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Black Drivers Are Still More Likely To Be Searched During Louisville Traffic Stops, Report Finds

Blue light atop a law enforcement vehicle
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Nearly 200 pedestrians have been struck and killed by drivers along Louisville's roadways since 2014.

Comparing them side by side, police were more likely to search black Louisvillians than white ones during routine traffic stops in 2015 and 2016, according to a new report. But the latest analysis of vehicle stops from criminal justice professors at the University of Louisville says there's not enough evidence to either confirm or deny that Louisville Metro Police officers are racially biased when it comes to stopping drivers in the county.

The 2015 and 2016 Vehicle Stops report was released recently; there have been similar reports for data from 2013 and 2014.

This latest report analyzes more than 102,000 police vehicle stops during 2015 and 2016, analyzing stops, searches and cause by race, age and gender. Because both years had significantly fewer stops than previous years — a nearly 41 percent drop between 2014 and 2016 — the study's authors decided to analyze two years of data together.

Disparities In Searches

During both 2015 and 2016, the majority of drivers stopped by police were white: 61 percent in 2015 and about 65 percent in 2016, which is slightly lower than the percentage of the county that is white (about 73 percent). For both black and white drivers, nearly all of the stops were also for traffic violations, rather than stops stemming from specific complaints or suspicions of criminal activity.

But when searches did happen, even for stops stemming from traffic violations, African-American drivers were more likely to be searched than white drivers. In 2016, 4.6 percent of white drivers stopped for traffic violations were searched, versus 8.1 percent of black drivers.

Compared to the previous year, in 2016 a smaller percentage of police searches of African-American drivers were conducted after verbal consent from the driver, as opposed to legal reasons like ‘probable cause’ or ‘incident to arrest.’

The report said several factors could play into that. "Police may be more hesitant to conduct a search or to ask for 'consent' for a search due to perceived negative reactions to police among African American civilians. The police may have adopted a less aggressive approach to vehicle stops and so only perform searches when there is probable cause to do so, especially during those stops involving African American drivers,” the report's authors wrote.

Recommendations To Address Bias

The report recommends LMPD continue conducting annual analyses of vehicle stops, which the department has said it plans to do. It also recommended gathering information from officers to figure out why fewer stops were made in 2015 and 2016 than in previous years.

“While analysis of this data cannot confirm nor eliminate a finding of biased policing within the Louisville Metro Police Department, collection of the data reflects an openness and willingness to sustain transparency within police community relations,” the report's authors wrote.

Amber Duke, the communications director at ACLU of Kentucky, said many communities feel they’re cast as suspects because of how they look. Duke said the report does not mean LMPD officers are racially biased, but it does raise issues for LMPD to fix.

“If people are being stopped time and time again and searched and police aren’t finding anything, people live in fear,” Duke said. “In order for police officers to be able to work collaboratively with the community, they have to be transparent – they have to be accountable … those types of practices aren’t helpful to those efforts.”

To address potential bias, LMPD has been following what it calls a "multi-faceted approach to biased policing, as developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, and supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police." It includes best practices like certain training, using wearable video cameras, diversity recruitment and more for the department and community.

LMPD Chief Steve Conrad plans to hire more officers this year, saying nearly a hundred in the department left for fear the states ailing pension and other reasons. Conrad wants permission to recruit more officers from 2017’s upcoming recruiting class, hoping that fills vacated positions.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.