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‘Driving while Black’ in Louisville, Kentucky


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: ‘Driving while Black’ in Louisville, Kentucky

  • ‘I had nothing’: How parole perpetuates a cycle of incarceration and instability

  • Bernie Sanders supports an end to felony disenfranchisement

  • More photos of the horrifying conditions at St. Clair prison

  • Efforts to counter drivers license revocations make progress

In the Spotlight

‘Driving while Black’ in Louisville, Kentucky

Last August, 18-year old Tae-Ahn Lea was pulled over in his mother’s car while driving to get a slushie. The reason for the stop was trivial—an officer alleged he had made a “wide turn.” Yet what followed was 25 minutes of humiliation, with officers treating Lea like a criminal. The officer pulled Lea out of the car, made him stand spread-eagle against it, and patted him down. When Lea refused to consent to a search of the car, the officer said a police dog had smelled marijuana, then handcuffed Lea. Officers found nothing in the car. [Andrew Wolfson / Courier-Journal]

Andrew Wolfson of the Courier-Journal in Louisville described how Lea, the high school homecoming king who had just graduated with multiple scholarships, “was forced to stand on the street, embarrassed, as traffic drove by, with the cuffs chafing his wrists, as one officer asked him, “Why do you have this negative view towards the police?” When Lea’s mother, who had been on the phone with him throughout the stop, eventually arrived at the scene, an officer threatened her with arrest if she approached the car.  [Andrew Wolfson / Courier-Journal]

In the months since Lea was pulled out of his car, nearly a million people have viewed a video of the stop on YouTube. The video captures the encounter in full and has generated widespread condemnation of the police actions.

It was less than a month after Tae-Ahn Lea was pulled over that police made another stop that highlighted the use of pretextual traffic stops and humiliating policing tactics in West Louisville. In September, police stopped the Reverend Kevin Cosby and his wife as they were driving home from dinner on a Saturday night. Cosby, a pastor and the president of Simmons College of Kentucky, described how the officer treated them as criminals from the outset, asking, “What are y’all getting into tonight” and giving them no information about why they had been pulled over. Eventually, officers alleged two infractions: an improper turn and an illegal plastic frame around his license plate. Cosby has since pointed out that the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police sells the same kind of frame on its website.  [Rev. Kevin Cosby / Courier-Journal]

The officer, noticing the Simmons College logo on Cosby’s shirt asked him what the college was. Cosby later wrote:

“I felt insulted and humiliated by his question about Simmons. Can you imagine a police officer asking what’s U of L? What’s Spalding? What’s Bellarmine? It’s not like Simmons only recently opened. The college was founded in 1879 by former slaves. Simmons is the only private black college in the commonwealth, and the only college located in west Louisville, the area that the officer was policing.” [Rev. Kevin Cosby / Courier-Journal]

The treatment of Tae-Ahn Lea and Reverend Cosby continues to reverberate. The Louisville police chief recently announced that an internal investigation had found no evidence of bias in the officer’s decision to pull over Cosby. The officer was disciplined for violating guidelines by failing to identify himself during the stop, failing to provide a reason for the stop, and for not wearing his body camera properly. [Jason Riley / WDRB]

As for Lea, two months after officers stopped him, a judge dismissed the traffic citation. At a council meeting last week, the chairperson of the public safety committee asked that the police chief appear to answer questions about the stop and the department’s tactic of “hyper-policing” in the West End. The chairperson, a former prosecutor, said, according to the Courier-Journal, that public safety is her “highest priority,” but the “idea my two sons could and would be pulled over for no other reason than that they live in west Louisville” gives me “significant concern.” [Andrew Wolfson / Courier-Journal]

The police department has refused to comment on the case, citing a pending investigation. The department also continues to defend its tactics, saying there is no bias in traffic stops and that they reduce violent crime. [Andrew Wolfson / Courier-Journal]

