Police Overreach Haunts Southern City: Racial Profiling, Quotas and Secret “Conviction Bonuses”
Photo Credit: Kozorez Vladislav / Shutterstock
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In the late afternoon of Jan. 3, Robin Dean, a 50-year-old county employee, pulled into a Durham, N.C., Burger King parking lot to give a friend a package of frozen chitlins that she had cooked over the holidays. After the transfer was complete, the pair said goodbye and parted ways. Both were subsequently pulled over by Durham Police.
Dean says an officer told her that there was evidence that she had just engaged in an illegal drug transaction, searched her car without her consent, and called for backup. When Dean worried aloud that she had been racially profiled, she says the white officer called her an “idiot,” although the nearly hour-long stop revealed nothing illegal apart from a window-tinting violation that was later dismissed.
In recent years, stories like this have come to epitomize heightened concerns that, as Durham becomes a regional center for sophisticated culture and cuisine, the drug enforcement strategies of its police increasingly assign second-class status to the city’s minority communities. Over the past several months, protesters alleging police misconduct have pummeled the city’s police headquarters with rocks and met tear gas along the usually amiable streets of this city of 240,000.
In seeking to understand the roots of the city’s divisive policing, lawyers at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice were astonished by what a recent round of public records requests produced. Not only was a federal grant subsidizing what they regarded as the most perniciously targeted drug enforcement operations of the department, but the grant — with a key “performance measure” emphasizing police report their sheer volume of arrests — also appeared to be incentivizing the department to raise its overall number of drug arrests, which overwhelmingly affect the city’s black community. SCSJ attorneys add that recently revealed evidence also indicates that the federally funded program included an illegal system of secret payments law enforcement made to witnesses who delivered successful drug prosecutions — another sign, they say, that the city’s policing has flown off the rails.
In a national context, such a discovery is not new. Groups like the ACLU have argued for over a decade that the performance measures of America’s largest federal policing grant, known as Byrne JAG, fuels racially biased, quota-driven policing in thousands of jurisdictions across the country. In this view, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Justice Department doles out annually under JAG acts as a quiet bureaucratic buttress for policing policies like New York’s “stop-and-frisk” that have become intolerable to the communities they target and that have risen to the center of a heated national debate.
"We know that, intentionally or not, the JAG funding sets a tone, highlights priorities and guides the culture of policing in ways that impact what happens on the ground all around the country,” says Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the ACLU. Most pressingly, says Gupta, is JAG’s emphasis on police departments reporting their volume of drug arrests as “performance measure” of the grant. As the ACLU documented in a report last year, although there is little racial difference in the national rate of marijuana use, black people are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for using pot — a major contributor to the disproportionately high numbers of African-Americans imprisoned within the United States’ exceptionally large prison population.
Gupta has ample experience with the destructive effects JAG-funded drug programs can exact on communities of color. In the early 2000s, Gupta worked on a case in Tulia, Texas, where a Byrne JAG-funded program enabled an undercover officer to fabricate testimony in a series of racially targeted drug stings that led to the arrest and imprisonment of roughly 20 percent of the town’s adult black population.