Topeka, Kan. — Black drivers are given a disproportionately higher number of traffic tickets than white motorists in some Kansas cities.
Yet the extent of any racial bias in traffic stops remains uncertain largely because no statewide requirement exists demanding police track the data. That leaves individual cities and counties to create their own policies — giving, at best, an inconsistent picture of how much more vulnerable Black drivers are to getting pulled over.
Traffic stops rank among the most common interactions between police and civilians, said Sharon Brett, legal director at the ACLU of Kansas. Lacking the data leaves glaring gaps in police interactions and makes it harder to see if agencies have racial bias problems, she said.
Racial disparities exist in other police metrics. Despite being only 6.1% of the state’s population, Black Kansans represent 16.5% of people arrested for lower-level crimes in 2021, according to data from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
“If you are seeing racial disparities in one aspect of policing,” Brett said, “you will likely find those same disparities in other aspects of policing, if you only care to look.”
The Kansas News Service requested traffic stop data from multiple law enforcement agencies. Here are the results:
Topeka Police Department
-TPD gave 617 citations from Jan. 1 through the end of April 2022.
-10% of citations were to Black motorists. Topeka is 10.5% Black.
-TPD does not track ethnicity even though Topeka is 15.3% Hispanic or Latino, the city’s second-largest racial or ethnic group.
Riley County Police Department
-RCPD gave 6,307 citations and warnings in 2021.
-14% of those were to Black people. Riley County is 7% Black.
-6.3% of those were to Hispanic people. Riley County is 8.4% Hispanic or Latino.
-2.1% of those were to Asian people. Riley County is 4.9% Asian.
Wichita Police Department
-WPD gave 27,724 citations in 2021.
-17.5% of those were to Black people. Wichita is 10.3% Black.
-14.2% of those were to Hispanic people. Wichita is 17.4% Hispanic.
-2.8% of those were to Asian people. Wichita is 4.9% Asian.
The Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department does not track any demographic data on arrests or traffic citations and did not comment on the reason it does so. Brett said agencies should be expanding the metrics they track. She said the statistics are important to have, but encouraged agencies to do something productive with it.
“You can only correct the problems that you identify,” Brett said, “and you can only identify problems where you’re tracking the data that would reveal a problem.”
Hutchinson, Kansas, Police Chief Jeffrey Hooper said his department does not have demographic data and said there are some logistical barriers to collecting it. Brett said police could track the data if they wanted. After all, multiple agencies already do. But Hooper said attempts to gather the information might not yield accurate results.
Driver’s licenses don’t readily offer race or ethnicity. That means officers might have to guess. Police could ask for the information, but Hooper said too many people wouldn’t answer the questions and that would muddle any conclusions drawn from the data.
“If you’re going to report statistics,” he said, “they need to be accurate.”
Hooper said he would gladly track the information if the logistical hurdles were removed, like if driver’s licenses had the information. In addition to mandated bias training, he said his department tries to find racial bias where it can.
A Hutchinson police officer’s body camera footage is reviewed, including traffic stops, at random points throughout the year. Hooper said if there are problematic officers, the people reviewing the tape will see racial bias in those interactions.
“When I got into law enforcement, it was like, ‘Well, just don’t racially profile anybody, don’t be biased,’” he said. “We all know that we’re all humans and every person has bias. We have to then get officers to understand what those implicit biases might be.”
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Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.