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Up To Date

Study Of KC Metro Traffic Stops Shows Race Deeply Embedded In Police Practice

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How many times have you seen a car pulled over at the side of the road and wondered why they were being pulled over?

Three professors at the University of Kansas did more than wonder. Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel started surveying drivers in the Kansas City metro area in 2004 and studied the research over the next 10 years. 

What they found is that race is deeply embedded in police practice.

They published a book last year on their findings called Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. The book won a 2015 Best Book Award for the American Society for Public Administration.

Charles Epp, one of the co-authors of the book, joined Steve Kraske on Up To Date. He says his curiosity about the subject began after he heard controversy in 1999 over racial profiling on the New Jersey turnpike and the Maryland turnpike.

“We were curious about the basic question— are black drivers stopped more frequently than whites?”

Epp and his colleagues started their research by sending surveys to more than 2,300 drivers in the Kansas City metro area, asking about their driving habits, how often they were stopped, and whether those stops ended in violations.

Initially, they found some disparities in traffic stops, but not any in speeding and who was ticketed.

They dove further and started gathering narratives about traffic stops from within their sample. The white drivers, Epp said, generally had much shorter stories. They weren’t indignant about the stop, and most acknowledged that they deserved a ticket.

“Then we go to the stories of the black drivers. Story, after story, after story was remarkably different from what we had heard from white drivers,” Epp said.

They heard stories of people who had been pulled over for having a burned out license plate light, for example, and then been questioned about what they were doing in a particular neighborhood, where they were heading, and whether they were carrying drugs. Many were subject to vehicle searches.

They categorized the data into two different categories. “Traffic safety stops” were stops for obvious violations of traffic law. The other kind of stop, which they referred to as “investigatory stops” were for small technical violations, which led to longer conversations with probing questions.

In traffic safety stops, the researchers found no racial disparity, but they found that blacks were 2.7 times more likely to be pulled over in an investigatory stop. Blacks were also subject to searches five times more often than white drivers.

“As you can imagine, when you have experienced a stop for very small technical violations, and the officer very quickly starts asking you questions, that from many perspectives seem quite inappropriate," said Epp. "African American drivers feel resentful of these kind of intrusions, indignant, and they begin to lose trust in the police."

He said that more than half of the black drivers the surveyed said they avoid driving in certain areas of the city for fear of how police might treat them.

“[These experiences] lead to what we might call a limitation on freedom to travel and a changed sense of your place in American society,” Epp said.

Several Up To Date listeners called in to share their personal experiences with traffic stops, from feeling like they were stopped because of the way they look, to bumper stickers and the appearance of their car.

Some stories echoed those that Epp shared from the survey. Luis, a caller from Lenexa, Kan., said he’s been pulled over many times, where officers just wanted “to make sure everything was OK.”

“I’ve been subject to more drug searches than I like to remember,” he said.

Epp said that he’s had conversations with Kansas City police officers about the issue.

“At this point the police widely believe that these types of stops are useful for stopping crime, for getting drugs off the street, or illegal guns off the street. But they don’t quite recognize the harms that these [stops] are producing for very real people, and they way in which this drives a wedge between police and the community,” he said.

He believes there needs to be a broader conversation among police departments to stop their officers from doing these stops on a routine basis.

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In addition to being KCUR's afternoon newscaster, Lisa Rodriguez covers city hall and other news around Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.