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Dec 7, 1:51 PM EST

Police divided over how to respond to traffic stop data



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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- The collection of police traffic stop data around the country has exposed a divide among law enforcement officials on how to respond to the numbers, which consistently show blacks and Hispanics are pulled over at higher rates than whites.

Some police chiefs have taken action, including reducing stops for broken tail lights and other defective equipment that snare more minorities than whites. Other officials question assumptions made about the data, saying their officers are enforcing the laws and not targeting people based on race or ethnicity.

"There's a wide variety of thought among police leadership about the value of the traffic stop data," said Ian Mance, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina. "There are those police chiefs who categorically reject the idea that the data could be a useful tool for management purposes, and then there are police chiefs who believe the data is vital."

Mance said police departments in Durham, Fayetteville and other North Carolina towns have seen declines in racial disparity by reducing stops for faulty equipment and other measures. Because black drivers in North Carolina are disproportionately poor, they are more likely to have older cars with defective equipment and don't always have the money to fix the problems, he said.

North Carolina has mandated that police record information on traffic stops since 2000.

After he became police chief in Fayetteville in 2013 and looked at the traffic stop data, Harold Medlock told his officers to focus less on equipment violation stops and more on speeding and other moving violations. The result, he said, was fewer deaths and injuries in accidents and a reduced racial disparity in stops.

"We made a ridiculous number of equipment stops," said Medlock, who retired last year. "I would rather have officers stopping cars running red lights because that's how people get hurt, that's how people get killed."

The moves by Medlock helped reduce animosity between the community and police, said Jimmy Buxton, president of the Fayetteville branch of the NAACP.

From 2012 to 2016, the percentage of police traffic stops in Fayetteville involving black drivers decreased from 58 to 52. The city's population is about 51 percent white and 45 percent black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Police departments elsewhere that have taken action in response to the data have been successful in improving relationships with their communities, said Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina who has been studying traffic stop data across the country.

Nine states currently require police to report information on all their traffic stops, including the race or ethnicity of the drivers, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. Others are considering doing the same.

In Wethersfield, Connecticut, next to Hartford, police aren't making major changes after being singled out in state reports for stopping minorities at high rates over the past three years. Nearly a third of police stops are for equipment violations.

Chief James Cetran disputes the methodology used in the reports. He said they don't take into account large numbers of Hartford residents from predominantly minority neighborhoods driving into Wethersfield every day. He also said there are major flaws in an analysis showing black and Hispanic drivers are pulled over at higher rates during the day.

"I'm not going to tell my officers to stop making equipment stops because those cars can be extremely dangerous," he said.

Connecticut is a microcosm of the differing law enforcement opinions on traffic stop data.

About 30 miles south of Wethersfield in Hamden, Police Chief Thomas Wydra told his officers in informal conversations a couple years ago to cut down on defective equipment stops, because data showed blacks were more likely than whites to be pulled over for those violations.

Over the next two years, traffic stops involving black motorists in town dropped from 38 percent in 2013-2014 to 31 percent in 2015-2016. About 18 percent of Hamden's driving age population is black, but the town is next to highly diverse New Haven.

Missouri began compiling data on traffic stops in 2000 in response to concerns about potential racial profiling. Despite the 17 years of data, disparities have gotten worse. Data released earlier this year show black drivers in Missouri were 75 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over in 2016, the highest level since 2000.

Like some officials in Connecticut, police leaders in Missouri have disputed assumptions about the data. The Missouri Police Chiefs Association has said the data is not proof of racial profiling and racial disparities in the data may be inflated by traffic stops of nonresident drivers compared with local populations.

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