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Smarter Policing Trumps More Policing, From Ferguson to Kansas City and Beyond

Interstate 70 is the main east-west highway across the state of Missouri, with St. Louis on one end and Kansas City on the other. While the events in Ferguson during this past week have garnered the attention – the continuing protests stemming from the release of the DOJ report; the departures of Ferguson’s city manager, police chief, two police officers, the city’s municipal judge, and the clerk of the municipal court; and the shooting of two police officers – a radio interview in Kansas City shines a very powerful spotlight on what’s underneath the unrest in Ferguson.

Charles Epp, Donald Haider-Markel, and Steven Maynard-Moody are faculty members at the University of Kansas. Epp and Maynard-Moody teach in the School of Public Affairs and Administration, while Haider-Markel is the chair of the Political Science department. Together, the three conducted a major study of policing practices in metropolitan Kansas City, focusing specifically on traffic stops. The result was Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, summarized by the publisher like this:

In sheer numbers, no form of government control comes close to the police stop. Each year, twelve percent of drivers in the United States are stopped by the police, and the figure is almost double among racial minorities. Police stops are among the most recognizable and frequently criticized incidences of racial profiling, but, while numerous studies have shown that minorities are pulled over at higher rates, none have examined how police stops have come to be both encouraged and institutionalized.

Pulled Over deftly traces the strange history of the investigatory police stop, from its discredited beginning as “aggressive patrolling” to its current status as accepted institutional practice. Drawing on the richest study of police stops to date, the authors show that who is stopped and how they are treated convey powerful messages about citizenship and racial disparity in the United States. . . .

The researchers surveyed over 2300 people about their driving habits, including their interactions with police. They then looked at those who had been stopped, and tried to sort out what the data was telling them. They quickly noticed racial disparities, but wanted to parse out exactly what was going on. They then separated the stops into two groups: traffic safety stops and investigatory stops. The former were for things like speeding, running a red light, and other violations that might result in harm to either the driver or others. The latter were for things like a broken tail light.

In the survey responses that fell into the traffic safety stops category, the researchers found little disparity due to race. If you blew through the stop sight and the cop was sitting right there, you were going to get pulled over. Similarly, there was no significant difference based on race as to whether the stop would result in a warning or a ticket, and no particular difference in the way the police interacted with the drivers based on the driver’s race.

The investigatory stops, on the other hand, revealed huge differences. Epp recently sat down with KCUR’s Up To Date call-in show, and here is how they summarized his comments:

Initially, they [the researchers] found some disparities in traffic stops, but not any in speeding and who was ticketed.

They dove further and started gathering narratives about traffic stops from within their sample. The white drivers, Epp said, generally had much shorter stories. They weren’t indignant about the stop, and most acknowledged that they deserved a ticket.

“Then we go to the stories of the black drivers. Story, after story, after story was remarkably different from what we had heard from white drivers,” Epp said.

They heard stories of people who had been pulled over for having a burned out license plate light, for example, and then been questioned about what they were doing in a particular neighborhood, where they were heading, and whether they were carrying drugs. Many were subject to vehicle searches.

They categorized the data into two different categories. “Traffic safety stops” were stops for obvious violations of traffic law. The other kind of stop, which they referred to as “investigatory stops” were for small technical violations, which led to longer conversations with probing questions.

In traffic safety stops, the researchers found no racial disparity, but they found that blacks were 2.7 times more likely to be pulled over in an investigatory stop. Blacks were also subject to searches five times more often than white drivers.

“As you can imagine, when you have experienced a stop for very small technical violations, and the officer very quickly starts asking you questions, that from many perspectives seem quite inappropriate,” said Epp. “African American drivers feel resentful of these kind of intrusions, indignant, and they begin to lose trust in the police.”

He said that more than half of the black drivers the surveyed said they avoid driving in certain areas of the city for fear of how police might treat them.

Epp went on to say this wasn’t simply a Kansas City thing, either. He and his co-authors regularly teach classes that include police officers from across Kansas (as well as other states) who are pursuing their master’s degree, and as the authors discussed their research in class, these officers nodded in recognition. But that recognition then turns into a discussion of policing practices, namely, whether investigatory stops (when not done for racist reasons) are helpful. During the KCUR interview, Epps put it like this when talking about investigatory stops, speaking of “the police” more generally and not necessarily the opinions of those in his classes: “At this point [that is, in 2015] the police widely believe that these types of [investigatory] stops are useful for stopping crime, for getting drugs off the street, or illegal guns off the street. But they don’t quite recognize the harms that these [stops] are producing for very real people, and the way in which this drives a wedge between police and the community.” (Go listen to the whole discussion at the link above — it’s well worth it.)

Which brings us back to Ferguson, at the other end of I-70. From the DOJ report:

City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of “personal responsibility” among “certain segments” of the community. Our investigation has found that the practices about which area residents have complained are in fact unconstitutional and unduly harsh. But the City’s personal-responsibility refrain is telling: it reflects many of the same racial stereotypes found in the emails between police and court supervisors. This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Community Distrust

Since the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, the lack of trust between the Ferguson Police Department and a significant portion of Ferguson’s residents, especially African Americans, has become undeniable. The causes of this distrust and division, however, have been the subject of debate. Police and other City officials, as well as some Ferguson residents, have insisted to us that the public outcry is attributable to “outside agitators” who do not reflect the opinions of “real Ferguson residents.” That view is at odds with the facts we have gathered during our investigation. Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. This approach results in patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and neglects community engagement. In recent years, FPD has moved away from the modest community policing efforts it previously had implemented, reducing opportunities for positive police-community interactions, and losing the little familiarity it had with some African-American neighborhoods. The confluence of policing to raise revenue and racial bias thus has resulted in practices that not only violate the Constitution and cause direct harm to the individuals whose rights are violated, but also undermine community trust, especially among many African Americans. As a consequence of these practices, law enforcement is seen as illegitimate, and the partnerships necessary for public safety are, in some areas, entirely absent.

That, my friends, is what a Wedge looks like, with a capital W. Ferguson may be a very blatant, very visible, and very well documented example of it, but it’s hardly the only place it can been seen.

Protesters, academic researchers, and reform-minded police officers aren’t asking for less policing of their communities – they want smarter policing. But as long as mayors like Ferguson’s James Knowles try to play the “bad apple” card, and whine about “harsh language” from Eric Holder, smarter policing is not going to happen.

Ferguson has a city council with six members plus the mayor, and three of those council seats are up for election in just a couple of weeks, with no incumbents looking to be reelected. The city council has a lot of high profile positions in the municipal government to fill – police chief, municipal judge, and city manager, just to name three – and I can’t see that happening before the council elections.

Which kind of makes those elections rather important.


photo h/t to Scott Davidson and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.