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People of Color almost twice as likely to be searched when stopped in Douglas County, research shows

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People of Color stopped by law enforcement in Douglas County are searched or frisked nearly twice as often as white people, an ongoing study shows. 

That ratio doesn’t change when the search is the officer’s choice versus a search the officer must conduct, such as during an arrest. And the searches of People of Color resulted in officers finding no contraband at a 1.4% greater rate than searches of white people. 

In addition, though the presentation did not point out this data, People of Color were the subjects of 23.5% of the 16,001 total stops documented in the study, and white people were subjects of 76.5%. That percentage is roughly on par with the individuals who have made up the disparate population of the Douglas County jail over the past several years, despite Census estimates showing that the county’s overall population is about 83.4% white.

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The study asked law enforcement officers from Baldwin City, Eudora, Lawrence and University of Kansas police departments and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to gather data on the demographics of drivers and pedestrians they contacted, the reasons why, plus the results of the stops — whether someone was let go with a warning, ticketed, searched, arrested and so on.

Data collection began in January 2020 and will continue at least through the end of this year, but researchers Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, and Janice Iwama, of American University, presented their preliminary findings during the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s meeting Tuesday. 

The data showed that of all traffic and pedestrian stops of white people, 5.3% resulted in a search. But 9.2% of law enforcement stops of People of Color resulted in searches — or about 1.7 times as often.

And when excluding searches that were incident to arrest, leaving only the “discretionary” searches, white people were searched in 3.8% of stops, and People of Color were searched in 7.2% of stops — about 1.9 times as often. 

Ideally, Iwama said, those rates would be the same, but Douglas County’s data was consistent with the nationwide reality that People of Color are searched at a higher rate than white people. 

The researchers’ grouping of People of Color was not broken down further into racial and ethnic groups, but officers were asked to denote on the data forms their perception of the person’s race, in categories of white, Black, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, or East Indian, and/or whether they perceived the person to be of Hispanic/Latinx ethnicity. 

Whether that information was accurate was not a key focus of this study, because the intent was to determine the officer’s perception of who they’re stopping. 

CJCC member Tamara Cash asked about the searches that result in no contraband found, and why those searches had occurred in the first place. 

Interim Lawrence Police Chief Adam Heffley said, as an example, that one possible reason could be that an officer smelled the odor of marijuana or alcohol but didn’t find any contraband in the search. 

“I’m hoping as we go forward with analysis that we will look at these stops and searches and find out more about their circumstances, because this degree of disparity warrants further questions,” Cash said.

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The researchers plan to present further analysis later this year or next year, but that timeline raised further concerns for CJCC members, including Cash and Shaye Downing, who represents the Douglas County Defense Bar. She said the data creates a sense of urgency for her. 

“What I don’t want to leave this meeting with is this idea that we’re just gonna wait until December and then we’ll figure out what happens thereafter,” Downing said. 

Sheriff Jay Armbrister said “the simplest answer right now is to at least give us an opportunity to look at the numbers, start looking deeper into the numbers and doing a deep dive.” 

“I agree it’s a sense of urgency and I understand your point, and it’s well taken,” he said. “But we’re going to need a little bit of time just to figure out what it is, even if the numbers show a huge racial disparity, we have to figure out where we’re going to do the work.”

He noted that this week was the first time any of the law enforcement agencies or the CJCC had seen the data.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said staff could also try to get a more detailed calendar of next steps that will occur between now and December. 

McDevitt said the researchers would also get rolling on examining the issues at the individual, officer level, compared to institutional and policy levels, as soon as they can. 

CJCC member Mariel Ferreiro said the community will see the egregious disparities in the data and want a clear path to move forward, and that the council would need to respond to that.

“The community is not going to be, and it shouldn’t be, happy with this information, this data, because it is continuing to prove issues that the community has been constantly bringing up,” she said. 


— Article updated at 2:15, 2:33, 3:46 and 4:10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10 to add charts and more data —

More coverage:

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times

‘This really smacks of harassment’: Study showing disparities in law enforcement prompts Lawrence community members to respond

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Researchers concluded that there is not widespread bias-based policing in Douglas County, but each law enforcement agency has areas of racial disparity and concern. Members of the Lawrence community have offered some feedback on how they can begin to improve.

Black drivers are nearly 3 times more likely than white drivers to get stopped by law enforcement in Douglas County, study confirms

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Researchers have finished a draft report from a long-running law enforcement contact study, which has confirmed that Black drivers are 2.73 times more likely to get stopped than white drivers in Douglas County, and drivers of color are 1.72 times more likely to be searched.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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