Published November 18th, 2020 at 6:00 AM9 minute read
Ryan Sorrell traces his belief that policing in America must change to the Black people who were killed while he studied at Loyola University Chicago.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald all died in highly publicized shootings, searing their names into the public consciousness while Sorrell earned his degree.
But he concedes that as a Black man, his feelings about law enforcement come from a deeper source.
When Sorrell was 15, he was in a car that was pulled over along a highway in Lee’s Summit.
What is seared in his memory is this: The policeman running to the car, gun drawn and seemingly ready to fire through the window and into the backseat where Sorrell sat.
Sorrell wasn’t even the driver that day.
Later, the officer told the teenagers that he saw one young man put his head down. He thought they were reaching for a gun.
“There were three of us, all Black teenagers,” Sorrel, 25, said. “It’s one of the many, many instances to me that is also police violence, but not necessarily police brutality.”
The incident is recorded among more than 30 million traffic stops carefully compiled by the state of Missouri since 2000.
Missouri has some of the nation’s most comprehensive and longstanding data on traffic stops — defined by those involved by sirens wailing and lights flashing. Yet for all of the tallying and annual reports and statements of concern issued by the state’s attorney generals, many argue that little has changed.
In fact, for Black drivers, the disparities seemingly have gotten worse during the past two decades, according to an analysis of the state’s records by Flatland.
Missouri’s efforts during the past two decades contextualize Driving While Black. The phrase gained currency during the 1990s when activists tried to convince people that African American and Latino drivers were being targeted by a policing bias that sees color and thinks criminal.
The term is less heard now. It’s been supplanted by Black Lives Matters and the names of Black people who died at the hands of police, often after what initially began as a traffic stop.
It’s not enough to just compile endless data sets.
The information must be thorough and then used by law enforcement, which must honestly assess what the information shows, said Marie Pryor with the Center for Policing Equity.
That includes disciplining or retraining officers if they are acting out of bias. Another important step is ongoing communication with the public, the sharing of findings in an accessible way.
“It really does need to start with the data and capturing what we are doing, so that we can work on solutions,” she said. “It’s approaching it from a scientific perspective rather than an emotional one.”
Pryor is among the authors of Collecting, Analyzing and Responding to Stop Data: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies, Government and Communities. The book, released in September, was completed in collaboration with the Policing Project at New York University School of Law.
It’s the most recent and thorough look at traffic stop data. Pryor said that it’s being well-received by law enforcement. She’s also been consulting with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, with the goal of bolstering the state’s collection and use of stop data.
“If we look at where we are now, anyone who is collecting this data is finding disparities,” said Pryor. “We are coming to the point where most people can agree that it occurs. But what are we doing to address it?”
That’s closely linked to what civil rights attorney Catherine Lhamon worked on for two years for the Commission on Civil Rights’s report on police use of force back in 2018. After two years investigating these issues, she said there’s more of a need to focus on the “serve and protect” part of policing.
“Data… gives a reason for the real fear that people of color, people with disabilities, LGBT people, low-income people experience in relationship to the police,” she said. “And that’s dangerous.”
To succeed, several things need to happen. Among them, federal accountability for data collection and analysis, which would help inform policies and provide insight for better training programs that emphasize racial sensitivity. Some data, she added, are self reported and are not shared with the Department of Justice.
Lhamon said the way local data are collected is “inconsistent at best,” which makes it difficult for federal agencies to see a full picture and point to the problem areas.
“If they don’t report it, then we don’t know about it, and we’re not doing anything about it,” Lhamon said.
Data such as Missouri’s collection of stop data can help keep police forces accountable, but the methods need an overhaul. Echoing Pryor, Lhamon said programs and policies need to be consistently enforced.
The civil rights commission made several recommendations to curb discriminatory behavior and use of force, which — as the data suggests — can happen at a stop.
One was to fund a way to collect and transmit data on a local and federal level. Another was that no officer should interact with the community until the officer has had training in constitutional policing principles, which include de-escalation training. What’s crucial, Lhamon said, is that change requires a commitment to patch the relationship between communities and law enforcement.
“We don’t get to check a box and move on,” she said. “What we ask of police officers is an enormous ask. And then we also expect them to be sure that they treat all of us constitutionally and they treat all of us fairly.
“On one hand, that’s an enormous ask. On the other hand, that’s the job so they should do it.”
The Thin Blue Line gives Capt. Chris Young the ability to focus on any intersection in Kansas City and detail every ticket that was written there in minute detail.
He can ask the computerized analytical program which officer wrote the ticket, the violation and many other details about the driver, the officer and the end result of the stop. The department bought the electronic ticket writing app, which police access from iPhones, and enhanced it to meet their needs about two years ago.
“There is nothing that they are doing in the ticket world that I can’t track,” Young said of the more than 40 officers and five sergeants that he oversees in the traffic unit.
But smaller police departments often do not have the financial resources for that level of technology, let alone the ability to conduct meaningful analysis. That prevents the type of drilled down look that she says is necessary before a department can determine if issues are rooted in training, policy or leadership.
Many law enforcement agencies, Pryor noted, are still writing out paper tickets or trying to plug information into an archaic system that “looks like 1997 computer databases.”
