discussion –

What followed was a common dynamic in political arenas. Two major themes were evident. First, the race card had been played. Not only do members of council want to get reelected by not torqueing off every single Black voter, the worst thing any human wants is to be viewed as racist. Therefore, the simple decision of what is just was distorted by adding a special racial consideration.

Secondly, and worse, was the old trick of trying to work around the system and then insinuating those who don’t want to break with rules and precedent are, in this case, racist. Councilors Keith Young and Brian Haynes had had their heartstrings pulled. They wanted at any cost to level the playing field for court dates for Blacks and Whites ASAP.

At Councilor Smith’s prompting, City Manager Gary Jackson intercepted an early attempt to rush headlong. The police chief should have an opportunity to respond, and “I think a thoughtful consideration of the data and the recommendations presented here tonight would be in order,” he said.

Mayor Esther Manheimer was made out to have egg on her face for saying council has a process, and it has that process for good reasons. Besides the sage advice to always leave it when asked to take it or leave it; Manheimer advocated for a process that carefully vets ideas and, as Smith diplomatically put it, increases opportunity for public input and identifies and considers additional options. Manheimer said members of council wanted to “do it right,” “make a difference,” and “didn’t want to set us up for failure here.”

Jackson insightfully found common ground in saying staff would work as quickly as advisable to analyze the information presented and search other options. They would then present either an interim or full report at council’s May 9 meeting.

Either way, some attendees fell for the lie that council was not bound by its ordinances and did not risk having the state use its powers to impose new Sullivan acts or revoke its charter. It was symptomatic of both an uninformed electorate unschooled in America’s social contract and a political system that is now so complex it is inaccessible.

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