A year after a study found black and Hispanic drivers were three times more likely to be stopped by the Kansas Highway Patrol than other drivers, agency leaders say they're taking steps to fight racial profiling.
Many rank-and-file troopers viewed the study -- commissioned by Legislators in 2000 and released last spring -- as flawed and unfair, said Lt. John Eichkorn, a highway patrol spokesman. But overall, the agency has taken the approach that if the public believes it to be a problem, something must be done.
"We're not going to sit here and say 'That's not us,'" said Herman Jones, the patrol's director of administration. "If someone has a perception that you're doing wrong, you're doing wrong."
One step the agency has taken is adopting a written policy that prohibits "bias-based policing," defined in part as stopping people based solely on their race. The agency is looking at ways to recruit more racial minorities and encouraging troopers to visit multicultural events, he said.
The agency has also conducted town-hall meetings in Garden City and Salina and plans more in Kansas City and Emporia, Jones said. Almost all the patrol's vehicles have video cameras mounted in the windshield today, compared with about 90 percent about a year ago, Jones said -- a change that would have happened anyway.
Two community leaders give the highway patrol passing grades for its efforts in the past year.
"They came out and they said, 'Wow, this isn't so hot. We want to work on this,'" said Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, executive director of the Kansas African-American Affairs Commission. "I really believe that they're not just telling me these things, that they are doing these things."
David Haley, the Democratic state senator from Kansas City, Kan., who sponsored the bill that paved the way for the study, said he gave the highway patrol a "B" grade so far.
"Does awareness bring about a cure? I don't know," Haley said.
The study by the Washington, D.C.,-based Police Foundation asked troopers to record the race of drivers they stopped for a four-month period starting in late 2001. Troopers recorded stops on highways in four places: Interstate 70 from Interstate 435 to Topeka; Interstate 35 from the Oklahoma state line to Wichita; I-70 from the Colorado state line to Colby; and I-35 in Osage County.
The first three locations were selected by the highway patrol because of concerns racial profiling might be happening there, according to the study.
Researchers compared data gathered by troopers to Census figures taken by surveyors who'd driven along the highways recording the race of passing drivers. For example, on the stretch of I-70 nearest Douglas County, an estimated 4 percent of all drivers were black, but 14.7 percent of drivers stopped were black.
Nine other agencies were included in the study, but the list didn't include any other Lawrence-area departments.
Haley, the lawmaker, said the significance of the study was to affirm racial profiling happened routinely in Kansas.
But while Highway Patrol officials admit profiling does happen, they still view it as the work of a few "bad apples." Despite the agency's proactive public-relations stance, many troopers believed the study didn't represent how they do their job.
"I'm not going to say there's no racial profiling on the patrol. I personally haven't seen it to a degree that would have gotten my attention," said Brett Johnson, a trooper who patrols the Topeka area. "I haven't changed how I do my job at all ... Every time I make a stop, I have a legitimate violation."
Both Eichkorn and Johnson pointed out that officers who were gathering traffic data knew the purpose of the study. If a trooper was guilty of stopping motorists based on nothing more than race, they asked, wouldn't he or she alter the behavior while being studied by outside researchers?
Eichkorn said he didn't know the answer.
"I think it's very important that no one take this subject lightly at all," he said.