Just Voices: Stats and Stories Don't Lie

The police shooting death of Daunte Wright, 20, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, has sparked protests and discussions about pretextual traffic stops and racial profiling.

Editor’s Note: Police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, have come under fire — and sparked protests — for the shooting death of Daunte Wright on Sunday. Reports show the police pulled over the 20-year-old Black man for expired registration, but he reportedly told his mother it was due to the “air fresheners” hanging in his vehicle. The stop is rekindling discussions about pretextual traffic stops and racial profiling. Last month, I wrote about Just Voices, a nonprofit organization that analyzes pretextual traffic stops and racial profiling in Des Moines.

Key Points:

  • Just Voices, a nonprofit working to end racial oppression, analyzed five years of data about traffic stops, citations and arrests.

  • Data obtained about the Des Moines police department “clearly demonstrate” that officers engage in “racially biased policing.”

  • If you are Black in Des Moines, you are 3.1 times more likely to get a citation during a traffic stop than compared to whites. 

Driving while Black is a terrible rite of passage. Not just in Minnesota, where police stopped Philando Castile at least 52 times in 13 years before an officer fatally shot him in 2016. Not just in cities with a large Black presence — but here in Des Moines where Blacks make up 11% of the population. 

“So the repercussions and the trauma of these things the police . . . might think it’s harmless. They might think ‘Well, I didn’t ticket them, I didn’t arrest them so what's the big deal?’” said Lori Young, communications director for Just Voices and a longtime community activist. “It's big for the Black people who have to keep going through this over and over and over who aren’t free to move around like anyone else.”

Policing in the U.S. developed from slave patrols in the South. In its earliest forms, policing targeted not just enslaved people, but Mexicans and Native Americans. Today, most Black families still have conversations with their children about what to do when — not if — they’re stopped by the police.

The overpolicing of Black communities feeds jails and prisons and the cycle impedes Blacks’ ability to get jobs, housing and vote, activists tracking the issue said. Blacks make up a quarter of Iowa’s prison population, but just 4% of the state’s population.  

Just Voices is a new nonprofit group that tracks racial profiling, collects data and posts videos of interviews with victims in Des Moines. Activists said racial profiling and pretextual stops, where police stop motorists for a minor issue like a broken taillight as a pretext to search for an unrelated more serious crime, disproportionately target Blacks. 

“The heart and soul of it are the stories of these young people who've been profiled,” said Harvey Harrison, a white retired lawyer and activist who leads the organization, which is intentionally staffed primarily with Blacks. 

Several community groups have for years pressed the police and the Des Moines City Council to ban racial profiling. Last June, the council passed the racial profiling ordinance called Unbiased Policing, with input from the groups. It banned racial profiling and racially biased policing; mandated annual de-escalation, cultural diversity, cultural competency and implicit bias training; prohibited “discriminatory” pretextual stops and required employees who witness racial profiling to report the incident, among other requirements. 

Despite the ordinance and existing police departmental policies against racial profiling, it is still happening, Harrison said.

“Des Moines had the opportunity to take leadership in this,” he said “So it’s just unconscionable that in the city I live . . . that we don’t want to take leadership, and that’s just appalling to me,” Harrison said. 

For years Iowa-CCI, AMOS, the Des Moines NAACP, Iowa Methodist Conference and the ACLU of Iowa, have separately and sometimes jointly fought against racial oppression. Activists didn’t get everything they wanted in the ordinance, such as public oversight.

“We will continue to organize the community to tell our city council that we still need a Citizens Review Board and an intentional directive to make marijuana enforcement a low-level priority for police,” said Young.

Through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, Just Voices collected and analyzed data from Des Moines police, the Iowa Department of Transportation and Polk County Sheriff.

The organization, assisted by a statistician, a lawyer, interns from Drake University Law School and Grand View University and others, reviewed arrests and citations. What the data — which covers 2016-2020 — reveals is alarming. 

  • If you are Black, you are 3.1 times more likely to get a citation in a traffic stop compared to whites. 

  • Blacks are 6.2 times more likely to be arrested and booked for interference with official acts than whites.

