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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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Post updated at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 8:

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.

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The researchers will be in town this week to share their findings during a few public meetings, including one specifically for community members to come ask questions. That’s coming up at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lawrence Public Library. It will also include a panel with local law enforcement leaders.

Local leaders have long been looking to find the root causes of staggering racial disparities in the local criminal legal system. The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council learned in June, for instance, that the incarceration rate of Black people in Douglas County is more than 6.5 times that of white people, and Black people are booked into the jail at almost 4 times the rate of white people. Both disparities have worsened since 2020.

As many criminal cases start with an initial point of contact in a traffic or pedestrian stop, local leaders in 2017 started looking into a study that would determine whether racial profiling is widespread among area law enforcement.

All five area law enforcement agencies — Lawrence, University of Kansas, Baldwin City and Eudora police departments and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office — participated in the pedestrian and traffic stop study by researchers Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, and Janice Iwama, of American University.

The study includes data gathered from January 2020 through December 2021 — nearly 20,000 traffic stops, and nearly 1,000 more pedestrian stops. In many places throughout the report, the researchers indicate that disparities persist even when adjusting for certain factors and variables.

Officers filled out data forms about each stop they made, including the location, time, reason, duration, outcome and more.

They also documented the residency of the subject — whether in Douglas County, another Kansas county, out-of-state or a different country — and the officer’s perception of the subject’s gender, race and ethnicity (including 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 their perception of the subject’s identity was accurate was immaterial, because the study was specifically to determine officers’ biases, which are based on perceptions that might not always be accurate.

Some findings

Much of the information in the draft report has been shared with the CJCC before, but the report added more complete sets of data, a narrative and recommendations.

The study determined that “Black drivers, who are residents of Douglas County, were stopped 2.73 times more than would have been expected given the makeup of the Black population in Douglas County.”

“When we look at the stops of Black drivers, we see a significant disparity with Black drivers making up about 12 percent of the drivers stopped in Douglas County over the study period but only making up about 4 percent of the driving age population in Douglas County,” the report says.

People of color were also 1.3 times more likely than white people to receive a citation for an equipment or inspection violation, or for speeding more than 10 mph over the speed limit.

All agencies besides LPD were more likely to issue a citation to drivers of color than white drivers, the report says. Eudora police were 1.76 times more likely to give drivers of color citations than white drivers, and DGSO deputies were 1.21 times more likely.

Search disparities

Officers were about twice as likely to discretionarily search people of color than they were white people, the study found.

Researchers have noted the importance of examining discretionary searches — those that officers choose to execute during a stop — as opposed to others that are done as part of policy. Everyone is searched when they’re arrested, for instance. When an officer is choosing to execute a search during a stop, “bias might be more expected,” the report states.

Based on discretionary searches alone, people of color were overall nearly twice as likely to be searched in Douglas County.

DGSO deputies searched people of color about 2.77 times as often as white people, which was the largest disparity.

LPD officers searched all subjects at greater rates, but they also searched people of color at 1.82 times the rate of white people. 

Eudora police recorded only 37 searches, but also searched people of color at a rate of 1.76 times the rate of white people. Baldwin City police recorded only 44 pedestrian and driver searches over the course of the study but actually searched people of color less frequently — 0.7 times as often as white people.

Consenting to searches

Notably, about 17% of all searches and frisks were conducted because the subject consented to being searched.

Overall, some type of evidence was found in 60% of searches. The study does not include information about how many of the consensual searches resulted in contraband found, nor are the consent searches broken down by race.

According to the ACLU of Kansas, if you’re stopped by police on the street, “You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings, and officers should inform you of your right not to consent. For the avoidance of doubt, always clarify whether you are able to refuse a search.”

You don’t have to consent to a search of your vehicle, either, if you’re pulled over, “But if an officer believes your car contains evidence, your car can be searched without your consent,” according to the ACLU. “In Kansas, however, the general odor of alcohol alone is not justification to search a vehicle.”

Other reasons for searches included probable cause (58.2%), a Terry frisk (5%), inventory/tow (3%) and searches incident to arrest (34%).

Recommendations

The study includes several recommendations. Among them:

 Law enforcement agencies should continue this data collection and follow up in specific areas where disparities were discovered.

“Similar to many other law enforcement agencies across the country, agencies in Douglas County should review the reasons for the stops by their officers with an eye towards whether certain low level high discretion stops are worth continuing,” the report states. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are asking whether such stops are making roadways safer or if they’re eroding trust between police agencies and, in particular, communities of color, the reports says.

The data from the study should be made available to the public via a data dashboard.

Local municipalities should look into providing vouchers to help drivers who are stopped for equipment violations to pay for repairs to their vehicles. This is one item the city of Lawrence has discussed as part of efforts to decriminalize poverty.

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Learn more and ask questions

There are four public meetings this week that will include a discussion of the study:

• Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 — 

Virtual only. Join the Zoom meeting via this link. Meeting recordings are generally uploaded to the county’s YouTube page the same day.

• Lawrence City Commission, 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Aug, 9 — 

The commission will hear from researchers as part of their regular meeting. Attend in person at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., or virtually. Register for the Zoom meeting at this link, or watch the livestream on the city’s YouTube page. Find the full meeting agenda here.

The commission will also discuss a proposed increase to residents’ water, sewer and solid waste rates. Read more about that at this link.

• Douglas County Commission work session, 4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10 — 

The commission will hear from researchers as part of a work session ahead of their regular meeting. Commissioners do not take action during work sessions.

Attend in person at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., or join the Zoom meeting via this link. Find the full meeting agenda here. Meeting recordings are generally uploaded to the county’s YouTube page the same day.

• Community presentation, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. —

Researchers will present their findings; then, new Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinator Katy Fitzgerald will moderate a panel discussion with local law enforcement leaders. Those in attendance will have an opportunity to ask questions.

The PDF of the study is below.

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

Share this post or save for later

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.

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