Black people in Charlottesville have been suspected of a crime by police and pulled aside for a warrantless patdown, known as a stop-and-frisk, at more than twice the rate of white people in the past 18 months, according to a report documenting the procedure’s use.
In fact, blacks were frisked in 70 percent of roughly 140 patdowns, Police Chief Timothy Longo told the city council during a presentation Monday. Whites were frisked in 29 percent of the patdowns.
“It’s exceedingly disproportionate,” Councilor Dede Smith said Tuesday. “It needs an explanation … further study.”
Census data show 70.3 percent of the city’s roughly 44,000 people are white and 19.5 percent are black.
The U.S. Supreme Court allows police to temporarily detain people for limited patdowns as long as the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a crime happened, is about to occur or is ongoing. It’s called a reasonable suspicion standard and is less than the probable cause needed for a warrant that allows police to search people and property more thoroughly.
Patdowns happen when an officer believes a suspect might be armed.
“Stop-and-frisk happens all the time,” said local criminal defense attorney and former Albemarle County prosecutor Scott Goodman. “It’s a routine part of law enforcement.”
Of city police patdowns since late 2012, 46 percent were initiated by a dispatcher directing officers. Police initiated the remaining 54 percent.
Longo’s report did not state the number of people cited or arrested after the stops.
The local statistics are derived from new reporting by the police department required in some states, but not in Virginia. Longo implemented the policy of keeping a written narrative so supervisors could better judge the decision process of officers who decided a stop-and-frisk was necessary.
“I found out that nobody was [keeping records] in the commonwealth,” the chief told the council. “I was kind of shocked … that we weren’t writing this important constitutional intrusion down.”
Longo was not available for an interview Tuesday.
Not all stops resulted in patdowns. In another 120 cases, police stopped people under the suspicion of a crime simply to ask questions, but did not conduct frisks. In 64 percent of those instances, the people stopped were black. In 33 percent, the people were white.
Of those stops, 63 percent were initiated by a dispatcher and 37 percent by officers.
Charlottesville’s numbers follow racial disparities seen in larger towns’ stop-and-frisk statistics, said criminal justice expert William Pelfrey of Virginia Commonwealth University.
“That’s not different to what big cities have seen in the last few years,” he said.
New York City is currently embroiled in a federal lawsuit over a stop-question-and-frisk policy that has officers strolling along the sidewalks and asking random people for permission to frisk them even though there is no suspicion of criminal activity.
Of the millions of New Yorkers police stopped from 2002 to 2011, nearly 90 percent were black or Latino, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. The city’s population is 26 percent black, 29 percent Latino and 44 percent white.
The statistics cited by Longo did not include Hispanics or Latinos, who make up 5 percent of Charlottesville’s population.
“In Charlottesville, they have not taken it to such aggressive levels as New York has,” Goodman said. “This is normal good police work.”