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Two Officer Cruiser

Lincoln Police Officer Chad Staley talks with a driver during a traffic stop in 2014 while Officer Conan Schafer keeps watch.

Over the last five years, the disparate percentage of black drivers pulled over by Lincoln police has climbed even as police officials focused more attention on the problem. 

African-Americans accounted for 4.1 percent of the city's population last year, but black motorists accounted for about one in every 10 drivers pulled over in 2016, a year when police stopped 47,028 drivers.

That's the highest percentage for black motorists stopped in Lincoln since the state began examining traffic stops in 2002.

Lincoln police that year stopped more than 45,000 drivers, 6 percent of whom were black.

The percentage of black drivers pulled over in Lincoln has been consistently higher, while other racial groups are stopped in numbers comparable to their populations, Nebraska Crime Commission data shows.

The commission has been tasked with tracking data on racial breakdowns of traffic stops and the outcomes since 2001.

The commission report points out the racial disparities among traffic stops for agencies like LPD, but doesn't pinpoint why.

LPD officials insist racist policing isn't driving the disparity.

The department aggressively investigates complaints of racial profiling, trains officers on implicit bias and has a stringent hiring process to screen out bigots, officials said.

"We recognize bias does exist within all of us, including employees of the Lincoln Police Department," Chief Jeff Bliemeister said.

Bliemeister and Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady say the department takes its own steps to investigate the disparity to determine if racial profiling is its cause.

Their research points to economic factors and police patrol realities.

"Disparity exists in many facets of the criminal justice system," including traffic stops, Bliemeister said.

"And we do not think disparity is unique to the criminal justice system."

Black Lincoln man suspects racial profiling

Dale Hayes of Lincoln laughed when he read a Journal Star story last month discussing how Lincoln police officials were perplexed by the disparity in the latest traffic stop data.

"They’re baffled? Right...” Hayes, who is black, said facetiously. "They know why that’s the case."

Hayes is skeptical of arguments that the traffic stop disparity isn't driven by racial profiling, he said.

He has kept track of the times he's been pulled over or stopped by police while driving or walking. Thirty-five times since he came to Lincoln in 1973.

He's never been arrested or charged, he said. But he's had several experiences with police that aroused his suspicion.

In the early 2000s, his son, who is also black, was pulled over three times on his way to school within a couple blocks of Lincoln Northeast High School.

The cops wanted to ensure the 1994 Plymouth Sundance his dad had just bought him wasn't stolen, Hayes said.

It wasn't.

'Veil of Darkness' tests for racism

Hayes doesn't think LPD is full of bad apples, but he can't help but think the disparity in the department's traffic stops is driven by racial profiling, he said.

It's institutional racism at the least, he said.

Lincoln police say they tested that very theory using an independent analysis tool that is heralded by criminal justice researchers.

It's called the "Veil of Darkness."

This analysis method tests the hypothesis that police officers are less likely to know a driver's race before pulling them over during nighttime hours than during daytime.

Data for traffic stops occurring between 5 and 9 p.m. were assessed because the daylight fluctuates then -- light in summer and dark in winter.

LPD ran its data for traffic stop patterns involving black and Hispanic drivers, and neither showed disparities when comparing stops during light and dark hours, according to analyses results shared with the Journal Star.

In essence, police weren't stopping black or Hispanic drivers at disproportionate rates because of visibility.

Stops not only sign of disparity

If racial profiling were occurring, disparity could be seen in the stop rates as well as in "Veil of Darkness" analysis and in ticketing rates, said Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville.

Lincoln police write traffic tickets at about the same rate for black and white motorists. Once stopped, 47 percent of white drivers are ticketed and 43 percent of black drivers are, according to LPD traffic stop data.

The tickets blacks receive often are the result of economic disparities, Casady pointed out.

Lincoln Police Officer Luke Bonkiewicz analyzed LPD citation data along with census data and statistics from the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.

In Lincoln, the median household income for whites was $60,256 compared to $35,398 for African-Americans, his report found.

Black drivers are more likely than white drivers to be cited for income-related offenses such as no valid registration, suspended license or no insurance, but equally as likely or less likely than white drivers to be cited for non-income related offenses like drunk driving or speeding, the report found.

Disparities in housing, employment and income among minorities don't exist independent of the criminal justice system, Bonkiewicz said.

"They all come to a head when you get on the road," he said.

While black and white drivers are ticketed at similar rates, black motorist are more often arrested and taken to jail when pulled over during traffic stops.

Two arrest factors -- driving on a suspended license and having an arrest warrant -- are more likely among black drivers, Casady says.

Police work hard to stop people from driving on suspended licenses because it can be a felony and suspended drivers tend to be riskier and more likely to not have insurance, Casady said.

Economic disparity comes into play again when looking at suspended licenses. Income-related reasons, such as failure to pay fines, insurance violations and violation of child support orders, factored into 60 percent of suspensions for white drivers.

Those same reasons were responsible for 78 percent of suspensions for black drivers, Bonkiewicz found.

Black people are also over-represented in arrest warrants in the county.

A Journal Star analysis of arrest warrants in Lancaster County found that 29 percent of defendants wanted by authorities on May 2 were black.

Casady said many of those warrants are for offenses like failing to appear in court or failure to pay a fine.

Officers are required by law to arrest someone they contact who has a warrant, he said.

That likely explains why a higher percentage of black motorists are arrested based on traffic stops and why their cars are searched more, he said.

Officers search a car when making an arrest where the detainee is going to jail, he said.

And traffic patrols are designed to put more officers in areas where there are higher calls for service, officials said. 

In some areas, those are majority non-white, Casady said.

LPD takes a proactive approach

Bliemeister's department is taking a proactive approach to this problem, he said.

Each month, captains from each of LPD's geographical policing teams look at the traffic stop numbers and take action if troubling patterns are discovered among their officers.

There have been 10 internal affairs investigations into racial profiling since 2014, Bliemeister said.

The evidence exonerated officers in nine of the cases and in the most recent couldn't prove or disprove the allegations, he said.

Officers are trained on fair and impartial policing and cultural awareness and form community partnerships, he said.

The department also closely scrutinizes its applicant pools, looking in particular for racists, sexist or other biased statements, actions or behaviors in the applicant's past, he said.

Applicants must pass a psychological exam, polygraph, the department's cybervetting and a background investigation and is assessed by a diverse hiring panel, Bonkiewicz said.

Of the 300 to 500 who apply for each recruit class, LPD only offers 25 to 30 positions and hires a dozen or fewer, he said.

The department has not been forced to compromise its standards to fill its ranks, Bliemeister said.

"We acknowledge that the disparity exists," Bliemeister said.

"We are constantly screening for, looking at, training on ways to recognize implicit bias, ensure it doesn't change to explicit bias, and if it does, once again, we will hold them culpable and accountable."

Bliemeister said he doesn't want anyone to think his department is trying to rationalize this disparity away.

"To the contrary, we're trying to determine if there's something we can do as an agency, as a profession to lessen the disparity that exists."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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