Lawrence police chief says one officer who engaged in biased policing is no longer employed, details other efforts to address bias
photo by: City of Lawrence
As city leaders heard about a study of racial disparities in traffic stops in Douglas County, the Lawrence police chief said that one officer who “was engaged in bias-based policing” was no longer employed by the department.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received a presentation on a study of traffic and pedestrian stops in Douglas County. The study showed disparities in the number of stops, searches and citations between white people and people of color by Douglas County law enforcement agencies.
Mayor Courtney Shipley said that presumably the Lawrence Police Department was already doing implicit bias training, and she asked what the department was doing when disparities were identified.
Police Chief Rich Lockhart said that if there are indications of bias-based policing, the first step is showing officers their stop data. He said the notice to the officer about the biased behavior is documented, and if it continues then further “corrective measures” are taken.
“We did actually have an officer who was engaged in bias-based policing; that officer is no longer with us,” Lockhart said.
Five agencies participated in the traffic stop study: the Lawrence Police Department, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Baldwin City Police Department, Eudora Police Department and University of Kansas Police Department. The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council commissioned the study, which examined more than 20,000 traffic and pedestrian stops that area law enforcement officers conducted from the start of 2020 to the end of 2021.
Some of the specific findings of the study include that Black drivers were nearly three times as likely as white drivers to be pulled over for a traffic stop in Douglas County, and drivers of color were nearly twice as likely to be searched.
Jack McDevitt, a researcher involved in the study, told commissioners that similar to other cities, a small number of officers do most of the stops or searches in Douglas County, which can potentially make interventions easier. Specifically, he said that throughout the two-year study, 60% of all the officers in Douglas County made 50 or fewer traffic stops each, 11% made more than 200 stops each, and 1% made more than 500 stops each.
“So you are really concentrated in a few bodies,” McDevitt said. “I think that’s a good point, because you can intervene with those individuals — those are the ones that are driving your numbers.”
McDevitt said the law enforcement agencies have already been provided the stop data collected by study, which includes individualized officer data. He said if the data indicates certain officers are stopping more people of color, then those officers can be put on notice, given unconscious bias training and provided other interventions. He said over the next couple of days he and fellow researcher Janice Iwama would be meeting with each agency to go over the data.
Lockhart said that even before the study, the department has been aware of monitoring officers’ behavior to ensure that bias-based policing isn’t taking place within the department. He said the department knew there were areas that needed improvement and would continue to look at stop data. He said the upcoming budget includes a request for new ticketing software that will allow for a greater level of analysis.
“I think it’s really important to our department as we reimagine policing in Lawrence to take a look at traffic stops,” Lockhart said. “We know there’s an area there for improvement, and so one of the things that we’re going to be looking at is how do we make that happen here in Lawrence?”
He noted the department has already reduced the number of traffic stops and citations, particularly for minor violations related to disrepair of a vehicle. Lockhart referenced a presentation provided to the commission last week that detailed those changes. According to the presentation, the department “deprioritized” traffic stops in June of 2020, calling for officers to limit stops to clear safety issues and “use education over citation.”
“We’ve de-emphasized those minor equipment violations, and we’re actually writing fewer tickets this year than we have been ever,” Lockhart said. “So I think there’s fewer opportunities for those disparities as well.”
A table included with the presentation indicated that since traffic stops were deprioritized, both the number of citations and the number of traffic crashes have declined. For example, in 2021 Lawrence police issued 43 traffic citations per 1,000 residents compared to 85 per 1,000 residents in 2019. Both noninjury and injury crashes also declined in that time period.