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

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Researchers have concluded that there is not widespread bias-based policing in Douglas County, but each agency has areas of racial disparity and concern.

Members of the Lawrence community offered some feedback Wednesday on how they can begin to improve.

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. They gathered data from January 2020 through December 2021 documented nearly 20,000 traffic stops, and nearly 1,000 more pedestrian stops.

Janice Iwama, of American University, and Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, presented the report years in the making at multiple public meetings this week.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Janice Iwama and Jack McDevitt

Read a short roundup of some of the report’s key statistics and see some charts and tables at this link, but here are a few of the key points:

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.”

People of color are nearly twice as likely as white people 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.

DGSO deputies were 1.3 times more likely to find no evidence or contraband when they searched people of color than when they searched white people — or in other words, white people were more likely to be in possession of some sort of contraband when deputies searched them.

More background: 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 this study to help determine whether racial profiling is widespread among area law enforcement.

Community meeting

Douglas County’s new criminal justice coordinator, Katy Fitzgerald, kicked off her first week on the job with several meetings about this research, culminating with a panel at the Lawrence Public Library on Wednesday evening.

Researchers gave their presentation for those in attendance, followed by a panel with some community and law enforcement leaders: Douglas County Undersheriff Stacy Simmons; KUPD Deputy Chief John Dietz; Eudora Police Chief Wes Lovett; and Vice Mayor of Lawrence Lisa Larsen.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times An audience listens to panelists discuss a law enforcement contact study, Aug. 10, 2022 at the Lawrence Public Library. Panelists, from left, are Vice Mayor of Lawrence Lisa Larsen, Eudora Police Chief Wes Lovett, KUPD Deputy Chief John Dietz and Douglas County Undersheriff Stacy Simmons. At right is Katy Fitzgerald, Douglas County’s new criminal justice coordinator.

Larsen, standing in for Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart, said the chief planned to continue collecting the data, and in one of his previous jobs, the University of Missouri-Kansas City had helped with data processing, so they’re going to look for a resource that can help in the longer term.

Simmons said the sheriff’s office is looking at what kinds of changes might be necessary in policy, training, and the culture of the organization.

Lovett said the Eudora PD reviews traffic stops with officers each month to ensure that they’re being safe, professional, courteous and impartial. He said it was difficult to get people on board with the data collection at first, but they understood it’s for a good reason and those challenges are in the past.

Dietz said change can be challenging, but “it’s getting officer buy-in; telling the officer, ‘We’re not out to get you, we’re out to hopefully prove we’re doing things right.'” He said KUPD’s stop data collection has been valuable to identify problematic areas.

Simmons said there are difficult conversations that need to happen honestly, and the issue of racial disparities in the sheriff’s office’s searches was one of them. The discussion continued well longer than the scheduled hour as community members began to ask their questions and share their viewpoints and suggestions.

Simmons said if a Black person is stopped and a deputy smells the odor of marijuana, that gives the deputy probable cause to search a vehicle. But if a white person is stopped — even someone with a known history with drugs — that search won’t happen if there’s no odor of marijuana. You can’t smell heroin, she said.

And “we can’t just search somebody because we know that they’re a drug dealer. That’s not how it works,” Simmons said, answering a question from an audience member who said their understanding was that a history of drugs meant an automatic search.

Simmons said heroin and fentanyl are huge issues in the community, but law enforcement can’t get those through a probable cause search based on odor at a traffic stop. Deputies have to set up surveillance and buys to go after those drugs.

Simmons also said shootings, stabbings and home invasions are often about drug money.

“Marijuana is not the cause of all of the other issues that you’re talking about,” a member of the audience said, and Simmons agreed.

“No, it’s heroin, it’s all this other stuff,” the audience member continued. “So to me, you’re using that as an excuse to pull these people over, charge them, but yet still, you allow these others to continue to do their dirt. So we’ve got to come up with a better method in addressing all this other stuff that’s causing havoc in our neighborhood, because it’s not actually marijuana.”

Simmons said people who have marijuana for personal use aren’t the problem, but she said marijuana, heroin and fentanyl are “all drugs that are in our community, and there’s money, and guns and shootings and stabbings and all those other things that go along with that. And it’s not the personal use marijuana — it’s the dealer.”

An audience member said that “The state doesn’t mandate you to search just because you’ve smelled marijuana.”

“That’s right, it doesn’t,” Simmons responded. “But when we have probable cause to do so, we don’t know what else is in that vehicle, so we’re going to check.”

Regarding searches in which no contraband is found — about 40% of all searches conducted throughout the study, and about 37% of DGSO’s searches — Simmons said those could stem from searches when a deputy smells the odor of marijuana, but they don’t find anything because it’s already gone.

More audience member’s perspectives:

• “It feels like you’re targeting (people of color) because of the disparities,” an audience member said.

• Another audience member suggested that law enforcement look at data on community members who are getting pulled over multiple times and see what that demographic data shows.

“There is a history of people of color being harassed at night, all the way back to the slavery and Reconstruction era. So that’s something that law enforcement should bear in mind, that this really smacks of harassment.”

• An audience member suggested that law enforcement come out into their communities and to kids’ games and be a positive force rather than showing up when someone’s done something wrong, just before Fitzgerald had to wrap it up because the library had closed for the evening.

More takeaways, and what’s next

• Keep it up: One of the researchers’ recommendations was that “we absolutely have to continue to collect this data. It is important,” Iwama said. They also recommended keeping a data dashboard that should be open to the public, and McDevitt said the county’s senior data analyst, Matt Cravens, will be developing that.

Continuing to gather data is important not only to keep monitoring for racial disparities, but also to measure productivity and effectiveness, Iwama said — is what law enforcement is doing working to reduce fatalities, crime rates and arrest rates?

• Supervisors: Law enforcement supervisors are key to controlling officers’ behavior, but it can be a difficult position for them, McDevitt said.

“Supervisors generally are pretty good at saying ‘Hey, you left early three days in a row,’ or ‘you’ve had two Fridays off, knock it off’ — but they don’t know how to say ‘you’re stopping too many people of color,'” he said. “And so to give the supervisors some tools to be able to have that conversation with the officers or deputies that they work with is really helpful.”

• Mapping data? Lawrence City Commissioner Amber Sellers asked researchers Tuesday if mapping would be possible to look for concentrated areas around stops and citations. McDevitt said the law enforcement agencies do have map data so they can see where their stops are taking place and where the disparities are. He suggested the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council would have the software and expertise to continue mapping data on stops.

• Progress reports: McDevitt said that law enforcement agencies should be able to come back in about 90 days to their city and county leadership with an update on their progress. Even if they don’t have much new traffic stop data, they should be able to say whether they’ve identified if they need to talk with certain officers about patterns they’re able to see at the individual level.

Individual officer data was not released as part of the public report, but each law enforcement agency has it.

Watch the other meetings: Criminal Justice Coordinating Council; Lawrence City Commission; Douglas County Commission work session

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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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