Nashville police officers consistently stop black drivers more than white drivers. Black drivers are more likely to be searched, despite searches of white drivers being more likely to result in incriminating evidence.
These are some of the findings in an extensive new report, “Driving While Black,” by Gideon’s Army that details the “highly disproportionate impact of Metro’s traffic stop and search practices on predominantly black and low-income communities in Nashville.”
“Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) and Mayor (Megan) Barry use the notion that Nashville is somehow different from other cities and immune from events like those in Ferguson, using what we see as superficial gestures of relationship building between MNPD and the community while never actually addressing the issues or making any substantial changes,” said Rasheedat Fetuga. She is founder and president of Gideon’s Army, a Nashville-based organization that advocates for children.
Civil rights attorney Kyle Mothershead filed a complaint with the Department of Justice requesting an investigation of the report. He had been looking into the MNPD’s data on traffic stops on his own before partnering with Gideon’s Army.
“I believe that we have proved that MNPD officers discriminate against black people by subjecting them to random consent searches far more often than white people,” he said.
Fetuga added, “Under federal law, the DOJ can bring an enforcement action against a law enforcement agency based on a 'pattern or practice' of discrimination.”
The 200-page report, made public Oct. 25, follows months of research conducted by a team of more than 60 community members and researchers who analyzed two million traffic stops. The report includes 22 interviews with black community members.
“In order to demand accountability from those in positions of power, Gideon's Army felt it was crucial to release this report publicly,” Fetuga said.
Here are more claims from the group’s report:
In a press release, Gideon’s Army and community members said, “These forms of over-policing induce fear, trauma and feelings of dehumanization among black drivers in Nashville.”
“(Nashville) can be a great city, but not if we let our police force treat black and brown people like criminals by default. We need to understand how degrading and alienating it is to be subjected to a roadside search. If we're honest with ourselves, it's obvious that no one who feels like they have a choice would consent to a random search,” said Mothershead, adding that the results made him feel “ashamed.”
These policing practices have a direct correlation with the number of black residents serving time in state prisons, the report notes. In Tennessee, black residents are incarcerated at 3.7 times the rate of white Tennesseans, according to the Sentencing Project.
The MNPD’s policies and procedures manual forbids officers from “biased-based policing,” and drivers should only be stopped if there is probable cause of a traffic offense or reasonable suspicion of a criminal offense.
The police’s response to the report, in part, said:
"Nashville police officers are deployed at a higher degree to where the victims of crime are, in other words, to areas where there is a higher prevalence of crime and higher requests for police services.
"Officers of the MNPD are encouraged to be proactive and visible, and to make lawful vehicle stops when warranted. It is true that, on average, 80 percent or so of vehicle stops result in warnings only. In Nashville, vehicle stops are not about tickets, but to enhance safety through warnings and to better protect the community.”
The report also examines the overall number of traffic stops in Nashville, a number that has steadily risen over the last 15 years. From 2011-2015, MNPD conducted 7.7 times more traffic stops annually than the U.S. national average. Nearly 80 percent of all MNPD traffic stops in 2015 resulted in a warning, and in traffic stops including a search of the vehicle or driver, between one-third and half resulted in a warning. According to the report, this “means hundreds of thousands of drivers—a disproportionate number of whom are black—are being stopped unnecessarily.”
The report concludes with 11 institutional and policy demands, including instituting a civilian oversight and review board to have input on officer complaint reviews.
“We are not begging or asking for change. We will see to it that our demands are met, that we tear down these racialized systems and build a city that is just and equitable for all who live here and for all who pass through,” Fetuga said.
The group also calls for an end to Metro’s Operation Safer Streets (OSS), a weekend anti-gang enforcement program previously criticized by the Black Lives Matter movement. The report found, “While OSS stops represent a small fraction of total traffic stops in Nashville — around 3 percent of stops annually — the fact that OSS stops occur only on weekends and are concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods indicates that the effects of OSS are disproportionately distributed.”
“We hope white community members will raise their voices in their communities to join us in calling for the kinds of changes the report shows we need to have equity and justice in our beloved city,” Fetuga said.
Mothershead also hopes that the DOJ will compel MNPD to provide data on its pedestrian stop practices. He was denied a records request by MNPD earlier this year. “I suspect that MNPD's pedestrian stop practices would show even more severe racial profiling than its traffic stops,” he said.
“I want to believe in my city, and now that the truth is coming out I really hope that things change.”