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Eagle editorial: Guard against racial profiling

  • Published Wednesday, July 9, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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A third study finding that black motorists in Wichita are ticketed at disproportionately higher rates than whites should to lead to more efforts to guard against racial profiling and, it follows, foster public trust. Data collection and an advisory board, though essential, aren’t enough.

To his credit, City Manager Robert Layton asked for the most recent Wichita State University study at the request of the city’s racial profiling advisory board.

The research showed that 22 percent of those given traffic citations from November 2012 through April 2013 were African-Americans, who are only 11 percent of the city’s population. WSU studies in 2001 and 2004 had found black drivers accounted for 21 and 18 percent, respectively, of motorists stopped by Wichita police.

The latest report included the worthy caution that “if the police are deployed more heavily in minority neighborhoods it would not be surprising to find minorities overrepresented in stops.” And as Police Chief Norman Williams noted to The Eagle’s Tim Potter, police presence in such neighborhoods is a reflection of the statistics showing a disproportionately high number of minorities among the city’s crime victims and crime offenders.

But it’s concerning that the African-American community is so consistently overrepresented in the police stops, and that the disparity was greater in 2012-13 than in 2004.

It’s one thing for Williams to say “we continue to have a zero tolerance in the Police Department for racial profiling.” Citizens need to believe it, and to see evidence that greater awareness and better training are deterring it on the streets.

Residents also need to be assured that complaints of racial profiling are taken seriously. The department’s reports to the state of complaints of racial or other bias-based policing from July 2011 through June 2013 listed all 38 complaints as either unfounded or still under investigation.

The racial profiling advisory board is important to oversight; attending its meetings should be a priority for the police chief.

The data hardly signals a systemic problem with the Wichita Police Department, which has fine officers and does an outstanding job of protecting the community day after day. And racial profiling persists nationally, with University of Kansas researchers recently finding that black drivers in Kansas City were nearly three times more likely to be stopped than white drivers.

But the Wichita study, as Layton said, “shows there is a disparity, and as long as there is a disparity, we need to drill down and determine the causes of the factors behind those numbers.”

The goal locally should be to move the needle on the next racial profiling study, and the one after that, so that the public can have confidence that driving while black in Wichita is no offense.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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