Researchers: Disparities in Douglas County traffic stops might be evidence of racial profiling, but more investigation is needed

photo by: Screenshot of Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting

Researcher Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, walked the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council through the results of a study examining whether there are racial disparities in local law enforcement agencies’ pedestrian and traffic stops during the group's Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 meeting.

Researchers who’ve been studying traffic stops in Douglas County say some of the racial disparities in their data might be evidence of racial profiling, but they can’t say for sure without more investigation.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the study commissioned by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has shown significant disparities between white drivers and drivers of color, including that Black drivers in Douglas County were nearly three times as likely as white drivers to be pulled over in 2020 and 2021. On Tuesday, Northeastern University’s Jack McDevitt walked the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council through some of the findings of the study, which collected data from more than 20,000 traffic and pedestrian stops.

McDevitt said that the study wasn’t enough to determine whether racial discrimination was at work. But he did say that some of the disparities raised red flags that indicated the data ought to be examined further.

“We’re not trying to say that these are racial profiling; that’s not what we’re saying here,” McDevitt said. “We’re saying that there’s disparities, and those disparities need to be looked at to see if there’s any racial profiling going on.”

According to adjusted census data, for example, researchers found 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. There were also some disparities in how often people of color were issued citations or searched during stops; for instance, the Eudora Police Department cited 25% of drivers of color who were stopped, compared to 14.2% of white drivers, and drivers of color were almost three times as likely as white drivers to be searched by Douglas County sheriff’s deputies during a stop.

On Tuesday, McDevitt repeatedly said that racial disparities and racial profiling aren’t the same thing, and that the disparities alone don’t show whether racial profiling has occurred. He said racial profiling is a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, by an individual law enforcement officer, and that’s not something social science can measure.

“We can’t, as social scientists, measure what was going on in an officer’s head,” McDevitt said. “That is something that maybe a psychologist could do, but social scientists like us can’t. But what we can do is to say if officers were acting in a biased way, there would be a pattern of disparity that we can identify.”

The researchers included some recommendations in their study to help spot those kinds of patterns. Specifically, researchers recommend that law enforcement agencies continue to collect and monitor traffic stop data, and also conduct follow-up analysis of areas where there might be evidence of racial profiling to better understand whether there’s a need for corrective action.

Douglas County Undersheriff Stacy Simmons was the only leader from the county’s law enforcement agencies who participated in Tuesday’s meeting. Law enforcement officials will, however, be a part of a public meeting and panel discussion about the study at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.


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