A New York Times analysis of tens of thousands of traffic stops and years of arrest data Greensboro, N.C., a 41 percent black city of 280,000, showed wide racial differences what the newspaper called “measure after measure of police conduct.” Similar disparities were found across North Carolina, the state that collects the most detailed data on traffic stops. Some of them showed up in the six other states that collect comprehensive traffic-stop statistics. In Greensboro, the state’s third-largest city, officers pulled over African-American drivers for traffic violations at a rate far out of proportion with their share of the local driving population. They used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists, even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white. Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.
As the public's most common encounter with law enforcement, traffic stops largely shape perceptions of the police. Complaints about traffic-law enforcement are at the root of many accusations that some police departments engage in racial profiling. Since Ferguson, Mo., erupted in protests last year, three deaths of African Americans that have roiled the nation occurred after drivers were pulled over for minor traffic infractions: a broken brake light, a missing front license plate and failure to signal a lane change. Violence is rare, but routine traffic stops more frequently lead to searches, arrests and entering the criminal justice system, which can have a lifelong impact. Ronald Davis, a former California police chief who runs the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, questions whether there are any benefits to intensive traffic enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods. “There is no evidence that just increasing stops reduces crime,” he said.