Winston-Salem residents voice concerns about police checkpoints

by Keith Barber

During a Dec. 10 town hall meeting at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, the ACLU of North Carolina unveiled maps of Winston-Salem reflecting 244 driver’s license checkpoints by the Winston-Salem Police Department over an 11-month period. The ACLU is concerned that checkpoints are concentrated primarily in minority neighborhoods. (courtesy of ACLU of NC)

Raul Pinto walked over to a large, color-coded map depicting Census blocks of Winston-Salem to illustrate a point about the Winston-Salem Police Department’s implementation of stationary driver’s license checkpoints during a town-hall meeting at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Dec. 10.

Pinto, a racial justice fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, pointed out the blue dots representing the locations of driver’s license checkpoints set up by the police department from June 2010 to May 2011. He noted that the highest concentration of checkpoints could be found in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of minority residents.

Pinto said once the information supplied by the Winston- Salem Police Department was analyzed and compared with 2010 Census information, the ACLU was able to map out the deployment of checkpoints and certain trends began to quickly emerge.

“As you can see, there is a clear pattern there, and that worries us,” Pinto said, pointing to the map. “The checkpoint calls are actually occurring more often in minority neighborhoods and they’re not happening as often in Caucasian neighborhoods.

“We believe that this pattern, the patterns you see on the map here are a product of racially biased policing,” he added.

According to the ACLU’s analysis, 62 percent of all license check calls were made from neighborhoods where minorities make up 81 percent or more of the population.

The other primary concern of the ACLU is the sheer volume of driver’s license checkpoints implemented by the police department. The department conducted 244 checkpoints from June 2010 to May 2011. During the same time period, the Fayetteville Police Department conducted 70 checkpoints and the Greensboro Police Department conducted only 30 checkpoints.

The ACLU’s investigation is complaint-driven and it is ongoing. In an Oct. 27 letter to the ACLU, Police Chief Scott Cunningham responded to the organization’s request for information by submitting a breakdown of all driver’s license checks in the city from June 1 to Sept. 30, 2011. Of the 113 stationary license checks conducted during the four-month period, more than 30 were set up in the area of Waughtown Street and Vargrave Street in the Southeast Ward. The Southeast Ward is the most diverse ward in the city. One-third of its population is African-American, one-third is Caucasian and one-third is Latino.

During the same time period, the police department handled 50 reported accidents on Buena Vista Road, an affluent area in the Northwest Ward, versus 42 accidents on Reynolds Park Road, located in the Southeast Ward. The police department set up three driver’s license checkpoints on Reynolds Park Road during that same time period and none on Buena Vista Road.

In the letter, Cunningham defended his department’s deployment of driver’s license checkpoints, stating that the department concentrates its checkpoint efforts in high-crime areas where police receive a greater number of service calls.

“The department deploys officers proportional to this demand and identified need,” Cunningham wrote. “As a greater number of officers are assigned or dispatched to high-crime areas, individuals who live, work or drive through these areas are more likely to have contact with officers (including traffic stops and searches).”

Cunningham declined the ACLU’s invitation to attend the Dec. 10 town hall meeting.

A number of residents spoke during the town hall meeting, including Gabriela Melo. A 12-year resident of Winston-Salem, Melo described a recent incident where she was stopped at a driver’s license checkpoint near the Waughtown Street exit off US Highway 52. Melo said she was stopped by a police officer and asked to show her driver’s license, but a Caucasian driver in a vehicle behind her was waved through the checkpoint.

“I felt so discriminated [against],” Melo said. “Because maybe I look Mexican, you ask for my license, but you looked at him, he’s white and you don’t ask him for his license. That’s so unfair. If you’re checking licenses, you’re checking mine, you’re checking his — you’re checking everybody’s.”

State law stipulates that police may designate in advance a pattern for stopping vehicles during stationary checkpoints. North Carolina statutes also state that “the placement of checkpoints should be random or statistically indicated, and agencies shall avoid placing checkpoints repeatedly in the same location or proximity.”

Brenda Wall, a small business owner, said her clients are reluctant to come to her income tax preparation service because the police set up checkpoints at the same intersection two to three times a week and it creates a headache.

Stephen Hairston, a former Winston-Salem police officer, said when he worked for the department there was no system in place to ensure that checkpoints were spread out evenly throughout the city, and checkpoints were not effective as a crime deterrent. Hairston, a former president of the Forsyth County NAACP, said the black community wants to work with the police department to fight crime, and to have some type of intereaction “other than getting arrested.”

One speaker, an African American woman, said she does not object to a significant police presence in her neighborhood. She said crime rates have increased in her neighborhood with the influx of Latinos in recent years.

Clarke Dummitt, a local lawyer, said he appreciated the ACLU’s efforts, but the conversation about police checkpoints needs to change.

“The problem with the ACLU’s recommendation to the Winston-Salem Police Department regarding checkpoints is that the ACLU is recommending that the police violate everyone’s rights equally rather than recommending that they not violate the 4th Amendment in the first place,” Dummitt said. “We have an excellent and professional police force in Winston-Salem. They need to be focusing on criminal investigations rather than stopping innocent citizens to check their license.”

Pinto responded, stating that under state law police departments can utilize checkpoints, but mandates those checkpoints adhere to the US Constitution, including the 4th Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures

Based on comments from members of the Winston-Salem community and the high number of checkpoints, the ACLU has made four recommendations to the Winston-Salem Police Department.

“We want to ensure we didn’t see this pattern anymore,” Pinto said, pointing at the color-coded map. “We [don’t] want checkpoints mainly in minority areas; we want them spread evenly throughout the city.”

The ACLU has recommended that the police department adopt a form that documents the intersection, purpose and time of checkpoint, as well as the authorization of a superior officer, bringing the checkpoint into compliance with the law. The ACLU has also recommended that if an enforcement action is taken at checkpoint, the information should be recorded with the State Bureau of Investigation. Finally, the ACLU has recommended the department provide its officers with additional training regarding checkpoints.

So far, the department has not responded to the ACLU’s recommendations, Pinto said.

Until the department responds, the ACLU is encouraging Winston-Salem residents to report checkpoints in their neighborhood to assist with the organization’s checkpoint tracking efforts.

If residents are stopped, the ACLU is encouraging them to ask police officers for their badge numbers. Finally, residents who believe minorities are being treated differently than residents who live in majority white neighborhoods by the Winston-Salem Police Department are asked to contact the ACLU at: acluofnc. org.