Expert: Iowa should share more data on traffic stops to fight police bias

File photo of Des Moines Police squad car (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

Iowa should expand the amount of data it collects on traffic stops and share it publicly, an authority on bias issues told a state panel Monday.

Arthur Rizer, a former police officer and U.S. Army veteran who directs the criminal justice and civil liberties program for Washington, D.C.-based free-market think tank R Street Institute, said more transparency is needed. His comments came as Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg leads a state task force looking for ways to fight bias in policing, and the Black Lives Matter movement demands a range of changes. 

Arthur Rizer is director of criminal justice and civil liberties for R Street Institute. (Photo courtesy of R Street Institute)

The Iowa Legislature introduced an anti-profiling bill, Senate Study Bill 1038, last session, but it didn’t advance past the subcommittee. The Legislature passed a separate bill to ban choke holds and require training on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the legislation into  law.

Rizer said data is important to battling bias, and it must be reported publicly. “When the public remains in the dark about departmental policies and their impacts, they really are unable to hold departments accountable,” Rizer told a videoconference meeting of the Iowa’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. “Then what happens is you have rage that fills the gap and that is what we’ve seen since the murder of George Floyd.”

Floyd was a Black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest in May.

“We can’t fix what we don’t know,” Rizer said. “Data leads to transparency and transparency leads to trust. Nobody would doubt that across this country there is a trust gap as it relates to policing in America and that is something that we could improve.” 

“Data collection alone is just a passive response to bias, and it really doesn’t have any direct impact beyond telling us what we should know. The demographic data must be collected, and then used,” Rizer added.

Rizer said Iowa’s criminal justice bill in 2010 helped improve reporting on crimes “but it lacks any public data on the initial stops. That’s something that I think can be improved.” Some 21 states are requiring officers to collect extensive data on traffic stops.

Iowa could weave much of the demographic information needed to watch for patterns of bias into the state’s existing system, Rizer said. “Then you could base policy on the data that you have.”

States including Nebraska now track the race, ethnicity and other data on those involved in traffic stops, the nature of the violation and other details. Ohio is working on a system that would require a description of the car, or bicycle, and even the details of a pedestrian stop. 

Maj. Randy Kunert , a 31-year veteran of the Iowa State Patrol, said officers are not focusing on the race of a driver when they make a traffic stop — they primarily are making sure they are stopping the right car in cases where they were running radar.

Kunert said one time, his colleague in the patrol’s plane told Kunert to pull over a car that turned out to be driven by a person of color. “The person immediately said he was stopped because he was a minority,” but Kunert said he hadn’t even seen the driver before the stop. 

Kunert said it would help if the state asked drivers to declare their race on their driver’s licenses, because it is awkward for an officer to ask a person’s race. “Then they immediately say, ‘Why is that important?’” Kunert said. 

Stephan Bayens, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said in addition to training to address bias issues, the state will be reviewing every officer’s stops to look for “outliers,” such as excessive numbers of stops or a racial pattern. 

Bayens added that excessive force cases make up less than 1% of cases the patrol handles. “I don’t want to use an ax when a scalpel would suffice” in addressing potential bias, Bayens said. “If we use too big of an ax, we will risk public safety as a result.”

However, Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska Chapter of the NAACP, said Iowa still has a disproportionate number of Blacks among convicted felons, showing the state still has bias issues. 

Sixteen states have banned pretextual stops, Rizer said. Pretextual stops typically involve a driver being pulled over for a minor offense such as a broken tail light when the officer is really looking for evidence of another crime, such as drug possession. A study of 8 million traffic stops showed that in the absence of bans on pretextual stops, a statistically significant higher number of nonwhite drivers are stopped, Rizer said. Bans on pretextual stops reduced the number of nonwhite people pulled over. 

No action was taken at the meeting. Due to a storm that interrupted internet service for some panel members, Gregg postponed a planned presentation by Des Moines police until next month’s meeting.