As a state, Kansas has latched onto a surefire way to maintain plausible deniability for just about any issue citizens want addressed: Pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
Racial profiling by law enforcement is yet another example.
Kansas, unlike Missouri and several other states, doesn’t collect demographic data from traffic stops. There is no searchable statewide database with this information broken out by jurisdiction. There is no way to know if people of a particular race or ethnicity are being pulled over, searched or arrested in greater numbers.
And there is no annual report analyzing such data, though that's been available in Missouri for nearly two decades. What Missouri makes available is still limited but light years ahead of Kansas.
Kansas does require annual reporting of bias-related complaints that come to individual law enforcement agencies or to the attorney general’s office.
But the reported information is posted on a virtually useless website under banner of the attorney general. It’s basically a jumble of 2,400 PDFs of reports spread over six years that doesn’t readily answer the most basic inquiries. Want to know details about race-based complaints to a particular jurisdiction in 2017? You’re out of luck.
A Kansas City Star investigation involved creating a web-scraping program just to uncover this affront to good governance and transparency. The average person doesn’t have time for such involved endeavors, nor should Kansans be expected to undertake such elaborate efforts in search of basic information.
As Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, rightly noted, “In terms of actually creating transparency and accountability, you would be hard-pressed to create a more useless system.”
Kansas lawmakers should mandate reporting of both racial profiling complaints and traffic stop data and then create a usable database. There should be penalties for failing to report. And the attorney general’s office must hold law enforcement accountable if questionable disparities are found.
Even with the best of systems in place, it’s virtually impossible to peer into an officer’s mindset to gauge intent during an interaction with a citizen. And experts in policing have long counseled that it is possible for officers to confirm their own bias by choosing to stop some people and allowing others to drive on down the road. Honest conversations within law enforcement and the communities they serve are crucial, followed up by training and bolstered by state oversight.
But for starters, Kansas must collect the data, analyze the data and fairly investigate racial profiling complaints. Finally, make the information accessible to the public.