DURHAM, N.C. — One month after a Latino youth died from a gunshot as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser here last year, 150 demonstrators converged on Police Headquarters, some shouting “murderers” as baton-wielding officers in riot gear fired tear gas.
The police say the youth shot himself with a hidden gun. But to many residents of this city, which is 40 percent black, the incident fit a pattern of abuse and bias against minorities that includes frequent searches of cars and use of excessive force. In one case, a black female Navy veteran said she was beaten by an officer after telling a friend she was visiting that the friend did not have to let the police search her home.
Yet if it sounds as if Durham might have become a harbinger of Ferguson, Mo. — where the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer led to weeks of protests this summer — things took a very different turn. Rather than relying on demonstrations to force change, a coalition of ministers, lawyers and community and political activists turned instead to numbers. They used an analysis of state data from 2002 to 2013 that showed that the Durham police searched black male motorists at more than twice the rate of white males during stops. Drugs and other illicit materials were found no more often on blacks.
After having initially rejected protesters’ demands, the city abruptly changed course and agreed to require the police, beginning last month, to obtain written consent to search vehicles in cases where they do not have probable cause. The consent forms, in English and Spanish, tell drivers they do not have to allow the searches.
“Without the data, nothing would have happened,” said Steve Schewel, a Durham City Council member who had pushed for the change.