Antonio Ellis was in his 2008 Nissan on Rivers Avenue one night last year when he saw the blue lights behind him. He pulled over. An officer ordered him to step out of his car. “One of your headlights is out.”
Ellis looked at his headlights. Both were on. Four other squad cars arrived. With his hands on the hood, Ellis watched another officer search his car and find his textbooks and faculty ID. The officers huddled for a moment.
Ellis, an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, wasn’t cited for anything. “I thought your headlights were out,” the officer said. Then he was told he was free to go, though he felt anything but free.
Such confrontations are known in police circles as “pretext” or “investigatory” stops. Officers use a minor violation to stop and question someone they think might be involved in a more serious crime. Law enforcement officials say these stops are an important crime fighting tool.
But a new Post and Courier analysis raises questions about the number of these stops and their long-term effects, especially in North Charleston.
On average over the past five years, officers in North Charleston stopped someone every eight minutes. In roughly half of those stops, officers questioned people and then let them go without a citation, as happened with Ellis. In the rest, they wrote citations, often for minor vehicle defects, such as non-working tag lights.
Per capita, people are stopped in North Charleston at a far higher rate than any other large city in South Carolina, the newspaper found. And, as is the case in South Carolina and many cities across the country, officers disproportionately stopped black men and women.
Pretext stops have long been a source of anger in minority communities, but the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston brought new attention to this tactic.
Scott was pulled over last April for a broken taillight, as were more than 2,000 other motorists in North Charleston between 2010 and 2014. What began as a simple traffic stop ended with Scott’s death and Officer Michael Slager in jail on a murder charge.
In the past few weeks, questions have been raised in the Texas case of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, and a fatal police shooting in Cincinnati that began with a missing license tag.
Escalation is a common factor in many officer-involved shootings, The Post and Courier’s “Shot’s Fired” investigation found earlier this year. And some local leaders argue that the constant pounding of these pretext stops generates a sense of humiliation and fear that makes accidents, mistakes and violence more likely.
After the stop that night on Rivers Avenue, Antonio Ellis said he “felt bullied, stereotyped, and harassed. Maybe I was stopped because of my race and gender. However, clearly it was not because my headlight was inoperable.”
His experience is far from unusual. The stop was among the nearly 400,000 “police contact stops” that took place in South Carolina’s 10 largest cities between 2010 and 2014. The newspaper analyzed these stops, as well as more than 167,0000 citations written in North Charleston and Charleston, during this period. Among the newspaper’s findings:
North Charleston officers wrote more than 5,600 citations for broken taillights, unlawful window tints, burned out tag light bulbs and other vehicle defects. Officers wrote 116 tickets for failure to have a light on a bike.
North Charleston stopped people without writing citations nearly 146,000 times over the past five years, by far the most in the state. Charleston had the second-highest number of these investigatory stops at 125,588.
In North Charleston, 95,186 of those stops, or 65 percent, involved black people. The city’s black population is 47 percent. Similar patterns were found elsewhere in the state. Forty percent of those stopped by Charleston police were black, while the city’s black population stands at 25 percent. In Mount Pleasant, the ratio was even more disproportionate: 22 percent of those stopped were black, while the town’s black population was 5 percent.
When the number of stops is adjusted for population, North Charleston officers stop people twice as frequently as officers in Greenville and four times more often than officers in Columbia.
Such statistics don’t surprise local black leaders.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said some residents call stretches of Rivers and Spruill avenues the “Blue Light Special” because someone always seems to be stopped on those roads.
She said it’s dishonest to stop someone for a possible violation because you think that person might be doing something worse. “When you teach officers to lie about one thing, what’s to stop them from lying about other things? That’s the message that these pretext stops send.”
Pretext stops are “over-aggressive policing,” said Pastor Thomas Dixon, founder of The Coalition: People United To Take Back Our Community. “We’ve been complaining about this for years.”
Dixon said he formed the coalition in part to help members of predominantly black car clubs. He said they were being pulled over on a regular basis by North Charleston police because they had fancy cars with expensive rims.
“These folks work regular jobs. They don’t deal drugs or support the usage of drugs,” he said. “They just like to buy nice things for their cars instead of golf clubs or jet skis. But they were being profiled as drug dealers.”
Law enforcement experts say the increase in pretext or investigatory stops has its roots in the 1980s, when departments were criticized for being too insular and disconnected with the communities they served. One response: departments trained officers to make as many “contacts” with citizens as possible. The assumption was that more stops increased a department’s odds of finding a crook or someone about to commit a crime.
A widely used police manual called Tactics for Criminal Patrol teaches officers that patrolling “is a numbers game; you have to stop a lot of vehicles to get the law of averages working in your favor.”
