COLUMBIA -- Sheriff's deputies disproportionately stop and warn black drivers in more than half of South Carolina's counties, an analysis of records by The State newspaper has found.
Law enforcement officials in those counties, including Richland and Lexington, say the numbers do not mean their officers are deliberately targeting drivers because of their race -- a practice commonly called racial profiling.
State troopers -- the target of scrutiny in the wake of recent racially charged allegations about how they treat black motorists -- stopped and warned black drivers at roughly the same rate as the state's black population.
"When you put all of the numbers together and all of the incidents together," Department of Public Safety spokesman Sid Gaulden said, "you won't find a systemic pattern of misconduct or discrimination."
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Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP, said, though, racial profiling remains a "major concern" of his organization.
"Racism is still a problem in America and in South Carolina," he said. "We cannot deny it."
Public Safety director James Schweitzer and Highway Patrol commander Col. Russell Roark resigned under fire Feb. 29 after Gov. Mark Sanford said they were too lenient on a white trooper shown on a videotape using a racial slur against a fleeing black suspect during a 2004 traffic stop in Greenwood County.
The U.S. attorney for South Carolina, the FBI, the Justice Department and the State Law Enforcement Division have launched investigations into possible civil rights violations stemming from that incident and others caught on videotape -- including two in which troopers struck suspects fleeing on foot with their patrol vehicles.
Under a law that took effect in July, all police agencies must report to the Department of Public Safety the race, gender and age of all drivers who are stopped and issued warnings but not given tickets or arrested.
State Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, the author of the reporting law, said he pushed for the reporting requirements as part of the law mandating drivers to wear seat belts after hearing concerns that minorities routinely were being "stopped, searched and never ticketed."
The State newspaper obtained the Department of Public Safety's database -- the first release of the information -- under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
The newspaper analyzed information on 317,678 drivers who were stopped by 191 public police agencies statewide from July 1 through Feb. 1. The paper then compared sheriff's departments' data on the racial makeup of stopped drivers to the state's population and Department of Motor Vehicle records.
Among the findings:
• In at least 25 of 46 counties, or 54 percent -- including Richland, Lexington and Kershaw -- sheriff's deputies stopped black drivers at rates higher than their counties' black populations.
• Of the 4,861 drivers stopped by Richland County sheriff's deputies, 3,186, or about 66 percent, were black -- about 19 percentage points higher than the county's 47 percent black population. That was the biggest such gap for any sheriff's department in the state that issued at least 100 warnings during the period.
• The Lexington County Sheriff's Department wasn't far behind. Of the 6,002 drivers stopped during the period, 1,660, or about 28 percent, were black. That was double the county's 14 percent black population rate.
• In Kershaw County, of the 430 drivers sheriff's deputies stopped, 147, or 34 percent, were black. That was about 8 percentage points higher than the county's 26 percent black population.
• Statewide, 33 percent of the 317,678 drivers stopped were black -- slightly higher than the state's black population rate of 29 percent.
• State troopers -- the target of scrutiny in the wake of recent racially charged allegations about how they treat black motorists -- stopped and warned black drivers at roughly the same rate as the state's 29 percent black population rate.
• Of the total number of drivers stopped statewide, about 18 percent were both black and between the ages of 16 and 36 -- the group experts point to as most likely to be targeted if racial profiling is taking place.
The rates are comparable across the board when compared to Department of Motor Vehicles data showing the percentage of black licensed drivers for each county.
The database contained no information from many small departments, including Batesburg-Leesville and Eastover, and sheriff's departments in Allendale, Clarendon, Florence, Lee, Marlboro, Orangeburg and Saluda counties. Those agencies did not report numbers to the state.
The right numbers?
USC criminal justice professor Michael Smith, recognized nationwide as an expert on racial profiling, said no conclusions can be drawn from the database -- in part because it doesn't contain information about drivers who are ticketed or arrested.
"Without the other half," he said, "you've got squat."
Most researchers in the field no longer use U.S. Census statistics or information about the number of licensed drivers when trying to determine whether racial profiling exists, Smith said.
Those researchers use other methods, he said, such as comparing an officer's "post-stop activities" -- including the type of tickets written -- with the actions of other officers within a department. If an officer is ticketing a higher percentage of black drivers than others in his department, that's an indication he might be racially profiling drivers.
Neal said he intended the state database to be used as a starting point to "drill down" into particular departments to determine whether racial profiling exists.
"If you've got a small community of African-Americans and you're not showing similar stops by the same officers in similar (white) areas, do you not have racial profiling?"
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said the percentage of black drivers stopped in his county -- 28 percent -- is higher than the county's black population -- 14 percent -- likely because "we have a lot of traffic out of Orangeburg County and Richland County," which have higher black populations.
Metts, who said his department has a written policy banning racial profiling, said the last complaint he received about the problem was in 2003.
"It's extremely important that we don't have any racial profiling of the black population," he said. "You've got to have reasonable suspicion before you stop a car. You just can't stop it because you want to."
By comparison, in Columbia, of the 3,429 drivers city police stopped, 1,825, or 53 percent, were black -- about 11 percentage points higher than the city's black population rate. Columbia officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the statistics.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott readily admits his deputies stopped twice as many black drivers as white drivers during the seven-month period starting in July.
But, he said, "our stops are basically requests we get (from) within the African-American community" to patrol specific areas of concern.
"Those numbers are numbers that don't shock me; they're expected," Lott said. He said his department's figures in the database include drivers who also were ticketed and/or arrested.
Lott said he started a detailed reporting system on traffic stops in 2003 to "make sure we didn't have any racial profiling going on."
NAACP president Randolph, who also serves on the Richland sheriff's department's Citizens Advisory Council, said he hasn't "seen any trends or any complaints from citizens" about racial profiling by Richland deputies.
Richland's Citizens Advisory Council is the only one of its kind in the state, Randolph said. All police agencies, he said, including the Highway Patrol -- rocked in recent weeks by allegations of discrimination against black motorists -- should have similar committees.
"Any time you don't have a situation where citizens have the opportunity to monitor a department, it makes it more likely that those problems will exist."