Ferguson, Iowa City more different than similar

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Disproportionate contact is symptom of bias, not a diagnosis

When officials in Ferguson, Mo. held a news conference to respond to scathing federal allegations of racism and a public safety system driven by profit, the police chief didn’t appear and the mayor entertained no questions. That visual alone should serve as a major clue the situation in the St. Louis suburb is quite different from concerns expressed in Iowa City and other local municipalities.

Still, it is difficult not to dwell on the similarities.

In its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice reported disproportionate law enforcement contact with African Americans:

“Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26 percent less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search. …

“These disparities are also present in FPD’s use of force. Nearly 90 percent of documented force used by the FPD officers was against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”

A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014. On Wednesday the U.S. Department of Justice released two investigative reports, one finding no federal criminal wrongdoing by the Ferguson police officer that shot an unarmed 18-year-old and the other finding widespread racial bias in the local criminal justice system.
A female protester raises her hands while blocking police cars in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014. On Wednesday the U.S. Department of Justice released two investigative reports, one finding no federal criminal wrongdoing by the Ferguson police officer that shot an unarmed 18-year-old and the other finding widespread racial bias in the local criminal justice system. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Less than a year ago, City Council members heard the findings of an Iowa City Police Department Traffic Study covering 2005-2007 and 2010-2012. Although minority drivers comprised about 10 percent of local drivers during the study period, the rate of contact increased from about 14 percent at the start of the study to about 19 percent in the last years. And, once stopped, minority drivers were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested, and 3.45 times more likely to have an officer request to search a vehicle, although officers were more likely to discover contraband in vehicles operated by nonminority drivers.

Christopher Barnum, a St. Ambrose University faculty member in sociology and criminal justice and former police officer, told city leaders that while contact was disproportionate, it didn’t necessarily indicate bias, and also agreed to continue studying Iowa City traffic data in hope of gaining additional insights.

This week, Barnum said he anticipates the new data to be released this summer. And, after a brief review of the DOJ’s investigation of Ferguson, reiterated his assertion that similarities between traffic stop data does not indicate other similarities are at play.

“The [Ferguson] report is really quite damning,” he said.

“In my opinion, the heart of the report does not center on the disproportionality in the numbers, but rather on outright and salient officer misconduct. The report cites several examples of where officers purposefully violated people’s constitutional rights — especially the 1st and 4th amendments. Moreover, the report indicates that the FPD routinely detained people without reasonable suspicion, made false arrests and sanctioned people for merely exercising their right to free speech. These practices appear to be a much more serious matter than the disproportionality in stops and arrests.”

Federal investigators determined the disproportionate burden placed on African Americans in Ferguson could not be explained by any difference in the rate the different races violate the law, but due to an unlawful bias against and stereotypes about the group. For instance, investigators discovered email messages circulated among police officers and court staff in Ferguson that joked about abortion by African American women being a form of crime control.

“City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with the police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among ‘certain segments’ of the community. Our investigation has found that the practices about which area residents have complained are in fact unconstitutional and unduly harsh. But the City’s personal-responsibility refrain is telling: it reflects many of the same racial stereotypes found in the emails between police and court supervisors. This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the 14th Amendment.”

Barnum cautions that there can be legitimate reasons, not related to bias, for disproportionality, and accurate analysis is a complex undertaking.

It’s worth remembering that there have been no smoking guns in Iowa City, figuratively or literally, to suggest an undercurrent of racial bias or stereotyping within the court or law enforcement. In fact, the very opposite has occurred.

City Council members have requested Barnum and affiliated researchers continue to study traffic stop data. Local officers have been trained to provide more complete reports for each stop, which will provide more detailed information regarding the how and why of law enforcement contact.

“I think a lot of credit should go to both the Iowa City and Davenport police departments for participating in this scrutiny of their data and for engaging in the ongoing discussions,” Barnum said.

A coalition of local residents attended the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, which provides a framework for local initiatives related to diversion and reduced disparities. Several community forums and discussions have already taken place and others will be scheduled in the future.

More importantly, work by the coalition, the Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, has already created ripples in the areas of education and law enforcement through the introduction of a new pre-charge diversion program, which aims to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.

Human resources departments throughout the Corridor are actively working to increase ethnic diversity in their workforces so that everyone will have the opportunity to meet a role model that looks like them.

In Ferguson, it seems, widespread distrust was born of a combination of greed and a failure to listen. Thankfully, no Iowa communities, despite indicators like disproportionality within the justice system and a lack of state allowances for revenue generation, have reached a similar point. While forward movement has not been a sprint, it is taking place and appears to be headed toward a more equitable society.

Our challenge is to keep dialogue open, to make sure our politicians and leaders understand that, come what may, showing up is required.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 7, 2015. Photo credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters