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Study shows IC police stop minority drivers at disproportionate rates


Photo by Alan Light
The disproportion is caused, in part, by increased patrols south of Highway 6, an area with a higher minority population. — photo by Alan Light

Iowa City cops tend to pull over more black and Hispanic drivers than white and Asian drivers, according to a third-party analysis, but city leaders aren’t chalking the disparity up to police bias.

Criminal justice researchers from St. Ambrose University estimated that while about 10 percent of Iowa City drivers are minorities, 14 to 19 percent of traffic stops over the last several years were minority drivers. Associate professor Chris Barnum, a former cop who presented the research at Monday’s City Council work session, called that a relatively low level of disproportionality.

The study also found cops are much more likely to ask to search minority drivers’ vehicles, even though cops tend to find more contraband when they ask to search white drivers’ vehicles. Barnum cast doubt on that number, though, saying officers were inaccurately recording which searches were voluntary.

Both Barnum and Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine attributed the disproportionate traffic stops at least in part on tactics the department took on following a slight uptick in crime in 2008 and 2009. In those years, a handful of neighborhoods on the southeast side saw an temporary increase in violent incidents and the police department created a new patrol beat to focus on the area south of Highway 6, where a higher portion of drivers and residents happen to be black.

“They intensified patrols in an area that was correlated with a high minority population and when you do that you’re going to stop a higher portion of minority drivers,” Barnum said.

However, despite the 2008-2009 uptick, data show violent crime has still trended downward over time, even in those so-called high-crime neighborhoods. That led a couple council members to question the need for such a strategy.

“I know there were violent incidents and I don’t want to understate them, but the question is whether the response was appropriate. … We don’t want people walking around shooting other people, but we don’t want to overreact either and suddenly start tracking, basically, black people because some black people did the shooting,” council member Jim Throgmorton said.

City leaders say they will continue to track officer interactions. Now that the data has been published and officers know the information is being logged, they anticipate disproportionate minority contact rates to decline.

“Our goal is to reduce the disproportionate minority contact numbers, period. My staff and I remain committed to vigilance and we take seriously all complaints about disproportionate minority contact,” Hargadine said.


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