ACLU continues investigation of WSPD license checkpoints

by Keith Barber

A complaint-driven investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina into allegations of “biased policing” by the Winston-Salem Police Department is ongoing, said Raul Pinto, racial justice fellow at the organization.

The ACLU’s investigation is centered on the Winston- Salem Police Department’s implementation of stationary driver’s license checkpoints.

“Our investigation really started with business owners and citizens complaining about [driver’s license] checkpoints, and then we started hearing similar complaints from people in different parts of the city,” Pinto said.

Complainants expressed concerns to the ACLU that the police department was targeting Latino residents and focusing its efforts almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods in the city.

“We heard that the checkpoints were being conducted consistently in the same intersection — we heard that most often, and we heard that police were waving Caucasian drivers through the checkpoints, and stopping Hispanic drivers,” Pinto said.

The police department issued a letter in response to the ACLU’s concerns about checkpoints. The letter dated Oct. 27 and signed by Chief Scott Cunningham and Public Safety Attorney Lori Sykes, acknowledges the ACLU has been requesting information regarding frequency and location of stationary driver’s license checkpoints since early 2011, but the police department has had difficulty “extracting” the information from its computer system.

In the letter, Cunningham addresses two specific complaints from Latino residents. The ACLU received a complaint from one Latino resident stating that his ethnicity was “the main reason he was stopped, because he was able to observe that all of the drivers detained at the checkpoint were also Latino,” according to the letter.

A separate complaint filed by a Latino resident states that she was stopped at a police checkpoint while Caucasian drivers were waved through by police officers.

“It may have been that the pattern determined for that checkpoint was not to stop every vehicle, but to stop every other vehicle or every third vehicle,” Cunningham stated in response.

The same resident also told the ACLU that she had observed checkpoints at that same intersection almost on a weekly basis in the past year.

State law stipulates that police may designate in advancea pattern for stopping vehicles during stationarycheckpoints. North Carolina statutes regarding checkpointsalso mandate that “the placement of checkpointsshould be random or statistically indicated, and agenciesshall avoid placing checkpoints repeatedly in the samelocation or proximity.” Cunningham denied the department has conducted morethan 50 checkpoints at any one intersection over the pastyear. The chief said he could not say precisely how manystationary license checks were conducted at a particular intersectionover the past year because the department doesnot “maintain separate call types for stationary licensechecks and for individual officer license checks” and thatall that data was combined in its computer system. In response to the ACLU’s request for information,the department created a separate call type for stationarylicense checks beginning June 23. In the Oct. 27 letter,Cunninghamattached abreakdown ofall stationarylicense checksin the cityfrom June 1to Sept. 30.Of the 113 stationarylicensechecks conductedduringthe fourmonthperiod,more than 30were set upin the area ofWaughtownStreet and VargraveStreet inthe SoutheastWard.

The Southeast Ward is the most diverse ward in the city.Its population is evenly divided between black, white andLatino residents. Qué Pasa, the Spanish-language newspaperin Winston-Salem, is headquartered at King PlazaShopping Center just off Waughtown Street. The shoppingcenter caters to the Latino population in the Southeast Ward.In addition to Waughtown Street, Pinto said the ACLUhas also received complaints from Winston-Salem residentsregarding stationary license checkpoints on Sprague Streetand Reynolds Park Road.

Cunningham said he rejects the notionthat the department is engaging in biasedpolicing. The chief said there is no evidenceto support the ACLU’s conclusionthat an officer used “race or ethnicity as thedecisive factor for locating checkpoints.”Cunningham said a number of factorsgo into locating driver’s licensecheckpoints including visibility for approaching motorists,traffic conditions and the amount of crime in that particulararea. The chief added that the police department receives ahigher volume of calls in specific areas of the city. Therefore,citizens who live in high crime areas have more contact withpolice offi cers, which might create the impression that policepresence in minority communities is disproportionatelyhigher than in mostly white neighborhoods.

Cunningham cited crime statistics in the area of SpragueStreet and Reynolds Park Road versus Buena Vista, an affluent area in the Northwest Ward. The statistics reveal thedepartment received more than 2,000 calls from residentsof the Sprague Street area with 84 violent crimes and 433property crimes reported during that same four-monthperiod. Reynolds Park Road residents made 317 calls topolice with seven violent crimes and 77 property crimesreported, while BuenaVista residents made 85calls to police with noviolent crimes and 41property crimes reported.“These statistics clearlydemonstrate the WSPD’scommitment to applyingits resources to those areasmost in need of them,”Cunningham said.

The ACLU is continuingits dialogue with theresidents of Winston-Salem and the policedepartment regarding theimplementation of policecheckpoints. The ACLUwill host a town-hallmeeting on Dec. 10 at 10a.m. at Emmanuel BaptistChurch in Winston-Salemto hear the concerns of residents about police checkpoints.Cunningham did not respond to an email from YES! Weeklyinquiring if he was planning on attending the meeting.

“What we’re hoping to see is the Winston-Salem PDchange its policy so we have a fairer implementation ofcheckpoints so they occur evenly among all neighborhoodsin Winston-Salem and better documentation of the checkpoints,”Pinto said.