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A police force confronts its racial bias

After data showed Kalamazoo's police racially profiled residents, the department is trying to right a decades-old wrong

KALAMAZOO, Michigan – In September 2013, police officers in Kalamazoo were forced to face an ugly reality: concrete data that they were racially profiling residents.

The yearlong study by Lamberth Consulting, which specializes in racial profiling assessments, examined police stops at 12 different locations in the city of 75,000 starting in March 2012, and found that black motorists were more than twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. And even though whites were more likely to be found with contraband like guns and drugs, far more blacks were searched, handcuffed and arrested.

Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley, who commissioned the study, said the results shocked the entire force.

“It kind of takes your breath away,” he said. “But what do you do? Do you sit there and act like a deer in headlights? Do you dismiss the study that you asked for?”  

Hadley didn’t do either of those things. Instead, the chief used the data to try and right a decades-old wrong. 

Implicit bias

Before the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the hands of white officers sparked feverish debate about police abuse and racial targeting, Kalamazoo began to confront bias in its force. For many who'd vowed to protect and serve this small city, the stark numbers were difficult to swallow.

"We were offended at first, because we thought, how dare they do this to us?" said Sgt. Andre Wells, a 12-year veteran of the force. "It's making us look bad, when we really mean well and we're trying to do the best that we can."

This country socializes us to be biased. It is not just a white thing. It's an American thing.

Lewis Walker

Kalamazoo community leader

If the profiling study shocked police officers, it was hardly a revelation for Kalamazoo’s black community. More than 20 percent of the city's residents are black, but only 21 of the 212 public safety officers, who do police work and fight fires, are African-American – 10 percent of the force.

 “Most people I talked to were not surprised," said Jacob Pinney-Johnson, 27, a Kalamazoo native. "I don't think it was necessarily new news.”

Growing up in the city, Pinney-Johnson says getting stopped by police was par for the course. He never trusted the police and always felt that officers were there primarily to harass him, not to protect him. 

Lewis Walker, who founded an institute at Western Michigan University for studying race and ethnic relations, consulted on ways the Kalamazoo police could better engage with communities of color.
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“There were numerous ongoing complaints about driving while black," said Lewis Walker, who runs a research institute that bears his name at Western Michigan University focused on race relations. "And [people] who did think that they were being stopped simply because they were black.”

At first, many Kalamazoo police officers reacted to the study by cutting back their traffic stops dramatically. In the month after the study became public, stops fell off a cliff, dropping by 45 percent.

According to Chief Hadley, it's only natural that officers faced with the report's conclusion would get more skittish making stops. But his hope was to reform the force in a deeper way. His first move was to consult leaders in Kalamazoo’s African-American community, like Walker. A retired sociology professor, Walker felt that much of the problem was rooted in implicit bias – beliefs that operate outside your conscious awareness.

“It is important to me that police officers understand implicit bias. And not fight it, but understand that we are all socialized. This country socializes us to be biased," said Walker. "It is not just a white thing. It's an American thing."

The need for police departments to confront this fact has gained popularity in the last year, alongside the groundswell of activism around racialized police-involved violence.

Hadley made racial bias training mandatory for Kalamazoo officers and also ordered that they document probable cause for every suspect they search. He also set up quotas for interactions with the public meant to build better relations with the community. 

The softer approach

Jeff Hadley has been Kalamazoo's public safety chief for more than six years.
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On a frigid night in early February, Sgt. Scott Boling and a fellow officer were out on foot patrol in a high-crime neighborhood going door-to-door to chat with residents. One man invited the officers into his home and offered a tip about possible drug activity in the area.

“He gave us specific information about an individual and where this person tends to hide guns, recent shots fired, along with drug activities," Boling said. "And that only comes when you build trust with the community. I think that’s huge.”

This is typical of Kalamazoo's new, softer policing strategy, according to Boling. And he said he now sees how overly aggressive policing can backfire.

“When you blanket an area with strict enforcement, it’s unfortunate but there some people that are affected that aren’t causing problems,” he said.

So far, the results of the reforms are modest, but promising. In the last year, even with police making far fewer traffic stops, the chief says overall crime has dropped by 7 percent.

Walker, who worked with Hadley on the reforms, applauded his efforts. "I don't think people understand the enormity of that job, of changing the situation," he said. “A lot of us would like to see things changed overnight. This won't happen… We didn't get here overnight. We're talking about decades, many, many years, of differential police activity.”

It’s a legacy that’s not lost on young black men in Kalamazoo, like Pinney-Johnson, who told America Tonight he's skeptical of the changes and still has a contentious relationship with police.

“With folks like myself and other specifically young black and brown men, I don't think that attempts to build trust has really gotten anywhere,” he said, adding that he'd like to see deeper reforms that address systemic racism and police culture.

“This culture of institutional and systemic racism and white supremacy gives white folks and white officers that privilege to not necessarily see the harm of racial profiling,” said Pinney-Johnson

Hadley said he knows expectations are high and that he’ll continue working to build trust between his officers and communities of color.

"I'm not going to sit here and paint some picture like every interaction is going to be Andy and Barney in Mayberry," he said, referring to the classic sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show." “We deal with some complex stuff. We have to listen. We have to pay attention. We have to look ahead, down the road, and see what's the best way we can achieve crime reduction at the same time maintaining the relationship with the community."

While Kalamazoo will never be like the mythical Mayberry, Hadley says police can at least take significant steps to keep it from being another Ferguson. 

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