Crime & Courts

WSU study: Kansas cops feel bias against them, say they don’t focus on race

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Police across Kansas feel they are targets of “built-in” bias and say they are wrongly accused of racial profiling.

Those sentiments underlie findings of a new study by a Wichita State University professor for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Specifically, 39 of 61 officers interviewed for the research said they had been accused of racial profiling at least once during a traffic stop. Yet none said they were the subject of a formal complaint following the traffic stop.

One Hispanic officer “said he has been accused of racial profiling at least fifty times,” says a 59-page analysis compiled by Michael Birzer, a professor of criminal justice and director of WSU’s School of Community Affairs. The officers were from 15 agencies, including the Wichita Police Department.

Last year, Birzer completed a study for the city of Wichita finding 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 from November 2012 through April 2013. That report said the results don’t prove that racial profiling exists because a number of factors may influence who gets ticketed by police. For example, if police are deployed more heavily in minority neighborhoods, it might explain why more minorities are being stopped. It can “present the perception of racial profiling even though it may not be occurring,” the report said.

The latest Birzer study, commissioned by the state, was designed to get officers’ perspectives. Birzer interviewed or spoke with the officers multiple times and met with them in focus groups.

Besides the Wichita department, the officers were from the Andover, Arkansas City, Derby, Dodge City, Eastborough, Kansas City, Lenexa, Newton, Pittsburg, Topeka and Wichita State University police departments and the Reno, Shawnee and Sumner County sheriff’s departments.

Many of the interviews were taking place as the tense situation in Ferguson, Mo., where a black teen was fatally shot by a white officer, was unfolding, Birzer said.

“We have an opportunity to look at both sides of this issue,” Birzer said. One sound approach to police-community relations, he said, seems to be “good, old-fashioned interaction, communication, just the little things that don’t cost a lot of money.”

“If every officer treated their beat like Andy Taylor” – the sheriff in the small town of Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV in the 1960s – “that can go a long, long ways,” Birzer said.

On being accused

The officers said that when they were accused of stopping motorists because of their race, usually it was an African-American accusing them.

Asked how they responded to the accusation, officers said they tried to explain the specific reason – speeding or a defective brake light – but they thought motorists accepted the explanation only part of the time.

One white officer told a black driver that he couldn’t see his race until he walked up to his car.

One officer shared this: “Some officers don’t care and won’t take a few extra minutes to explain to the citizen why they are being stopped and that’s a problem.”

The officers, two-thirds of whom are white, are not identified by name or agency.

Another theme: Officers suspected that minority drivers accusing them of racial profiling were trying to intimidate the officers. They suspected it was a way to evade a ticket or to try to distract the officer because the motorist had a suspended license or something to hide.

“Only a very few officers indicated that racial minority citizens allege racial profiling because they genuinely believe they were stopped because of their race,” the report said.

Officers said minorities had a bias against them that has been taught. One black officer said: “African Americans learn not to trust the police from a young age. … Older generations of African Americans had bad experiences with the police and so that leaves a bad impression of the police which is passed down generationally in families.”

A white officer said that when he said “Hi” to children in a car during a traffic stop, the adults “will tell the kids don’t talk to the police.”

Media blamed

Officers blame the news media for part of the negative image, saying that media skew their reporting against police when it comes to the issue of racial profiling, and that media “over-report” on cases like the shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

“So I really think the media are like weather chasers,” one officer said. “They are going to report anything, and objectivity doesn’t really matter.”

What people don’t understand, officers said, is that they are targeting crime, not minorities. Police call it “proactive policing.” The problem is, the same neighborhoods where they go after gangs and drug trafficking often are home to many low-income minorities. The officers said they learn from experience to look for certain clothing, gestures and behavior for crime indicators – not race.

“So when you’re driving along and these indicators start popping up you’re like wow,” one officer said.

Police also defend their use of “pretext” stops, where they are stopping someone for a minor traffic violation because they suspect the person of something more serious. For example, an officer might stop a driver for not signaling soon enough after the car leaves a drug house. The report notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld pretext stops.

“My biggest case came from using a pretext stop for a defective headlight,” an officer said.

A black officer from eastern Kansas said he once wondered about a fellow officer who always seemed to be pulling over black men.

“But getting to know him over the years,” the officer said, “I realized that he is not like that at all, he just has this photographic memory for criminals regardless if they are white, purple, black or red and when he passes you he’s on it.”

Training criticized

Police say their racial-profiling training is “boring,” “bland” and “mind numbing” and should be more interactive. Some officers proposed bringing in minorities during the training so the citizens would understand the officers’ view.

It goes both ways. Birzer noted in an interview about his latest study that when he talked with minorities for his Wichita racial profiling study, they said they wanted to see officer training “so police could have a better understanding of them and their culture.”

Part of the problem is that minorities don’t have enough positive contact with police, a white officer said in the latest study.

Another sentiment is that officers have to be smart and realistic about their public relations effort. “I mean, holding a feed or a barbeque in the middle of the hood with a bunch of cops is not going to do it,” one officer said.

The media also need to be invited to officer training so they can be better educated about police work, officers said.

A white female officer said about the media: “Maybe if they gave as much attention to the positive things that we do that would be a start. It takes one bad incident to wipe out all good things that go on.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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