  • Blacks are 2.2 times more likely to be issued a citation for speeding; once ticketed, they’re 4.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites.

  • Once ticketed for speeding, Blacks are 9.5 times more likely to be arrested for interference with official acts.

  • 28.5% of Blacks have received a citation compared to 12% of whites.

  • Blacks are 3.2 times more likely to be issued a citation for an equipment violation than whites.

  • Blacks are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession of a controlled substance than whites. 

“So, we've now got probably close to 400,000 data points on traffic citations from arrests and things in the city of Des Moines,” Harrison said.

Now they want to raise awareness and mobilize the community to join in the fight for change. 

“Our mission is to build a platform that advocates and collaborates in order to end racially biased policing in Iowa. So we've got information out there to educate people. Yes, it's happening here. Here’s the stories. Here's the data,” said Young. 

Sharon Zanders-Ackiss, special director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Just Voices is helping raise awareness about a “problem many of us know exists.” The proof is in their data and stories, she said 

“I believe Just Voices is pulling back the curtain of truth with data, facts and education that racial profiling in Des Moines does happen,” she said via email. “Just Voices is intentional in their reach to folks who wouldn’t necessarily be impacted, but  may believe the lies and denial of the DMPD and others in positions of power.”

“Racial bias plays a part in the daily jobs of DMPD officers,” the Just Voices website states. The problems are pervasive, including:

  • 40% of officers disproportionately arrest Blacks.

  • Blacks account for 11% of the city’s population but 28% of the citations.

  • Whites receive 12% of the citations but account for 75% of the population, according to Just Voices.

According to the city of Des Moines, the police department’s budget last year was $70 million or 39% of the city’s general fund budget. According to a story in the Des Moines Register, the city has paid out $1.7 million in settlements and jury verdicts since 2017 “involving allegations of wrongdoing.” 

Des Moines Police Sgt. Paul Parizek said via email last summer’s ordinance, along with existing departmental policy, “will only help our officers better serve the community.” He said the department has for several years taken proactive steps to prevent “bias in our policing.” 

Parizek said: “Implementing the best hiring practices, educating our officers, strengthening our existing community relationships, and building new ones, are just a few of the efforts to ensure that racial bias is not a part of policing in Des Moines.”

“We look at statistics as more than just a mark in a column,” Parizek said. “Each citation and each arrest has different details, contributing factors and people involved. To truly evaluate the disparities in these numbers, we would have to look at each incident and the circumstances that brought about the enforcement action.” 

That’s just what Just Voices began compiling — even before the nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent calls for police reform, including calls to defund or abolish the police. Activists had wanted the Iowa legislature to ban racial profiling this year, but instead, protections for police have advanced.

“Pursuing racial justice will require questioning all of our practices and a willingness to abandon the status quo. It won’t be easy. And it will take time. Eliminating pretextual stops is a good place to start,” wrote Jamila Hodge and Akhi Johnson in a blog about pretextual stops for the Vera Institute of Justice

A national study last year by the Stanford Open Policing Project found that Black drivers were about 20% more likely to be stopped than whites, and once stopped, Black drivers were searched about 1.5 to 2 times more often than whites — even though Blacks were “less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband” than whites.

An ABC News analysis found disparities in traffic stops in most major cities. For example, the analysis found Blacks in St. Paul, Minnesota, were 5 times more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers. 

Reforms in some cities have addressed pretextual stops. In Berkeley, California, the city shifted traffic responsibilities away from police to “find ways to eliminate or reduce pretextual stops based on minor traffic violations,” according to Berkeleyside

Iowa City officials have considered installing more traffic cameras to lower the number of interactions between police and the public, which could “reduce instances of racial profiling” at a time when Iowa is looking to remove traffic cameras, according to The Daily Iowan.

Lasting Trauma

Heartbreaking stories of Black lives upended by racially biased traffic stops in Des Moines fill the Just Voices website, along with resources. Even the site’s color scheme is red, black and green, which represents the Pan-African flag. 

Racially biased traffic stops have derailed the lives of the victims and caused them to have lasting trauma, Harrison said. 

