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Orlando Area Drug Squad Disproportionately Searches Black Drivers


July 1997

Black motorists stopped on Florida's turnpike by an all-white Orange County (Orlando) sheriff's drug squad are 6.5 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, the Orlando Sentinel reported on June 8. This is additional evidence of a phenomenon of black motorists being harassed by the police known ironically as "Driving While Black" (Roger Roy and Henry Pierson Curtis, "When cops stop blacks, drug search often follows," Orlando Sentinel, June 8, 1997,; "Traffic Stop Bias Reported," Washington Post, June 9, 1997, p. A4).

Although black motorists constitute only 16.3% of drivers stopped by Sheriff Kevin Beary's Criminal Patrol Unit, they are the target of more than 50% of the searches and more than 70% of searches involving dogs, according to the newspaper. The Sentinel said it reviewed records of more than 3,800 stops and about 500 searches by the Beary drug squad from January 1996 through April 1997. According to the paper, the records show that 39.6% of black motorists stopped were searched, compared to 6.2% of the white motorists stopped. Drivers listed as Asian, Hispanic or other ethnicities were searched 17.9% of the time. More than 80% of the searches did not produce evidence of drugs, which is consistent with other highway drug units in the U.S., according to the paper.

"I think those numbers should send up a red flag to any clear-thinking people who are honest with themselves," said Thomas N. Alston, president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP. A similar pattern was found of disproportionately stopping black motorists by the Maryland State Police on that state's Interstate 95 (See "Maryland State Police Still Targeting Black Motorists, According to ACLU," NewsBriefs, December 1996; "Maryland Police Agree to End Racial Drug Courier Profile," NewsBriefs, February 1995).

"We don't control drug routes and demographics," said Captain Ernie Scott, commander of the drug squad. "I think black mules (hired drug carriers) and black smugglers are represented higher (on the turnpike) than they would be on other highways in the nation."

Ron Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, said some police officers believe blacks are more likely than whites to traffic cocaine because many agencies target their searches at black motorists. Hampton said police agencies need to keep better records of searches in order to track racial patterns. Such record-keeping is the mandate of a bill recently introduced in Congress. U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, submitted the "Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1997" (H.R. 118) in January that would require the U.S. Attorney General to gather data about all routine traffic stops by police, including race and ethnicity of the motorists, whether and why there was a search, and whether illegal drugs were found. Conyers has also referred to his bill as the "Driving While Black" bill.

The Sentinel report follows two nationally televised events involving the Beary squad. One event involved the arrest of a black Miami police major in April and another involved a 100-mile chase of a black drug suspect who was wounded by deputies.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Office - 2426 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-5126, Fax: (202) 225-0072.

Ron Hampton, National Black Police Association - (202) 986-2070.

Orlando County Sheriff"s Office - (407) 629-8400