(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) -- A report to be released today by a civil rights group suggests minority motorists in four Kansas City area suburbs are much more likely to be ticketed by police than are their white counterparts.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri concludes that minority motorists are nearly four times more likely to be ticketed by police in Prairie Village and Mission Hills than non-minority drivers are.
The report contends that non-whites are twice as likely as whites to be stopped in Leawood and Grandview.
"It is our hope that you will consider this report as an alarm bell," ACLU Executive Director Dick Kurtenbach wrote in a letter to the chiefs of police whose departments were studied in the analysis of 1998 traffic stops.
However, the police chiefs took strong exception to the conclusions drawn, to the absence in the report of details about how the study was conducted and to the overall impression that officers in their departments unfairly single out motorists because of skin color.
One independent expert on race issues also questioned the statistical validity of the report but said it did point toward possible problems.
The ACLU announced its effort in January. Years of anecdotal information compiled by both the ACLU and the Olathe chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People suggested minority motorists were unfairly targeted, a practice known as racial profiling.
The ACLU hoped it could provide a statistical foundation for the anecdotal evidence. Using 1998 traffic ticket data provided by the police departments, the ACLU analyzed the frequency with which white and non-white motorists were ticketed.
That was compared to the overall racial makeup of motorists in each city, which was measured by volunteers who conducted traffic counts at busy intersections from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on two days in one given week.
Kurtenbach admits the methodology did not provide an extensive traffic count but that he was "comfortable with the numbers we got."
In Prairie Village, traffic was counted at the intersection of 71st Street and Roe Avenue; in Mission Hills, at 63rd Street and Belinder Avenue; in Leawood at 79th Street and Lee Boulevard; and in Grandview at a location along Food Lane.
Similar studies conducted across the country have shown less-dramatic disparities.
Luis Fraga, a political scientist who studies race and ethnicity at Stanford University, said that the best method would have compared the number of stops of minority motorists to the number of tickets written.
That information did not exist for the cities examined by the ACLU, however. The next best approach, said Fraga, is to do broad samplings similar to those the ACLU conducted.
But to draw sweeping conclusions from an imprecise traffic count such as the one the ACLU conducted would be a mistake, said Fraga, who had no role in the analysis. "I've never heard of this methodology before," he said. He did not think the numbers should be considered statistically valid. "It does, however, suggest problems and the need for a more systematic study," he said.
Kurtenbach did not take issue with Fraga's statements. "This is not an academic study to be defended to a bunch of statisticians," Kurtenbach said. "But it does indicate trends and problem areas."
Grandview Police Chief Robert Beckers called the ACLU effort flawed and said the traffic counts in his community were inaccurate. According to the report, almost 26 percent of Grandview motorists are non-white, while that group receives just more than 35 percent of the tickets.
But Beckers said his numbers show a Grandview minority population of 40 percent, while his officers wrote 37 percent of its tickets to minority motorists. He also said the conclusions drawn are unfair.
The impression left by the report, Beckers said, "is that we're just a bunch of old blue-collar dumb cops. But we keep track of every complaint."
He said his officers all have received racial sensitivity training through the Mid-America Regional Council and are required to collect traffic-stop data along racial lines by state law. In Prairie Village, the report found that about 6 percent of drivers are non-white, but about 21 percent of tickets go to non-white drivers.
An even higher percentage of tickets issued for driver's license violations were handed out to non-white drivers. These license violations are problems that could not have been known to police until after the stop was made, according to the report.
More uncertainty creeps in because the analysis did not track whether a motorist ticketed for a license violation was ticketed for another violation that may have been the reason for the initial stop. "All we can do is point to how out of whack those numbers are," Kurtenbach said.
Prairie Village police also patrol the neighboring city of Mission Hills, where similar results were reported. In an interview before the release of the report, Prairie Village Police Chief Charles Grover said his department had done everything it could to avoid racial profiling, including mandatory yearly diversity training, video cameras to record all traffic stops and investigation of all complaints.
Grover says his city was the first community in Johnson County to tackle the problem of racial profiling. "I think our department has made an effort to avoid conducting itself in a way that is going to be perceived as making racially biased traffic stops," he said.
Eight of 12 City Council members in Prairie Village said they had heard no complaints of racial profiling from constituents and endorsed the Police Department's professionalism.
Steve Noll, a nine-year council member, said the report did not match his perception. "There can be no uncertainty on anyone's part as to what's acceptable and what's not acceptable," Noll said. "I've never seen any indication that our officers have participated in (racial profiling)."
The ACLU analysis showed less indication of racial profiling in Leawood, another gateway community to jobs in Johnson County. While less than 4 percent of the drivers counted were non-white, more than 6 percent of the tickets were issued to non-whites. "To say (racial profiling) in Leawood would never happen I think is shortsighted," said Mayor Peggy Dunn.
"We need to keep our antennae up and be vigilant. "Leawood had a reputation in the past of not being a real open and inclusive city, and I certainly hope we are today. I think we have remedied a lot of our past issues."
The ACLU study was financed by a grant from the Civil Rights Consortium of Metropolitan Kansas City and done with the assistance of Dale A. Neuman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
(iSyndicate; The Kansas City Star; Nov. 10, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.