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Report shows racial disparity in Roanoke police stops over 6-month period

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Black drivers over a six-month period in Roanoke were more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, searched and arrested by city police, a community group reported Saturday.

That conclusion centered a seminar and conversation event titled “Can Trust Be Built Between the Police and African American Community?” The Equitable Policing Coalition put together the event, which drew more than 40 people to a Melrose Branch public library meeting room.

Virginia Tech’s Race and Social Policy Center carried out the analysis of Roanoke Police Department traffic stops, looking at demographic information that the police department provided for stops during the second half of 2020. No one from the policy center spoke at the meeting on Saturday.

The Rev. Kevin McNeil of Bethany Christian Church, the Equitable Policing Coalition’s co-chair, presented findings including:

  • Black drivers were more than 1.5 times as likely as white drivers to be stopped.
  • They were more than twice as likely as whites to have their vehicles searched.
  • And they were nearly 2½ times as likely to be arrested.

The findings further showed that police stopped Black drivers at 1.5 times the rate of Blacks in Roanoke’s population, while whites were stopped 0.85 times the rate of whites in the city population. It showed similar disparities for searches and arrests, with Blacks subject to police actions at a greater rate than predicted by their share of the city’s population.

The analysis covered 3,735 traffic stops, 615 searches and 125 arrests, along with 1,755 summons and 487 warnings.

Other findings included that whites, who made up 62.4% of Roanoke’s population, were drivers in 53.1% of traffic stops; while Blacks, 29% of the city population, were drivers in 42.8% of stops. Asian American Pacific Islanders accounted for 0.9% of stops and a catchall group of Other had the remaining 3.2%.

For searches, white drivers accounted for 49.3% of the incidents and Blacks, 48%. For arrests, whites had 46.4% and Blacks, 52.8%. Whites got 56.2% of summons and Blacks, 42.3%. Whites got 55.6% of warnings and Blacks, 39%.

The findings were offered without a great deal of direct commentary — although McNeil, who is Black, noted that two decades ago when he first moved to Roanoke, city police pulled him over more than 10 times, including once while he was backing into his own driveway, where he was questioned about what he was doing.

The report was followed by breakout sessions where participants offered thoughts on police-community relations. The sessions were closed to reporters, but summaries presented afterward ranged from calls for residents and officers not to see one another as antagonists to questioning if policing is just today’s version of the plantation overseer system of slavery times.

Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke NAACP branch, said that the use of excessive force by police that has prompted years of protests grew from a “perfect storm.” She described it as military recruiters trying to overcome staffing shortages by lowering standards, attracting waves of racists, then funneling them to post-military work in law enforcement.

“We’re targets,” Hale said.

Saturday’s event included a talk by retired Radford University criminal justice professor Bakhitah Abdul-Ra’uf, who recalled research that included attending a police academy in Florida and riding with officers, and said she “learned to appreciate and recognize both sides more equally.”

Ra’uf, now a faculty associate at Radford’s Center for Police Practice, Policy and Research, said that in her view, police need much more diversity training because too many new officers know little about different social, ethnic and racial groups.

“People are fearful of each other because they don’t know each other and they use stereotypes as shortcuts,” Ra’uf said.

The Roanoke Police Department has its own analysis of traffic stop data — though from 2018, not 2020 — posted on the city website. That report, written by a police department criminologist and issued in September 2019, looked at 110,676 police-citizen contacts, including 11,284 traffic stops, and found that whites were disproportionately more likely to be given traffic citations and arrested, when compared to Blacks and to both groups’ share of the overall city population.

Asians were far more likely to be given a traffic citation than their share of the population would suggest, the police report found — but also noted that Asians were involved in less than 1% of the traffic incidents that were analyzed.

The police department’s conclusion from five years ago: “Overall, the city is doing a good job of equitably policing in the city.”

Mayor Sherman Lea and three City Council members attended Saturday’s event. Lea and two council members could not be contacted afterward, while Councilman Joe Cobb said that he had no immediate comment on the policing seminar because he had to leave early to conduct a memorial service.

The city police department had no official representation Saturday, because organizers thought it might keep people from expressing themselves freely, coalition Co-Chairwoman Dorry McCorkle said afterward.

“We told the police we’d rather they not come in an official capacity,” McCorkle said.

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