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that officers could stop a vehicle any time they have a reasonable belief that a traffic violation occurred. The ruling opened an even wider door to pretext stops, even as evidence mounted that black motorists were more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. It also led to controversial practices, such as New York’s “stop and frisk,” which uncovers a weapon or drugs only 1.8 percent of the time, according to New York police statistics.
A recent Kansas City study found that one in four black drivers were stopped over the course of a year, while one in eight white motorists were stopped. Black motorists also were more likely to be stopped for vehicle defect violations, said Charles Epp, a University of Kansas political science professor and coauthor of the study. Epp also coauthored a recent book, “Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.”
“Our study found that police often use these stops not to encourage the driver to get the light fixed but mainly as a means to ask black drivers intrusive questions, like ‘What are you doing in the neighborhood?’ and to conduct searches,” he said.
In Kansas City, they also found that most people who were stopped for minor violations weren’t issued citations.
“They use the violation as a legal justification for the stop but then proceed with inquiries and, sometimes, searches,” Epp said. “Not surprisingly, the drivers who experience these stops come to deeply resent the experience.”
Law enforcement officials say that crime would rise without these stops.
North Charleston Assistant Police Chief Reggie Burgess said the department has for years used a data-driven approach to analyze crime numbers and target enforcement in neighborhoods where it is needed most. Race isn’t part of that equation, he said.
“It doesn’t put a value on color and it doesn’t give you a racial field,” said Burgess, who is black. “It tells you about the incidents that are reported, and the people who are reporting those crimes are the people who live in those neighborhoods.”
Though some offenses, such as failing to have a bicycle light, might seem minor, they do represent safety issues, Burgess said. Enforcing those ordinances gives officers a chance to chat with people coming into these neighborhoods to find out what they are up to, and it sends a message that police are keeping a close eye on the area.
“We’re just trying to make sure the community stays safe,” he said. “We’re trying to work for the betterment of the community we’re serving.”
Though the Walter Scott shooting put an international spotlight on the department, complaints have dropped in recent years. Last year North Charleston officers had 35 complaints.
“I believe the majority of people in North Charleston appreciate our true intention, and that intention is to provide a better quality of life for them,” Burgess said.
North Charleston also recently began a “Positive Ticketing” campaign to hand out “tickets” to young people who they see doing good deeds and other positive behaviors. The tickets can be exchanged for water park vouchers and meals at participating restaurants. The program was planned before the Scott shooting, but its goal is to forge more positive bonds between officers and young people.
Charleston police also target people for minor offenses, though at a lower rate than their counterparts in North Charleston, a Post and Courier analysis of municipal court records shows.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said officers have some latitude over whether to issue tickets or warnings when they witness such violations. But they should take some action so that the errant behavior isn’t just ignored. Taking action is rooted in the “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that small problems can become large challenges if allowed to fester, he said.
Mullen said the percentage of blacks stopped by police will likely never exactly mirror their population percentage. That’s because police target activities in neighborhoods struggling with crime. Those neighborhoods in Charleston tend to be predominantly black.
“I have not had anyone beating down my door telling me they want us to stop our activities in these neighborhoods,” he said.
Charleston police had only 33 complaints about officer conduct last year. That tells him that, overall, officers are making good judgments. And investigatory stops are a useful tool as long as they are done fairly.
“Do you want a police department that is completely reactionary or do you want them to focus on finding ways to prevent crimes and stop them from occurring?” Mullen said.
But some argue that this crime-fighting strategy has indirect costs, including frustration and a mistrust of police that sometimes boils over into violence.
“Officers are stopping people for not walking on sidewalks when there were no sidewalks by the road; they’re stopping people for wearing a sweatshirt when it’s hot,” said Scott of the NAACP. All this creates a siege mentality, a sense that you’re a target even when you’re doing nothing wrong, she said.
The Texas case of Sandra Bland a few weeks ago also brought new scrutiny on these stops and how they can escalate. A dash camera video showed a white officer stop Bland for failing to signal a lane change. They spoke in civil tones to each other for a few moments as the officer prepared a warning citation.
Then the officer, who is white, began asking questions that are hallmarks of investigatory stops: How long had she been in Texas? Why did she seem so irritated? She told him she was irritated about being stopped. And he responded, “Are you finished?” Then, he asked: “You mind putting out your cigarette, please, if you don’t mind?”
When she declined, he ordered her to get out of the car. When she refused, he pulled out a Taser and yelled, “I’m going to light you up!” She said, “You’re doing all this for a failure to signal?” and recorded the officer on her phone, which seemed to infuriate him more.
