WILMINGTON — A Black person in Wilmington is almost three times more likely to get find themselves charged with a crime than a white person. That likelihood is higher if the charge is for weapons, drugs, or an administrative issue like failure to appear in court.
Based on data released Wednesday on Cape Fear Collective’s Racial Equity Dashboard, Wilmington’s Black community faces a greater chance of being justice-involved than the white community and shoulders a larger economic burden in fines and fees.
The Cape Fear Collective, using data from the Wilmington Police Department, found:
- In 2018, Black people made up 18.6% of Wilmington’s population but accounted for 49.8% of arrest charges and 50.4% of incidents creating a charge-population ratio (calculated by dividing percentage of charges by population percentage) of 2.7 for incidents and 2.68 for charges.
- And since 2010 that ratio has increased from 2.24 to 2.68 for charges and from 1.87 to 2.7 for incidents.
- Weapons, administrative, and drugs from 2000-2019 saw the largest disparities between Black and white people.
- Administrative charges — defined as charges that exist because of a prior offense — made up a significant portion of the total charges with 63.4% of those charges as failure to appear in court.
- The disparity between weapons charges was the most significant. The charge-population ratio is 4, meaning if you’re Black you’re four times more likely to get a weapons charge.
“It meshes with the reality of my life experience,” said Daquan Peters, New Hanover County Second Chance Alliance Coordinator, and organization which supports restoring opportunities and citizenship for North Carolinians with criminal records. “I honestly thought it was higher than that.”
Tactics vs. escalation
The disparity in administrative charges between Black and white citizens comes in part because of police tactics. Mitch Cunningham, a retired Wilmington Deputy Police Chief who now teaches at Cape Fear Community College, said the police department “re-engineered the department to make more arrests to ensure public safety.” Officers often made arrests for low-level crimes like possession of drugs after gang shootings to help diffuse the situation by taking potential shooters who could retaliate off the streets for a few days.
“We saw how it tamped down the gun violence,” Cunningham said. “That is a success story. Crime analysis to reduce gang violence. The results of using the data made the community safer.”
Not everyone considers these numbers to be a ‘success story.’ Vance Williams, a co-organizer of the Wilmington-area Black Lives Matter group and founder of Advance Youth Outreach, sees it as a tendency to escalate rooted in racial difference.
“The police force does not look like me — so engagement can easily escalate,” Williams said. “Socially and psychologically, we are not integrated. We have developed a tolerance, that’s all.”
A significant number of arrests also stem from traffic stops. Police officers can legally pull over motorists for small infractions in order to investigate wrongdoing. Heien v. North Carolina, a case argued in front of the Supreme Court in 2014, made it lawful for police to stop drivers even if officers are wrong about the facts or law. That’s troubling because non-white drivers are more likely to be stopped, according to a UNC-Chapel Hill study that looked at traffic records of almost 500 Charlotte police officers. Researchers found officers searched Blacks twice as often as whites, according to a Charlotte Observer story.
According to data compiled by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, between June 2017 and June 2020, WPD searched over 50% more Black male drivers than white male drivers, and over double the number of Black male passengers. Adjusting for Wilmington’s demographic makeup, that makes Black males roughly six times more likely to be searched as a driver, and eight times more likely to be searched as a passenger.
District Attorney Ben David saw some good coming from traffic stops for minor infractions that led to bigger arrests. He cited several cases where drugs and guns were discovered during a routine traffic stop.
“If we stop doing that there will be more guns and drugs on the street,” David said. “Do you know where that is going to be? It’s not going to be on Landfall and Forest Hills.”
Considering the aftermath of these charges for Black versus white suspects — from fine and fees to resisting arrest and failure to appear — the difference was stark. These charges created an economic burden, according to Second Chance Alliance.
“Who is more likely to resist arrest in a situation downtown?” Peters said. “White people get drunk and rowdy. That is where they utilize their white privilege. If you go into Creekwood or to 11th and Orange, they are going to jail. He is not going to get the same chance as a white person gets downtown. We don’t have the economic power to make charges go away like white people do.”
Earlier this month, the District Attorney’s office remitted fees and fines for more than 7,000 cases in Pender and New Hanover. Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple said fines from two-year-old or older cases dealing with minor traffic infractions do not promote public safety and disproportionately impacted poor people.
David acknowledged work needs to be done to close the disparity in administrative fees, but said while there is introspection in the justice system, it also needs to happen across the board.
“No one should be proud of any number that shows there are parts of this community are disproportionally coming to court for minor offenses,” David said. “We can do better and we must do better. Not just as a justice system. In our hiring practices. In the faith-based community. What nonprofits are doing. All of those things working together reduce crime and more importantly create a better community.”
David also argued that the disproportionate numbers don’t just represent crime, but communities dealing with crime.
“The people in jail reflect who the victims are,” David said. “High crime areas are high victim areas.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece reversed Barrett Temple’s name in first reference and incorrectly attributed a quote to her. She said minor traffic infractions do not promote public safety.
Kevin Maurer is a journalist and author. He is currently the Director of Community Engagement at Cape Fear Collective.