Researchers share process, goals of countywide law enforcement contact study

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Janice Iwama, of American University, and Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, respond to questions from attendees at a Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council presentation on a planned law enforcement contact study on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 at Flory Meeting Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

Douglas County’s pursuit of a study on law enforcement contact is unusual, a researcher told roughly 25 people who attended a presentation Thursday evening at Flory Meeting Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, has conducted similar studies in cities in Vermont and Missouri, as well as in Seattle and Boston — where data was gathered on 2.4 million traffic stops. But most of those have come after a lawsuit or an allegation of police misconduct. That wasn’t so in Douglas County, he said.

“Agencies got together and said, ‘We want to know. We want to be proactive,'” McDevitt said. “‘If it’s happening, we want to know ahead of time and not be reactive to a suit.'”

He and Janice Iwama, of American University, will be conducting what is formally dubbed the Law Enforcement Contact Study with a third researcher, Amy Farrell, of Northeastern University, who was not in town for the presentation.

As the Journal-World has reported, the study comes in part because African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the population of the Douglas County Jail. There is also “disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system,” said Robert Bieniecki, the county’s criminal justice coordinator.

The study will involve the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Lawrence, Eudora, Baldwin City and the University of Kansas — so each agency deals with a different population, which is something the research will take into account.

There will be opportunities to make modifications throughout the study’s process, the researchers said.

“It isn’t going to be real quick, mostly because your population is mostly white,” McDevitt said. “So from a statistical point of view, we have to have a certain number of stops of people of color to be able to tell whether or not there’s a pattern.”

The study aims to provide a way for officers to gather the necessary data — basic information, such as the time, date and location of a traffic or pedestrian stop, but also the person’s perceived race and other factors — without creating too much of a paperwork hassle for officers.

“This study is really based on who the officer perceives that individual to be at the moment that they are stopping them,” Iwama explained, so it’s not essential that officers be correct about a person’s race or ethnicity — perception is what the researchers care about.

Bieniecki said after the meeting that officers currently gather quite a bit of demographic information when they give a ticket. That’s not the case when officers let drivers go with a warning. That will change with this study, though.

Planning is the first of the study’s three phases; data collection and analysis will follow.

Law enforcement and the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will be able to fine-tune what data they collect as needed. In one previous study, McDevitt said, officers kept track of whom they searched, but they didn’t track the reason why. Some searches are nondiscretionary — or necessary, as in cases when someone is arrested — and some are not. Without the reason behind the search, McDevitt said, the data wasn’t very helpful.

Also, simply looking at the Census to determine whether disparities exist is insufficient, Iwama said — “we don’t like using it because it’s not an accurate measure of who’s driving out on the streets.”

“Crash data is a lot more accurate than using the Census data because it gives us a better understanding of who is out on the roads, and for the most part, particularly during the winter season, you get a lot of out-of-towners, a lot of nonresidents,” she said. “So we started developing a population database on the demographics we received from the crash data in order to compare that to the traffic stops.”

Over the next two or three months, the researchers will make sure law enforcement agencies are gathering data correctly, Iwama said. If one or two officers from an agency aren’t gathering the data as they should, researchers can check in with the police chief to determine what’s going wrong.

The study, which has been in the works for the CJCC for some time, will take two years to complete and cost $175,000.

McDevitt said the team will be back in town regularly, probably about once a month. In response to an attendee’s question, Bieniecki said he could envision having another similar public meeting in six months or so.

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