She was eventually wrestled to the ground and hauled off to jail. From jail, she left a voice mail on a friend’s phone: “How this switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this, I don’t know.” Three days into her incarceration, she was found hanging in her cell, an apparent suicide.
Further questions were raised about the tactic last week with the indictment of a white University of Cincinnati police officer on a murder charge.
The officer, Ray Tensing, stopped black motorist Charles DuBose for not having a front license plate. Video from Tensing’s body camera showed how Tensing asked DuBose repeatedly for his license, and when DuBose appeared to try to drive away, Tensing fired through the side window, killing him. A county prosecutor on Wednesday told reporters “a pretty chicken-crap stop” led to a “senseless, asinine” death.
Black drivers experience investigatory stops differently than white motorists, said Epp of Kansas University. In his study, many black drivers reported that they had been stopped over and over, and that they heard similar stories from family and friends.
“The lesson that white drivers learn is that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police. The lesson that many black drivers learn is that you never know what a police officer might do; a stop for something as little as a burned out license plate light may be converted into a full-blown search of the car.”
In some cases, miscommunications can lead to bloodshed.
The Post and Courier’s “Shots Fired” investigation revealed that escalation during traffic stops was a common factor in many notable shootings. Last year, for instance, Sean Groubert, a state Highway Patrol trooper, stopped Lavar Jones at a Columbia gas station for an alleged seat belt violation. Jones was out of his car and reached in to get his wallet, prompting Groubert to shoot him in the hip. In a dashboard camera video, Jones can be heard asking: “What did I do, sir?”
Given the real need to fight crime, do police have other options?
Epp and his colleagues favor training officers to stop people only when they have clear evidence of a safety or criminal action. Searches should be done when officers have probable cause that a crime has been committed. And they point to departments that have changed their scattershot approach of stopping as many people as they can to a more targeted effort: working with neighborhoods to focus on known bad guys.
Such “focused deterrence” approaches were developed by David M. Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities, a project of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Focused deterrence is based on research that shows that most crime is committed by a tiny percentage of young males, typically about one-half of 1 percent of a city’s population, Kennedy said. Kennedy’s approach includes efforts to identify and notify a community’s worst offenders, offer help to those offenders who want it and conduct law enforcement as sparingly as possible.
High Point, N.C., used a focused approach to identify open-air drug dealers. Bad actors were even sent messages that said: “We cannot arrest everyone for every crime, however we can focus our attention on you. If you commit an act of violence we will focus all of our resources on you and your entire group. Take this message back to your group.”
The High Point program was so successful that the department recently began a similar program to address domestic violence.
An analysis of 10 focused deterrence programs, often called “pulling levers” policing, found that nine helped reduce crime; in several cases, the drops were dramatic: In Boston, a “problem-oriented” program helped reduce youth homicides by more than 60 percent; Stockton, Calif., had a 42 percent reduction in gun homicides.
North Charleston did a similar anti-drug campaign with success, Kennedy said. But aggressive pretextual stop programs and focused deterrence don’t mix. “They are polar opposites both philosophically and operationally,” he said. Pretextual stops don’t work well because they sweep up mostly law abiding citizens, who end up furious.
“The word pretextual nearly tells the story by itself,” Kennedy said. “It’s really kind of amazing that law enforcement is so comfortable with the notion that the law is being used in a way that turns the original intent of the law upside down. Everyone knows that when folks are being stopped or pulled over, frisked and searched, that this is happening under a pretext. So when people in neighborhoods are subjected to this and think the police are messing with them, they’re right.”
Kennedy said departments went off course when they started using one law to achieve another goal. “The broken taillight statute is about broken taillights, not about drug enforcement.” And aggressive pretext programs amount to “carpet-bombing,” which leads to collateral damage to upstanding members of a community.
“When you do this to enough people, you amass vast numbers of arrests and violations, which become the boxes you have to tick off that ask whether you’ve been arrested. They become the fines you have to pay, or the bail you have to make, or the court date you have, the work you have to miss to make it to court. And they become the felony warrants for missing a court date. They stack up, and the cumulative burden on individuals from these neighborhoods is crushing.”
Tereze Legare is president of the South Carolina Rhinos Car Club, whose members deck out their vehicles with big rims and bright paint. They gather with other car clubs sometimes and do fund- raising events, including a car wash on Saturday at the AutoZone on Rivers Avenue to buy school supplies for needy kids. He works at a local hotel and sometimes ends up washing his car late at night. One night, he was stopped by a black North Charleston officer.
“He was cool at first. He said, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ And then he asked whether we minded searching the car.” Legare agreed, and other officers came with drug dogs. Then the officer asked to search him. “I asked why, and he said, ‘I have reason to believe that drug activity is going on.’ ”
The officer found nothing. “He was real arrogant and just walked away.”