Early data from law enforcement contact study shows people of color more likely to be searched by police

photo by: Meeting screenshot/CJCC

Data shown to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council shows that people of color stopped by law enforcement are almost twice as likely to be searched by police.

People of color in Douglas County who come in contact with law enforcement are almost twice as likely to be searched by police, according to the preliminary findings of a local law enforcement contact study.

Additionally, across all searches, the most common outcome is that police will find no evidence that a crime has been committed.

Researchers Jack McDevitt, of Northeastern University, and Janice Iwama, of American University, presented this data to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Tuesday, giving the first glimpse of racial disparities among law enforcement contact with individuals. The study consisted of 16,000 law enforcement stops between January 2020 and July 2021.

Specifically, the study found that when police conduct searches that are not related to an arrest, 3.8% of white people who were stopped were then searched by police, while 7.2% of people of color who were stopped were then searched by police.

Meanwhile, the reported data also showed the most common outcome of police conducting a search on an individual — about 42% of the time — is the officer finding no evidence of a crime having been committed. However, about 40% of the time a police officer may find drugs or drug paraphernalia, according to the study.

photo by: Meeting screenshot/CJCC

Data provided to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council shows about 42% of the time local police agencies conduct a search of an individual the police do not find any evidence of a crime.

County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said that disparities in the data mirrored what law enforcement agencies see nationwide.

“Douglas County isn’t really unique,” Portillo said. “We’re just kind of proving we have the same kind of systemic racism that we see in other areas affecting our community.”

The one difference between Douglas County and other parts of the country is the willingness to look at the data, McDevitt said. He said there are thousands of police departments that won’t look at their data or consider that there may be a problem.

The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Douglas County, the City of Lawrence and other partners hired Northeastern University in 2019 to conduct the study as part of a $175,000 contract. McDevitt and Iwama helped develop and implement the process for documenting traffic and pedestrian stops in Douglas County.

The agencies participating in the study are the Lawrence Police Department, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, University of Kansas Police Department, Baldwin City Police Department and Eudora Police Department.

McDevitt said the data showed disparities, but didn’t specifically explain them. He said disparities do not automatically equal discrimination, but the agencies may need to “drill down” and collect more thorough data to determine what may be causing the disparities, such as whether an officer has an implicit bias, or if there is systemic bias that stems from agencies “over policing” certain neighborhoods, among other possibilities.

“This is the beginning of the conversation with the CJCC and the agencies to understand these disparities and move forward in that conversation,” McDevitt said.

The study will continue into the fall, with the researchers providing another report on the data. Iwama previously said the final report would not be complete until January or February of 2022. She said that report would include the recommendations for addressing concerns.

But some members of the CJCC asked to begin taking steps earlier than that, suggesting there needs to be more of a sense of urgency on an important issue.

Tamara Cash, a community member of the CJCC, said she wanted to begin studying more data related to what leads to police conducting a search on someone. She said she wanted to know what practices and policies may need to change to address the disparities.

“I feel like we are in a holding pattern, when every day, every week, every year counts for those individuals (being affected),” Cash said.

Sheriff Jay Armbrister said he planned to do that with the Sheriff’s Office after meeting with researchers. He said he may not have information to share immediately, but it was an issue he intended to work on.

Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer said the police agencies were seeing this data for the first time this week. He said he planned to bring the topic back up at the CJCC’s next meeting in September.

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