Law Board Testimony

Here is what I said to the Riley County Law Board (the group that oversees the Riley County Police Department) as a part of the testimony by the Coalition for Equal Justice on Monday, October 16:

On behalf of the Coalition for Equal Justice, I want to thank the Law Board for your patience and willingness to hear what we have to say.

I want to be clear that we do not view Riley County as a Ferguson, Missouri, where police deliberately misused power and the racial imbalance was blatant. What we recognize, though, is that there are patterns deeply woven into American society that increase the probability of arrest and prosecution for people who are black, over that for people who are white. Whatever the source of these patterns, they are wrong and we have a social and moral obligation to raise questions and work to end the biases sown into the fabric of our culture. Racial bias is not entirely the fault of police, but police practices, policies and procedures can either reinforce the pervasive problem or help to remove it.

We don’t believe that racial bias in Riley County is any worse than in the rest of the country; but we cannot assume that it is any better. In fact, the evidence is clear that racial bias in certain drug-related arrests in Riley County is comparable to other states and regions of the country, and cities in Kansas. The problem in America is that if you are black, you are more likely to be arrested. The result is a cycle of unfair assumptions about who is guilty of crimes.

We cannot be satisfied with the national norm in biased policing. Justice, not widespread practice, should be the goal. And what we want is for Riley County to be less discriminatory, less biased and more equal than elsewhere in the country.

We appreciate the acknowledgement by the RCPD that racial bias needs to be addressed. The training on implicit bias that all police receive is a good start. I had the opportunity to attend the training last winter and felt it was helpful. Police officers are trained to treat all people respectfully and to be even-handed in their responses, essentially to follow policy. However, the focus in the training is as much on the implicit bias officers may find against police as it is on examining their own internal – perhaps unrecognized, implicit biases. More is needed to help police officers understand that bias happens here, that there is evidence for that, and to help them address their own, often unconscious, biases to compensate for them. There also need to be procedural measure to help prevent biases from affecting policing. The role of power dynamics in policing situations also needs to be more clearly acknowledged and implicit bias may play out with that. Most people are hesitant in any situation to challenge police judgment, or even to report anything they think may have been unfair.

Let me say a word about our requested remedy. We believe that pretextual traffic and pedestrian stops need to end. These stops for minor traffic violations as pretext when for searching for some other violation, usually drug related, were ruled legal by the 1996 Whren decision by the Supreme Court. Anyone can be stopped in such stops, but they open up the possibility of bias far more than more traditional enforcement does. Research has shown that pretextual stops create greater racial discrepancies in arrests for illegal drug possession. What’s more pretextual stops create distrust of the police, a breeding ground for cynicism and reluctance to cooperate. Those are powerful arguments for eliminating such stops.

There are many other steps that can be taken, including increased training and data-collection, but the single most powerful way to decrease racial bias is through an end to pretextual stops.

That’s why we’re here, to request that change – an end to pretextual traffic and pedestrian stops, as a sign of continued commitment to unbiased law enforcement.

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