Staff Columnist

Iowa City police making progress on disproportionate minority contact

Stop the 'fishing expeditions,' one expert says

Traffic procedes northbound on Gilbert Street through the intersection with U.S. Highway 6 in Iowa City on the morning of Monday, August 1, 2011. (Matt Nelson/SourceMedia Group News)
Traffic procedes northbound on Gilbert Street through the intersection with U.S. Highway 6 in Iowa City on the morning of Monday, August 1, 2011. (Matt Nelson/SourceMedia Group News)

Iowa City leaders are making slow but important progress in their effort to reduce disproportionate contact between minority drivers and police officers.

The City Council received an update this week on disproportionate minority contact research conducted by Chris Barnum, a criminal justice professor at St. Ambrose University.

The median disparity index for traffic stops has hovered around 2 in recent years, so an average officer is about twice as likely to stop a minority driver as a white one. That could be attributable to bias among individual police officers, but also to other factors.

The disparity index is not a perfect metric. The comparison benchmark is calculated by observing traffic and noting the race of all drivers on the road. Even though Barnum estimates he and his team have made nearly 70,000 traffic observations over almost 10 years, determining drivers’ races from the side of the road is not a precise method of gathering data.

A more precise measure is the likelihood that someone stopped will be arrested. That number has generally decreased over the past several years, from a high of 3.2 in 2010 — meaning people of color were more than three times more likely to be arrested as a result of a traffic stop than white drivers — to a low of 1.5 in 2016. The figure crept up slightly to 1.8 last year, but remained the second-lowest rate on record.

In other words, there still is racial disproportionality in Iowa City officers’ traffic stops and the outcomes of those stops, but the department deserves some credit for tracking and addressing it, including an internal committee of officers focusing on the issue.

“To simply saturate minority neighborhoods, stop drivers for minor violations, arbitrarily search vehicles for weapons and drugs does not statistically produce more results than stopping white drivers. Such tactics do nothing more than erode trust with the minority community,” Chief Jody Matherly, who started the job last year, wrote in a memo to the City Council.

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Despite some notable progress, the fact remains Iowa City officers made more than 24,000 traffic stops in 2016 and 2017 combined, more than 30 stops everyday on average. The best way to free black, brown and white drivers alike from the burden of excessive and potentially unfair traffic stops is to simply pull over fewer drivers. That’s an idea which got some exposure at this week’s council meeting.

“To the degree we can drop the number (of traffic stops), whether it’s improving our roadway design so there’s less likelihood that someone would be cited for a moving violation, getting all those equipment-related stops handled in some other fashion, we just drop the number of encounters,” council member John Thomas said.

Attention to this issue marks an important shift in public safety, moving away from the strategy of initiating a lot of stops in hopes of uncovering some bigger crime, like drug or weapon violations.

“Does doing a traffic stop reduce gun crime? The literature isn’t clear on that. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. … What the police department should try to get away from is the fishing expeditions,” Barnum said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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