Traffic stop study: Black drivers in Douglas County were nearly 3 times as likely to be pulled over as white drivers

From the start of 2020 to the end of 2021, Black drivers were nearly three times as likely as white drivers to be pulled over for a traffic stop in Douglas County, according to a study examining law enforcement contact with people of color.

The study of pedestrian and traffic stops was commissioned in 2019 by the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and the results were published in a report this month. Since Jan. 1, 2020, researchers Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, and Janice Iwama, of American University, have been collecting data from the University of Kansas Police Department, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, and the Lawrence, Baldwin City and Eudora police departments. The researchers have analyzed data from more than 20,000 traffic and pedestrian stops, seeking to determine whether any racial and ethnic disparities exist throughout the county.

One key finding of the study was that Black people made up 4.3% of the county’s driving-age population but that they accounted for 11.9% of the county’s traffic stops in 2020 and 2021. White people, meanwhile, made up 82% of the county’s driving-age population and accounted for roughly 82% of traffic stops. That means a Black driver’s chance of being pulled over in Douglas County would be 2.73 times that of a white driver.

There were also disparities in how frequently individual law enforcement agencies throughout the county escalated stops beyond a warning. For example, the Eudora Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office were more likely to issue a citation — as opposed to just a warning — to people of color than to white people. With the Eudora Police Department, 25% of drivers of color who were stopped were issued citations, compared to 14.2% of white drivers. And with the sheriff’s office, 19.2% of drivers of color who were stopped were cited, compared to 15.8% of white drivers.

Douglas County sheriff’s deputies were also significantly more likely to search a person of color during a stop than a white person. The percentage of drivers of color who were searched by deputies was 2.77 times the percentage of white drivers searched. For Lawrence police, the percentage of drivers of color who were searched was 1.82 times the percentage of white drivers searched. Overall, across all county law enforcement agencies, drivers of color were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched.

In light of these findings, the study proposes a number of recommendations for law enforcement agencies in the county.

For one, it urges agencies to continue collecting and monitoring traffic stop data for any persisting or new disparities. It also encourages agencies to work with the CJCC to review whether there are any types of data that should be added in a future analysis; the study didn’t examine drivers’ cities of residence, for example, but it says that could be particularly important in helping to understand the disparity in stops involving Black drivers.

Another recommendation calls for law enforcement agencies to consider adopting a “Lights On” program, which would give drivers with burnt-out lights or other equipment violations a voucher to help them pay for repairs, rather than giving them a citation.

The researchers behind the study are set to talk in detail about their findings during a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. The meeting will also include a panel discussion with leaders from the county’s law enforcement agencies.

The study is also on the agenda for a number of other meetings involving county leaders early next week. Along with the CJCC’s monthly meeting from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, it’s also on the agenda for the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting that evening at 5:45 p.m. The Douglas County Commission will also examine the study Wednesday during a 4 p.m. work session ahead of its regular meeting that evening.


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