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.”  Read more

Momentum to legalize marijuana continues to build…as it should

Photo- Getty Images

[Editor’s note: The following commentary by veteran Virginia journalist Roger Chesley was written after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent announcement of his intention to push for an end to marijuana prohibition in the state, but prior to today’s historic vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to end federal criminal penalties. It was initially published in the Virginia Mercury]

My attitudes toward America’s hypocritical — and racially biased — stance on marijuana were formed during my high school and college years in Washington. Those sentiments have only hardened since then.

I’ve revisited those days as the commonwealth now considers legalizing pot. Gov. Ralph Northam said he plans to propose legislation to do just that when the General Assembly convenes next month. Bringing sanity to cannabis laws is overdue in Virginia and many other states.

In November, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission released a 274-page report weighing the benefits and drawbacks. The assessment by the state’s legislative watchdog agency noted current marijuana laws disproportionately affect African Americans and other people of color despite widespread use by other races, and how legalization could generate more than $300 million per year in tax revenues.

Boosting the state’s bottom line often sways formerly reluctant legislators, even if it means doing the (previously) unthinkable.

I understand concerns about “driving high,” underage toking (much like teen boozing), and other deleterious effects. Still, it’s way past time to treat marijuana more akin to alcohol, and to end the nonsensical incarceration of people who use it.

Drug arrests can hinder getting a job because it saddles people with criminal records. Police and prosecutors usually scoop up Blacks and Latino Americans disproportionately, by the way. That’s no surprise given race relations and criminal justice in the United States.

I came of age in the mid-to-late 1970s. I first attended mostly White, all-boys, Catholic high school a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. After graduation, I studied at Howard University, a historically Black institution that’s also in Northwest D.C.

This was at a time when the legal drinking age was under 21 in many states and Washington. So it was fairly easy for even high school students to buy beer or wine, or get someone a little older to cop it.

When I was in high school, it wasn’t uncommon to hear about classmates’ exploits – and embarrassments – from chugging too much the previous weekend. The subjects of these drink-fests were usually White.

Blacks didn’t necessarily abstain, but some of the guys I knew in my high school (and others in the area) preferred weed to beer. That might be an oversimplification, but I doubt I’m the only one who noticed it. Read more