WITN Investigates: What ENC traffic stop search data shows when it comes Black drivers

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) – Driving is a daily requirement for so many people, and we know being on public streets means you might get pulled over if you break the law. But for some people of color, there’s an added fear of discrimination.

WITN is taking a closer look at traffic stop data from some Eastern Carolina police departments and why some drivers feel there’s room for improvement.

Hitting the open road means being subject to traffic laws, but some drivers like Myron Rouse feel traffic stops tend to escalate based on his race.

“I travel a lot, and I’m always noticing that Black people, well, people of color, are always being pulled,” he said.

He has been pulled over and even arrested in Winterville, back in 2020, for something he said he didn’t do.

“I got pulled over for having my bright headlights on, which I didn’t,” he explained. “And it went from bright headlights to you’ve got drugs in your car, which I didn’t.”

Pitt County records show his charge for ‘failure to dim lights’ that day was dismissed. But he says it’s just one example of what Black people go through every day.

“I try to educate people on how to interact with stops and try to, first of all, if you get stopped, I need for you to record,” he explained. “And most importantly, if they’re doing something you don’t think is right, I need for you to file a complaint.”

Data from some eastern Carolina police departments shows Rouse’s frustration is not off-base. We looked into some of the key departments nearby, and numbers from several stood out.

In Greenville and Kinston – the percentage of Black people searched during traffic stops is much higher. The same goes for the ECU Police Department.

In Kinston, those numbers are a bit easier to explain, considering census data shows Black residents outweigh white residents 67 percent to 26.3 percent.

But in areas like Greenville, where the breakdown is 52.5 percent white to 39.2 percent Black, it brings up some questions.

Police Chief Ted Sauls, said there are a lot of factors that go into searching someone during a traffic stop. One, being that police are often patrolling areas where citizens have asked them to be.

“As law enforcement we are responsive, and oftentimes that responsiveness, it takes us to where we have to go, not to necessarily where we want to go,” Sauls said.

Other times, their presence has to do with criminal investigations.

“The things that concern me the most are crimes against people. Aggravated assaults and shootings and robberies and things of that nature,” he said. “When you go looking for the offenders of those types of incidents, then naturally it might lend itself to a search more than just a speeding violation.”

Sauls continued, “If our victims are mostly minority, then our suspect may come from the same demographic, may come from the same geographic area, so in essence, we’re forced to enforce in those areas.”

ECU Police, on the other hand, serve a unique area.

“We try and work traffic-related areas and areas where we have our most complaints,” said ECU Police Captain Chris Sutton. “And where we work the most traffic typically is on 10th Street in between Charles Blvd and College Hills Drive and beyond that. But that’s because we have the most volume of pedestrian traffic and typically the most volume of motorist traffic going east to west. So that’s where the majority of our traffic stops occur.”

Their traffic stop search numbers are generally low. Sutton says he believes it’s a sign that officers are being as fair as possible when choosing to perform one.

“Less than or right at four percent of all the traffic stops that we made resulted in an individual being searched, and so that makes me feel like our officers are doing a good job not going out and fishing for people to search.”

Even in Kinston, where the percentage of Black people searched was more in line with population totals, Interim Chief Keith Goyette said he recognizes a constant need for training.

“We meet on a monthly basis with our DMC group, and that’s Disproportionate Minority Contact. In that particular group, we focus on juvenile crime,” explained Goyette. “We discuss those tricky conversations when it comes to race. We understand the need when it comes to bias free policing.”

It’s a simple understanding that can be the start of conversations that promote fairness in policing. Rouse said it’s important that every officer knows the way a simple traffic stop has a different effect on someone based on their race.

“We don’t know how this stop is gonna end. Will I live from this stop? And people always tell me, well just follow the law,” Rouse said. “And what a lot of people don’t understand is, the police is not the law, the police is the enforcer of the law. The law’s in the Constitution, and that’s what we’re supposed to follow.”

Winterville Police, who pulled over Rouse, did not provide their traffic stop numbers to the state database. Police Chief Ryan Willhite did not want to sit down for an interview for this story.