Like some A-team of pencil-wielding statisticians, a band of researchers from North Carolina State University piled in a rented van last summer and hit the highways to scope out scofflaws.
Their mission: to determine, to the extent possible, if any racial profiling - police disproportionately pulling over motorists who are minorities - goes on along North Carolina highways.
While the full results won't be known for several months, preliminary indications show that police in North Carolina are more likely to stop minorities than whites - in fact, 20 percent more likely.
But the question is: Why?
Are the police motivated simply by racial prejudice? Or are there other reasons for the disproportionate ticketing of African-Americans - for instance, because they speed more often than whites?
The very question is sparking controversy here and across the country about a study that is one of the most extensive under way on racial profiling in America.
Under the direction of lead researcher Matt Zingraff, the project is not only cataloging how many blacks and whites are pulled over for supposedly driving too fast along North Carolina highways. It is also trying to determine if there are different driving habits between the races.
The decision to pursue that notion has gotten Mr. Zingraff labeled a "police apologist" and the purveyor of "loony science." A local NAACP group has condemned the effort as an attempt to single out black Americans as criminals.
But Zingraff defends his work as essential to trying to fathom the complex motivations that may lay behind a practice that has haunted race relations since the early 1990s.
"I'm just amazed when I hear people saying things about racial profiling with certainty," he says. "We've done more research than anyone on this, and I realize I may never know the whole truth. But we are trying to get closer."
The Raleigh project is being closely watched, not only because of its unusual focus, but also because it is one of the furthest along on racial profiling. Across the country, from San Jose, Calif., to Grand Rapids, Mich., some 400 law-enforcement agencies are now gathering information on traffic stops along racial lines.
At the same time, Congress is mulling a Traffic Stop Statistics Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for more study of the issue. He says solid scientific evidence is needed to pursue any legal cases against against police departments, as allowed under a 1994 civil rights law.
Many African-American groups applaud the attorney general's move, especially coming, as it does, after his divisive confirmation hearings a few weeks ago, in which race and discrimination were central issues.
Yet some black leaders argue there has been enough study of the issue: The time for action has come. "[Ashcroft] assured the caucus that he would deal with this sooner rather than later, and the caucus is of course going to hold him to that," says Devona Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus.
Indeed, even as Mr. Ashcroft promises a federal probe if Congress doesn't act, he's got the rudiments of one in Raleigh: The Justice Department gave $470,000 toward the Tar Heel study.
In conducting their probe, Zingraff and his team at first tried to monitor drivers' speed - and the people highway patrol officers would pull over - by using radar guns. But truckers sent out warnings on their CB radios.
So, driving 65 miles per hour, the researchers used stop watches and notebooks to clock some 7,000 speeders as they went zipping by the van along the dusty state highways of Johnston County and other thoroughfares. As they did, a graduate student would dutifully jot down each driver's race: black, white, or other.
An earlier analysis of arrest records found that minorities are definitely pulled over more than whites in the state. In 1998, for instance, the figures showed that a middle-aged black man is 23 percent more likely to be given a traffic citation than a middle-aged white man. Worse, a black man is 64 percent more likely to be searched. Black women, similarly, are more likely to be given a citation, but just as likely as white women to have their cars searched.
The Zingraff research on the different driving habits of the races hasn't yet been released. The researchers are convinced racial profiling does exist. They're just not sure if the reason is a form of institutional racism. "In the long run, I think we're going to learn that the disparity that does exist is a result of a lot of other things than active racial animus," says Zingraff.
While some police agencies around the country have been reluctant to participate in such studies - in part because of the paperwork involved - the state Highway Patrol in North Carolina has been working with the Zingraff team. They meet with researchers weekly to go over questions and data.
Zingraff says police departments are wise to do so. "Law enforcement should have some idea why their numbers look the way they do," he says. "If they don't, they're just allowing themselves to be explained by others using partial information. That's crazy."
First Sgt. Jeff Winstead of the Highway Patrol says that making a rash conclusion would be easy after looking at the traffic stop numbers. Many times, people are just looking to explain away their own bad driving by blaming the cops, he says.
But as Mr. Winstead points out, the variables are daunting: driving conditions, daytime or nighttime, young drivers or old drivers, new cars or late-model cars. Plus, at night, it's hard to see a driver's skin color from a roadside perch. "Raw data is dangerous, and we were most concerned about people getting ahold of this information and drawing the wrong conclusions," he says.
In fact, that's already happening, though Zingraff's study is four months from publication. "It is interesting that people are beginning to disavow the findings before we even know ourselves what they are," says Zingraff.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society