Crime & Courts

Police more likely to use force against black Wichitans. Chief looks for fixes.

What does use of force look like in Wichita?

Here's a look at how police officers use force in Wichita.
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Here's a look at how police officers use force in Wichita.

Black residents find themselves at the receiving end of force by Wichita police at a rate higher than any other race.

The Eagle analyzed newly released data that examines use of force within the Wichita Police Department. The data tracks how many times a Wichita officer threatened a resident with force and how many times physical force was used. The data categorizes race by white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and unknown.

Most of the data dates to 2009, but because of the newness of the data set, it's not complete.

The data showed:

  • On average, a Taser is used during a traffic stop once a week in Wichita, and 12 percent of those residents who were stopped were black. Of all traffic stops in the same time period, less than 1 percent ended in the usage of a Taser.

  • Of the 11,290 instances where a resident was shoved, or “muscled,” by a Wichita officer, 33 percent of them were black and 11 percent were Hispanic. In comparison, blacks make up 11 percent of the city's population and Hispanics 15 percent.
  • Of the residents who were pepper sprayed, 57 percent of them were black and 12 percent Hispanic.

  • Forty-seven people were bitten by a police dog. Thirty-two percent of them were black.

  • Of the lethal-force cases included in the data, 43 percent of the victims were black.

City Council member Brandon Johnson, who earned a reputation as a social justice activist and an advocate for better community/ police relations before running for the council, said he wasn’t surprised by the numbers. He said the issue of racial inequality in the law extends well beyond street patrol and all the way through the justice system.

“Black people are about four and a half times more likely to stay in custody longer than their white counterparts,” he said. “The sentences were longer than their white counterparts. The opportunities for diversion were less than their white counterparts. Opportunities for probation instead of serving time were less than their white counterparts.”

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay also said there’s racial inequality across the board, from health care to education and the workforce. Minorities also are victimized more than white residents in Wichita. Out of the 13 homicides in the city this year, Ramsay said 10 of the victims were either black or Hispanic.

“All those numbers are off the chart,” he said. “What happens in law enforcement and what you see across the country is that we’re often the flashpoint for all these issues at once, for all these disparities that are not getting the attention they should.”

Both men agree that changing the way the system treats minority residents starts with law enforcement.

“I’ve taken the stance that police should be leaders in not only trying to reduce and resolve the disparities in our system but in all systems,” Ramsay said.

The Eagle spoke with Ramsay and Johnson separately, and Johnson spoke highly of Wichita's police chief. He said he feels confident the numbers will shift for the better in the next five to 10 years.

“Chief Ramsay has been a breath of fresh air on the (police) force, because he also recognizes (the disparity) and is working to resolve it,” Johnson said recently. “I think Chief Ramsay said it takes six to eight years to completely change a department. Early on I thought that was a little long, but when you begin to think about the intricacies of a patrol office today, it might take that, and he's willing to stay here for a long haul.”

And Ramsay is now asking a question of his department: "How do we fix this?"

Threatening force

When he looked at the data, one point in particular stuck out to Johnson.

“It was interesting to see that even the lack of use of force wasn’t in our favor,” he said. “That I noticed on just a glance through (the data). It seems that those options of grace were less likely to go to black Wichitans.”

For instance, of their contacts with noncompliant residents, officers gave 48 percent of white residents a verbal warning to comply; 34 percent of black residents were given verbal warnings.

Officers have threatened people with a handgun 2,581 times. Black residents, who account for 11 percent of the total population, made up 53 percent of those contacts, whereas white residents made up 32 percent.

Only 15 police departments in the 91 largest cities, including Wichita, require officers to document when they verbally threaten a resident, according to a study completed in 2016 by Campaign Zero, an organization launched by activists that examines police brutality across the country.

Keeping track of threats falls under the “use of force continuum” rule, which Wichita uses. It is a standard that provides officers with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a person resisting any given situation.

According to the National Institute of Justice, that continuum goes in a certain order, which can be adjusted to fit the situation.

  • Officer presence — No force is used, and it’s considered the best way to resolve a situation.

  • Verbalization — Force is not physical, but officers can use nonthreatening commands like “Let me see your identification and registration.” If needed, that command can increase to “stop” or “don’t move.”

