Wichita police ticket black motorists at higher rate than whites, a third study finds

07/04/2014 6:34 PM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

A Wichita State University study requested by the city found that Wichita police ticketed black motorists at disproportionately higher rates than white motorists.

While African-Americans made up only 11 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 22 percent of the people given traffic citations in the six months from November 2012 through April 2013.

Whites were underrepresented, accounting for 75 percent of the population but only 60 percent of the tickets, the study found.

The report emphasizes that the results don’t prove racial profiling exists.

“It says we still have a problem. The problem is nationwide. We still have a long ways to go,” said Sheila Officer, chairwoman of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita. The city is required by state law to have an advisory board.

The report, dated March 2014, just recently became available to top police officials. After seeing the report, Police Chief Norman Williams said: “Yes, there’s disparity, but disparity does not imply racial profiling. We continue to have a zero tolerance in the Police Department for racial profiling.”

The department has a rigorous process for dealing with racial profiling complaints, Williams said, adding that he will share the results with his department “because it’s information that we can all learn from, and it confirms that we’re moving in the right direction.”

It’s difficult to get support from the community if the perception is that police are stopping vehicles based on the race of drivers, Williams said.

The study isn’t the first by WSU academics to find that the city’s minorities have been disproportionately ticketed. Two previous studies, in 2001 and 2004, found that black motorists were stopped in disproportionately high numbers. The 2001 study found that although black residents made up only 11 percent of the Wichita population, they accounted for 21 percent of the drivers stopped by police. The second study found that black residents accounted for 18 percent of the drivers stopped.

Multiple factors

A number of factors may influence who gets ticketed by police, the report said.

“For example, if the police are deployed more heavily in minority neighborhoods it would not be surprising to find minorities overrepresented in stops,” it said. That can “present the perception of racial profiling even though it may not be occurring.”

Williams said that one of the underlying factors in why police patrol predominantly minority neighborhoods is that minorities make up a disproportionately high number of crime victims and crime offenders, which is backed up by the department’s statistics.

Michael Birzer, a professor of criminal justice and director of WSU’s School of Community Affairs, said that City Manager Robert Layton requested the study, which WSU did at no cost.

Walt Chappell, vice chairman of the Racial Profiling Board, said the board asked Layton to have the study done. The board’s motivation, Chappell said, was to answer basic questions after previous studies found disparity. “What’s happened since? Are we making any progress?” There should be regular studies looking at those questions, he said.

The latest study shows no evidence of improvement, Chappell said.

Chappell said his concern about traffic stops is not meant as a “blanket statement” against the department. “We have some excellent officers,” he said.

A police ‘dragnet’?

Chappell contends that officers are deployed to minority neighborhoods using a “dragnet” approach in which they stop people for minor traffic violations to try to catch something more serious. It infringes on people’s basic freedom, Chappell said. The result, he said, is that young black and Hispanic men are getting multiple tickets because of “their age and their skin color.”

Williams, the police chief, responded by saying that traffic stops are key in fighting crime. He noted that a traffic stop prompted the capture of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

“We do not do dragnets,” Williams said. “When you look at our gang enforcement ... it is very narrowly focused.”

In Chappell’s view, police try to justify focusing on minority neighborhoods as a way to stop gangs and close down drug houses. But that leads to innocent people being caught in the net, he said.

“Well, go after the criminals,” he said. “Don’t go after everybody driving up and down the street.”

The problem snowballs because the people getting ticketed often can’t afford to pay the fines and then lose their driver’s licenses, he said. “This is an economic problem as much as anything,” he said.

Layton, the city manager, said, “The report 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.”

Still, Layton said, he is confident that the city’s police strive to be fair and are not acting “because of the ethnicity of the driver. There are serious consequences in the department if that is discovered to be true.”

After he took his job, Layton said, he was impressed that the Police Department requires officers to report any incident in which they are accused of racial profiling. One criticism he has heard is that no officer is ever found guilty of racial profiling, but he said he has seen how the investigations occur and thinks the process is thorough.

A driver’s experience

Brendon Fox contends that he is one of the innocent motorists who have been cited because of racial profiling.

Fox, who is black, said he was driving a rental car – a new, orange Dodge Challenger – one day in May 2011, near 16th and Minneapolis. He was 52 at the time. He was driving slowly because he was looking for an address, when he noticed two police cars. One of the officers pulled him over and said he was driving suspiciously.

According to Fox, when he asked the male officer, who was white, how he was being suspicious, the officer said it was because he was driving slowly. Fox told the officer he had been a police officer at Wichita State University. The officer began asking who Fox was and why he was driving that car. The officer paused and asked whether Fox had anything dangerous on him, asked if he could search the car and search him, and Fox said no. The officer said he would call for a K-9 unit and would ticket him for not signaling his turn soon enough.

By then, Fox said, he was “ticked off” and told the officer he was a member of the governor’s racial profiling task force and that the stop seemed like racial profiling to him.

Fox said he understands policing not only because of his WSU job, but also because he worked as a civilian for the Wichita Police Department.

Fox said he told the officer’s supervisor, who had been summoned by the officer, that he would appreciate it if the officer didn’t give him a ticket, but the officer did. The supervisor told Fox that he hurt his case by alleging it was racially motivated, Fox said.

Fox filed a complaint with the Kansas Human Rights Commission, alleging racial profiling. The commission found probable cause that it had happened and forwarded its findings to the Wichita Police Department.

Fox, who is a former administrator, an instructor and founder of a mentoring group at Southwestern College in Winfield, said that “‘suspicious’ is a subjective term.” He argues that his citation was a “pretext stop.” He said police professional standards personnel later told him that he was driving in a high-crime area that has a drug problem.

To Fox, the officer fixated on the fact that he was driving a nice car. “The fact I’m an African-American man in an African-American neighborhood driving a nice car shouldn’t draw suspicion,” Fox said.

Fox said he was not trying to argue to police that he was “above the law.”

The traffic stop lasted about 35 minutes.

Williams said police followed protocols in dealing with Fox.

Other findings

For the latest traffic-stop study, WSU’s Birzer and Jodie Beeson received 34,299 citations from the Police Department. Some of the people received multiple citations, so they based their look on 25,073 people who got at least one citation. The citations included things like speeding and equipment violations, such as a broken taillight, and registration violations. Beeson is an assistant professor of criminal justice.

Among the report’s other findings:

• African-American and Hispanic drivers had a slightly higher risk for getting an equipment citation and moderately increased risk for getting a registration citation.
• The age of those ticketed varied by race. African-Americans and Hispanics under the age of 25 received more tickets compared with non-Hispanic whites. The average age of white drivers ticketed was 37; African-American drivers, 34; and Hispanic drivers, 32.

Citations occurred most frequently in the zip code areas of 67207, 67214, 67211, and 67218.

Officer, the chairwoman of the Racial Profiling Advisory Board, said she wants to see further study to pinpoint where the citations are occurring.

She said she thinks that Layton supports combating racial profiling and that “we’ve never had that before in a city manager.”

Officer said she hasn’t felt the same support from the police chief. She said he has declined invitations to meet with the advisory board.

Williams said the department has assigned a captain to attend board meetings. Williams said he has gone to some of the meetings but not all because of his schedule.

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