The claim that traffic stops decrease violent crime has been shown to be false elsewhere. A report published in November examined traffic stops in Nashville, Tennessee. The researchers concluded that, “traffic stops are not an effective strategy for reducing crime.” Researchers found that fluctuations in the volume of stops had no effect on crime rates in the long-term or the short-term. Furthermore, with respect to bias, although the police department argued that disparities in traffic stops were the function of differing officer deployment and different rates of traffic infraction the report concluded instead that even controlling for other factors, “unexplained racial disparity still remains.” [Policing Project at NYU School of Law]

The police practice of targeting Black drivers—and the corresponding experience of “driving while black”—is pervasive and a national story that often ends in tragedy. New research continues to illuminate that drivers are treated differently based on their race. Last month, the Stanford Computational Policy Lab published a comprehensive study of traffic stops and vehicle searches nationwide. The researchers “compiled and analyzed a dataset detailing nearly 100 million municipal and state patrol traffic stops conducted in dozens of jurisdictions across the country—the largest such effort to date.” [Stanford Computational Policy Lab]

The analysis showed three things. First, the researchers found evidence of bias against Black drivers in both highway patrol and municipal police stops. Second, they found that the bar for searching the vehicles of Black and Latinx drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers. Finally, by looking at data from Colorado and Washington, they found evidence that marijuana legalization led to fewer vehicle searches overall but that the bar for searching vehicles of Black and Latinx drivers remained lower post-legalization than that for searching white drivers. [Stanford Computational Policy Lab]

Stories From The Appeal

Katal Center website

‘I Had Nothing’: How Parole Perpetuates a Cycle of Incarceration and Instability. Richard Cannon was making gains after being released from prison. Then one arrest changed the course of his life. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

Bernie Sanders supports an end to felony disenfranchisement: At a town hall in Iowa last week, Senator Bernie Sanders was asked if people in prison should retain the right to vote. “I think that is absolutely the direction we should go,” the presidential candidate said. Vermont, Sanders’s home state, and Maine are the only states, along with Puerto Rico, where people are not disenfranchised while in prison. Iowa, on the other hand, is one of the most restrictive states in the country, requiring permission from the governor to vote even post-sentence. Governor Kim Reynolds had supported a constitutional amendment to make restoration of the right to vote automatic upon completion of one’s sentence but the Republican-controlled state Senate killed the measure for at least a year. Senator Elizabeth Warren, another presidential contender, has also recently addressed the issue of felony disenfranchisement but only went so far as to say that people who have completed their sentences should regain their right to vote. [Kevin Hardy / Des Moines Register] See also The Appeal: Political Report’s coverage of states’ efforts to end felony disenfranchisement.

More photos of the horrifying conditions at St. Clair prison: Last week, the New York Times described horrific conditions in Alabama’s St. Clair prison, based on more than 2,000 photos provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The photos, which SPLC received from someone identifying themselves as a corrections officer, included scenes of terrible suffering and gruesome violence. The Times decided to run a small number of the photos, citing the privacy concerns of those in the pictures and “audience sensibilities.” On Friday, Splinter published several dozen more of the pictures, described as a “representative sample,”  excluding those of murder victims and “the most grisly photos.” Last week, the Department of Justice also issued its report on a multi-year investigation of Alabama’s men’s prisons, finding that the state routinely violated the constitutional rights of  people in prison “by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions.” [Hamilton Nolan / Splinter]

Efforts to counter driver’s license revocations make progress: In an effort to help thousands of people regain driver’s licenses, the district attorney of Durham, North Carolina, is clearing thousands of traffic cases, and working with other officials to clear thousands of fines and fees. The licenses of more than 1.2 million North Carolinians are revoked because of nondriving reasons, such as an inability to pay court fines and fines; this triggers significant hardships by hindering access to housing and employment. The Appeal: Political Report writes on this and other Durham initiatives to improve the transportation of people involved with the legal system, and notes in particular that “initiatives to expand public transit—when done with an eye toward equity goals—can assist the housing, employment, and legal outlook of people whose ability to drive has been restricted.” Duke University recently stymied one such initiative. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report] See also Last week, the Virginia legislature passed a bill to stop the suspensions of driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees.

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