  • Empty-hand control — Bodily force can be used to gain control of a situation. A soft technique includes an officer grabbing a suspect. That escalates to a hard technique, where an officer kicks or punches a suspect.

  • Less lethal methods — These methods include the use of a baton, chemical spray or a Taser device.

  • Lethal force — The National Institute of Justice says lethal force should be used only if a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual. This includes the use of a firearm or other deadly weapon. Wichita’s policy requires a warning before shooting.

This is why the “use of force” data includes officer presence and verbal commands as a reason of force.

Leading to transparency

The city voluntarily put the data on its website - - and Ramsay said he was thankful.

“Part of why I want this data to be out there is to have these discussions,” he said. “No longer can police just say, ‘You know it is what it is.’ We want to be the people who help solve these issues, but it’s much bigger than just police. Police chiefs have to be the leader and have to start the conversation.”

He'd like to see more data added to the website, including citizen complaints against police.

“I want people to see if the complaints are founded or unfounded,” he said. “People say nothing is ever done, but the data doesn’t reflect that. Hopefully this (the release of use-of-force data) is the start of getting more data online.”

Johnson sees it as an important step toward greater transparency by the city.

“When people say (bias) is not happening, they can go click and see, yes, it is,” he said. “I know we’re working hard on getting more information onto that open data portal. It’s extremely important.”

Longtime problem

The disparity between police contacts with black and white residents had been known long before Ramsay became Wichita’s police chief in 2016.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office tracks bias complaints against police departments. Since 2011, at least 73 complaints have been made against the Wichita Police Department. All reports were either unfounded or are listed as still being under investigation.

A study completed by Wichita State University in 2014 found that police ticketed black motorists at disproportionately higher rates than white motorists. African-Americans accounted for 22 percent of people given traffic citations.

Michael Birzer, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University, headed the 2014 WSU study. He researches police-citizen contacts, especially contacts with minority citizens who say they have been racially profiled.

He said one piece of information the data doesn’t give is what led to force being used.

“During a negative encounter where there is an arrest, generally use of force is used at a higher rate with African-American citizens when compared to Caucasians,” Birzer said. “However, we have to be careful how we read into that, because again, these are all situational and data is usually lacking about the situational context. Many departments don’t keep that data – only that force was used.”

While Wichitans can’t see what happened during each traffic stop where force was used, they can see the age and race of the driver, along with why force was used and what type of force was used.

Can we fix bias?

Acknowledging that bias exists and not being afraid to address it is the first step in creating change, Johnson said.

Asked how you get someone to recognize their biases, he said, “You have to be in a position where you feel your boss or employer will allow you to still keep your job with your bias.”

And that goes for anyone, no matter what race, he said.

“Everyone has a bias somewhere,” he said. “It might not be racial, it might be generational or something else. The quicker we can all acknowledge that we have a bias, we can find ways to work through that, that’s when the system changes.”

Most biases, he thinks, are subconscious and created through environment.

“If an officer is found to have a racial bias, there's public pressure to get rid of that officer,” he said. “But where's the training? Where is opportunity for the officer to learn? … Subconsciously it's not something you just admit, but it's something that you see grow in you over time, and it has to be addressed.”

More than 800 members of the department went through implicit bias training in October. Ramsay said at the time that it was just one of several efforts designed to improve community relations. The training focused on officers discovering and acknowledging their own biases so they could begin working to correct them.

Johnson said the chief has created several initiatives to combat bias in policing – including working on de-escalation techniques and community engagement.

It could very well take six to 10 years to change the department, but as Johnson said, Ramsay is committed to making Wichita better.

Asked why it'll take so long, Ramsay said, "All organizations are resistant to change."

"As I came in and filled my team, we pushed a lot of these initiatives forward; I have to make sure I have the right people in the right seats who are in line with my vision and the direction I want to go, because not everybody agrees," he said. "Cultural change in policing is difficult. We either need to change or we’re going to be changed. We recognize these numbers need our attention. No longer can we just say the numbers are what they are."

Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed man, was shot by the police in his backyard in Sacramento on March 18. Police body camera and helicopter footage shows details of what happened.

Nichole Manna, 316-269-6752, @NicholeManna