Harrison interviewed Jared Clinton, who along with Montray Little in 2018, settled a lawsuit with the city of Des Moines for $75,000. Video of their traffic stop went viral and has been viewed millions of times. Clinton has sued the city a second time for a subsequent traffic stop with Des Moines police. 

“The stop. Yeah. It definitely warped my perspective of Des Moines,” Clinton said in an interview with Just Voices. 

“I get angry every time I think about that,” Harrison said. “How awful that is.” 

Des Moines police have also come under fire for their treatment of protesters and for arresting Des Moines Register Reporter Andrea Sahouri during a protest. Sahouri was recently acquitted. Also, Zanders-Ackiss recently discovered that a Des Moines police officer who was part of an excessive force lawsuit, which cost the city $800,000, is a de-escalation instructor, according to a Des Moines Register story.

The data and the stories are compelling but come with a cost. 

“So we've had people willing to share their story, that had the courage to share their story and others that are scared about retaliation. They’re scared about the heat it would bring to them from the cops or possibly losing their job. For others the story is too painful and they just don’t want to keep talking about it,” Young said.

‘It Upset Me Beyond Belief’

Harrison worked as a lawyer for 40 years on the city’s east side. He was born in 1944 and “came of age in the civil rights era and anti-war movements,” he said. “Anti-oppression work” has dominated his life, he said.   

In 2011, Harrison’s retirement plans to travel and do things with his wife changed after he read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” 

“It just upset me beyond belief,” he said. “I'd read some pages of it, my stomach would hurt, I’d put the book down and pace and come back to it.”

He said Alexander detailed the Southern Strategy by Republicans to disrupt Black communities with mass incarceration.  

“When you come to recognize that there were about a third of a million people in all of the prisons in the U.S. in 1970 when the Republicans started that,” he said. “Now there are over 2.3 million people consistently in prison, and that the majority of those people are Black, largely men, largely younger. I mean their strategy succeeded in that awful kind of way beyond anybody's imagination.”

The book was a turning point in his life; he wondered what he could do.

At that time, Harrison worked with AMOS on fighting the “cradle to prison” pipeline for Black youth and racial profiling in Des Moines. That’s when he heard first-hand accounts in community meetings from many Blacks who said they were being racially profiled in grocery stores and businesses and by police.

“It was really the first time that I had heard in any detail that if you're darker-skinned when you walk out of the house in the morning, you have a built-in tension that doesn't exist in my world,” he said. 

Various groups took up racial profiling with city officials and police, he said.

“The response we got was, ‘Well, there’s no problem with racial profiling in Des Moines or Iowa,’” he said. “That there were no complaints being filed, which was true.”

“So that triggered the racial profiling project,” he said. 

They interviewed more than 60 people and helped some of them file complaints. They eventually provided a report in 2015 to the police, he said. 

“There's enough material in this report that this should trigger a willingness on the part of public officials, especially the police, to sit down and talk about policing in Des Moines,” Harrison said. “Well, it didn't.”

More than a decade later, Harrison and Young haven’t given up fighting for racial justice. They can’t. Too many Black lives are at stake. Like Clinton’s. He moved out of Iowa after his lawsuits with Des Moines police, Harrison said.

Clinton was just an ordinary young man going about his life who’d never been in any trouble, Harrison said. A pretextual stop with Des Moines police officers “destroyed his life,” he said.

“I get angry every time I think about that,” he said.

Story originally published on March 26, 2021. Updated on April 13, 2021.

Deadline: Black & Brown Business Summit $10,000 Pitch Contest

Minority-owned businesses have until 11 p.m. tonight to enter a Pitch Contest to compete for $10,000. #BBBSummit21Business owners from around the country have until Friday to enter a Pitch Contest to compete for $10,000 in cash prizes.

The inaugural Black & Brown Business Summit, a hybrid national summit that will be held virtually and in-person in West Des Moines, runs April 22-23. The summit, organized by the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, features several sponsors. 

“The application deadline is this Friday so we're trying to encourage as many diverse-owned businesses to apply as possible. It's free to apply. Anybody can be involved,” said Katherine Harrington, chamber president and CEO.

Pitch Contest Application

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