The Center for Policing Equity suggests that outside experts should be contracted for the work. Federal grants could be another answer, along with efforts to standardize what data is being collected, so accurate comparisons could be made among jurisdictions.
The sample form included in the guidebook is extremely detailed and takes into account many of the issues that police encounter, such as tracking if a person has a disability or is in a mental health crisis.
The onus has largely been on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) — some of whom have mental health disorders and disabilities — to de-escalate, not the other way around.
Where do we go from here when budgets are low, tactics haven’t worked and implicit bias training has proven faulty?
Studies have shown that officers in training or in the field already overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color. This starts with information found in the police academy curriculum, which has – in some cases – cemented pre-existing biases, according to the Commission on Civil Rights.
And, there’s another issue at hand. The lack of BIPOC in law enforcement. Bureau of Labor statistics data reveals significant disparity between officers who are BIPOC and white.
Reform – whether it’s diverting funds or reimagining how police are trained – is multifaceted.
Shanette Hall, an officer in St. Louis and a board member of the Ethical Society of Police (ESP), said without a blend of efforts – such as enforcing better policy and procedures, training against implicit bias and buy-in from each precinct – progress cannot be made.
“We definitely do constantly see death and the bad side of people, the side of people that (others) don’t necessarily see all the time, so I understand how that can kind of sway your thinking,” Hall said. “But we constantly have to check ourselves.”
She also noted a lack of resources to identify and remove cops with behavioral issues or bad track records.
Missouri has only two investigators in their Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) office responsible for reviewing complaints against police misconduct and stripping licenses. There are 16,000 police officers in Missouri – Kansas City being one of the largest organizations.
Police know that they are under heightened public scrutiny.
Young sat down with each of the more than 40 officers making up the five traffic squads that he leads for the Kansas City Police Department.
“We have to think about the optics whether we like it or not,” he recalled relaying to the officers of the traffic unit. “The perception of a community is reality.”
So Young has been clear with his officers about what he expects. They don’t want to over-ticket, seemingly penalizing someone for having a car that might not be in top working condition.
No officer is allowed to write more than three tickets at one stop unless a supervisor approves. Such shifts in approach are especially important now, Young said, with COVID-19 affecting people’s ability to work.
Traffic officers do not work in zones. Rather, they are expected to cover all of the city’s 315 square miles.
“I truly want to help patch this relationship with the public. I just don’t think that they know what we are already doing.”Capt. Chris Young, Kansas City Police Department
Young doesn’t want anyone to park themselves at a spot where it might be “easy pickings,” locations where higher unemployment and poverty would mean that a high proportion of the cars stopped could be cited for multiple violations.
Rather, traffic officers must spend half of their time on major thoroughfares.
“I truly want to help patch this relationship with the public,” Young said. “I just don’t think that they know what we are already doing.”
Attention to community/police tensions is high, possibly the highest since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet too often, those focused on solutions say, the loudest narrative pits Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.
That misses the fact that there is crossover, some agreement.
Police, protesters and policy experts concur that law enforcement is often being asked to do too much, expected to intervene in problems rooted in poverty, addiction or gaps in the treatment of mental health and equal access to a quality public education.
Many are seeking ways to realign policing toward actions that are most accountable to public safety.
Key to meeting that objective is focusing on provable information, the very sort of stop data that Missouri collects in abundance.
In Missouri, discussions between police and community have not always gone well, if at all.
Police tend to be defensive, at least at first, before opening up to productive meetings, said John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. He’s been advocating to improve Missouri’s stop data for nearly a decade.
“We’ve been compiling the data for 20 years now and it didn’t make a difference,” Chasnoff said. “The activist community has moved on to how to reduce police interactions with the community.”
Calls to “defund the police” are an example, a position that some have moved to out of exasperation that nothing else has gotten buy-in from policing.
“The public discussion always seems to get stopped,” said Chasnoff, who lives near St. Louis (University City).
A big barrier has been differing views on what a disparity in the ratio of stops versus a racial group’s numbers in that policing area actually proves.
He’s in agreement with other experts in calling for different benchmarks to measure the impact – the driving population for an area as opposed to the demographics for people living there.
That would allow the data to account for traffic that cuts through a municipality, drivers who do not live there.
“The disparity is a significant red flag and it can sometimes be explained, but not always,” Chasnoff said. “You owe the community an explanation at that point.”
That’s why his coalition has long backed legislation that would mandate town halls held with police.
The Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act seeks to move beyond data collection to consequences for officers who engage in racial profiling. It’s been backed by the Ethical Society of Police, Missouri Faith Voices, Empower Missouri, the ACLU, Grassroots Accountability Movement, among others.
But the bill has never progressed very far in the state legislature, Chasnoff said.
Such lack of progress is noted by activists like Sorrell, a co-founder of the group Black Rainbow.
He is among those who protest every Friday afternoon outside of the Kansas City Police Department headquarters. He doesn’t believe that policing can be reformed through relatively small changes. Trying to do so, he said, merely validates its role in society.
“One of the core paradigm changes that people have to have is rethinking what is the role of policing and rethinking what is public safety,” Sorrell said. “It takes some imagination. But we have to be bold enough and, to me, pragmatic enough to know what isn’t working.”
Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.