NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Charles Epp, professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas, came back to his alma mater, Bethel College, to give presentations Feb. 8-9 on police treatment of African-Americans and Latinos in traffic stops.
Epp co-authored, with two KU colleagues, Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. The book’s publication coincided with a rise in awareness of the frayed relationships between police and minority communities, revealed by the deaths while in police custody of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both African-American men.
However, Epp began the research that resulted in Pulled Over about a decade ago. He was spurred by the stories he kept hearing from his African-American and Latino students.
“I’ve taught at KU since 1996,” Epp told his audience in Bethel’s convocation. “I vividly remember, from early on, the black students telling me about their experiences with the police.”
In 2003 and 2004, Epp and his colleagues conducted a survey of drivers in the Kansas City area, with results and analysis published as Pulled Over.
As he introduced the findings at Kauffman Museum Feb. 8 and convocation Feb. 9, Epp began with the story of a driver named Joe. The African-American man was following the speed limit when he was pulled over for a “warrant check.”
“Joe was stopped by an officer who just wanted to see if this guy belonged in jail,” Epp said. “There was no rudeness or strong action on the part of the officer. Yet Joe said he ‘felt violated.’
“You can see the seeds of the black public’s reaction to Ferguson [Mo., Michael Brown’s hometown], fueled by deep frustration with these kinds of stops over many, many years. This pattern causes psychological harm to individuals and is corrosive to democracy and the rule of law in this country.”
Who looks suspicious?
The commonly touted cure, Epp said, is “to hire more black and Latino officers, to have better training for all officers, to have them wear body cameras. These are excellent proposals that would improve policing, and I support every one of them, but they won’t solve the problems.”
They don’t go to the source.
“Racially different police stops occur not just in lily-white, poorly trained departments like the one in Ferguson but also in the most highly diverse and well-trained departments in the country.”
Epp’s research points to a deep fear and distrust of police in minority communities stemming from investigatory stops, a policy developed over the past 30-plus years. While a traffic-safety stop is a reaction to a traffic violation, investigatory stops are “proactive. They are supposed to get bad guys off the streets.”
The policy “encourages officers to select people on the basis of suspicion,” Epp continued, “with very specific protocols on what constitutes ‘suspicion’ — such as a black person in white neighborhood, or someone who ‘looks like they shouldn’t be driving that kind of car,’ or ‘furtive behavior.’ ”
Such investigatory stops can lead to officer searches and even detention of the driver. Even when things don’t escalate, drivers stopped in such situations feel deeply disturbed.
“It’s a numbers game,” Epp said. “Officers know that only a tiny proportion of these stops will yield an arrest or any information about crime, so they have to do so many to increase the odds of finding illegal drugs or weapons. Yet study after study shows that ‘the hit rate’ is less than 2 percent.”
Writing in the Washington Post shortly after the publication of Pulled Over, Epp and one of his co-authors, Steven Maynard-Moody, said, “[Investigatory] stops poison blacks’ attitudes toward the police — and toward the law itself. They undermine police effectiveness and turn the citizens of a democracy into the controlled — and resentful — subjects of a security state.
“It’s time to end them.”