Veteran Virginia journalist on new race-based traffic stop statistics: “Do you believe us now?”

Virginia police officers pepper sprayed U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop in December that resulted in a lawsuit, the firing of one officer and outcry across Virginia and elsewhere. (Image: Virginia Mercury and NBC 12)

“Do you believe us now?”

That’s what Black people are saying across Virginia about the way people of color are stopped, sweated and searched by law-enforcement officers in the state. Often based on racial profiling. Often due to nothing more than a whim.

First came the now-viral video of two Windsor patrol officers and their over-the-top encounter with a Black U.S. Army officer in December. The town fired the more-aggressive police officer — but not until the repeated airing of the incident provoked widespread outrage.

Now The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver has reviewed the first six months of data covering more than 400,000 traffic stops from most police and sheriff’s departments in the commonwealth. The collection of the statistics began in July, as part of the state’s new Community Policing Act.

You could’ve easily predicted the results: Black drivers in Virginia are almost two times more likely than White drivers to be pulled over by police, and three times more likely to have their vehicles searched. Black motorists here are targeted for roadside traffic enforcement, making up 30 percent of traffic stops though they represent only 19 percent of the state’s population.

Latino drivers accounted for 9 percent of stops, Oliver reported, roughly equal to their population in Virginia. Non-Hispanic White drivers were a little less likely to pulled over, accounting for 55 percent of the stops and 61 percent of the population.

Do you believe us now?

The statistics merely confirm what lots of people of color already knew — or at the very least, accepted as a truism — every time they turned on the ignition: You have little margin for error. Even when you’re doing everything right, be wary on the road.

Not that there should’ve been any debate. Virginia isn’t so different from other states already keeping meticulous records on police stops. What’s happening here has been, sadly, repeated elsewhere.

North Carolina became the first state in the country, in 1999, to mandate collection of stats on police stops. The overall number of stops has actually decreased there over time. Yet published reports in 2020, citing a study from the N.C. Criminal Justice Analysis Center, show a racial disparity remains.

“Black drivers get stopped at more than twice the rate of White drivers,” The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported. “People of other races, and those whose race wasn’t recorded, were stopped at 1.5 times the rate of White drivers.” 

Black drivers were also pulled over at a higher percentage for car regulatory and equipment violations than other races, the study found.

Look at Washington, D.C., another neighbor of ours. A one-month period in 2019 found that 70 percent of the people stopped by police were Black — be it in cars or on the street. That was the case even though the Black and White populations in the District are now nearly equal. (The nation’s capital, of course, attracts lots of suburbanites and tourists on a daily basis.)

As I cited in an earlier column, a study last year by Stanford University researchers of 95 million traffic stops found that officers searched the cars of Blacks and Hispanics more often than Whites. “Our results indicate that police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias,” they said.

This is more than a coincidence.

All of this angers motorists — Black and Brown ones especially — who have followed the law and come under heightened police scrutiny anyway. Plus, the possible infractions these drivers have committed are usually so minor they shouldn’t have aroused undue suspicion. (See Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, et al.)

These factors contributed to the General Assembly’s passage last year of legislation to end police stops in Virginia for minor infractions, including no light illuminating a license plate or objects suspended in the vehicle. The new law was approved during the nation’s racial reckoning following the police slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Legislators and police officials in the commonwealth should acknowledge what’s been painfully obvious to people of color. They need to go further to protect motorists from undue harassment that can lead to taut, tense face-offs.

And needless tragedy.

“Believe us.” It’s been this way for ages. Now we have the statistics to prove it.

Roger ChesleyVeteran journalist Roger Chesley is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, which first published this commentary.

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