Lee’s Summit police racially profiled three black nurses in traffic stop, they say

Lee’s Summit police officer searched the vehicle of three black nurses

Lee’s Summit police racially profiled three black nurses during a traffic stop, all three told The Star. Their car was searched and particles were tested for THC. It was negative. An officer wrongly accused the driver of having an invalid license.
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Lee’s Summit police racially profiled three black nurses during a traffic stop, all three told The Star. Their car was searched and particles were tested for THC. It was negative. An officer wrongly accused the driver of having an invalid license.

A black woman — a nurse in her late 20s — described feeling harassed, insulted and frightened by Lee’s Summit police officers during a traffic stop earlier this month.

Ciera Calhoun was driving when she was pulled over shortly around midnight on July 15 in the area of Northeast Douglas Street and Tudor Road. She’d been driving with her lights off. She was in a rental car and said she’s accustomed to her personal vehicle, in which the lights illumine automatically. The area is a well-lit, four-lane roadway.

Three officers ultimately responded to the scene, searched her vehicle for drugs and conducted a field THC test. The test came up negative at the scene.

“I feel like he (the officer who initiated the stop and called in backup) kept trying to find something,” Calhoun said.

The officer became suspicious when a plastic baggie flew near Calhoun’s vehicle as she was being pulled over, said Lee’s Summit Police Sgt. Chris Depue.

Depue acknowledged the baggie may have been kicked up by Calhoun’s passing car.

The baggie didn’t come out of the car, Calhoun and two women riding with her said. All three women are nurses in their late 20s.

The passengers, in accounts independent of one another, gave nearly identical descriptions of their interaction with Lee’s Summit police but chose not to speak publicly out of fear of retribution.

The search was conducted despite the officer acknowledging beforehand over his radio that he wasn’t “getting any odor, and the bag — the way it flew I could tell there was nothing in it,” according to dascham footage of the incident.

“So if they dumped it, I’d smell it. It’s possible it was a piece of trash that kicked up in just the right way. But at the same time I saw what I saw, so I’m going to run with it until I know it’s not there.”

Lee’s Summit Police Chief Travis Forbes said racial profiling is a “serious allegation.”

“Biased-based policing is prohibited. We look into any complaints about this very seriously,” he said.

In fact, Forbes said the department initiated a complaint investigation after becoming aware of the allegations Calhoun made in a Facebook post. She later deleted the post.

The officer involved has about five years experience. Capt. Brian Wilson said no racial-profiling complaints had been made in the past against the officer.

The Lee’s Summit Police Department investigated 17 citizen complaints last year. Of those, three were ruled legitimate complaints, one was not and 13 were exonerated.

In 2017, Lee’s Summit police officers were significantly more likely to search blacks when compared to whites, according to an analysis of traffic stop data recently published by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

Depue explained the disparity by saying that Lee’s Summit’s population has become more diverse and that every arrest triggers a mandatory search.

“Sometimes warrant arrests fall differently among different cultural groups,” he said.

In interactions with Lee’s Summit police in 2017, more than 13 percent of blacks were searched, compared to less than 5 percent of whites. Yet contraband was found in the possession of whites and blacks at similar rates in the city.

Depue said Calhoun gave the officer consent to search her vehicle. He said during his patrol career, he never passed on a consent-search opportunity, and the officer was simply taking every precaution in searching Calhoun’s vehicle.

“There’s nothing sinister or nefarious here,” Depue said.

Depue said what was ultimately tested for THC may have been “sand, crushed up leaves, dirt from floorboards.”

During the THC test, a second officer tells the first to use “English” to explain to the nurses what THC is.

The women quickly respond that they’re nurses, they’re familiar with the term, according to the dashcam video.

“You hear about it happening to other people, but you never, ever expect it to happen to you,” Calhoun said. “I felt so offended and belittled.”

Calhoun said she also felt frightened during the stop, noting the officer’s “hand was literally on his gun.”

The officer’s hand rests on or near his gun when he approaches Calhoun’s vehicle, according to the footage. Calhoun said she pictured high-profile killings of black people by police throughout the interaction.

Depue emphasized that the officer was cordial with the women throughout the interaction.

Calhoun said that as a nurse, she’s trained to remain calm in stressful situations.

“If I was cordial, why did he feel like he needed to have his hand on his gun?” Calhoun said.

Depue acknowledged that “getting stopped by the police can be a scary thing” and said that, to a driver sitting in a car, the gun would be at eye level.

“I get it,” he said.

The entire interaction lasted about 21 minutes.

The officer wrongly gave Calhoun a warning for driving with an improper license. Calhoun, who once lived in the Lee’s Summit area, obtained a Texas license when she moved there about two years ago.

“(You) have a valid Texas license but you’re in Missouri,” the officer tells Calhoun in the footage. “…I go by Missouri.”

Depue called the mistake a “training issue for us.”

Calhoun said the traffic stop left her shaken.

“It’s sad. It’s scary. It makes me afraid of the police,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun said a captain later called her to discuss her allegation on Facebook. The captain told her that her Facebook post, which goes into detail about the stop, was “derogatory” toward the department.

“Her post is derogatory,” Depue said, adding by email that if Calhoun “insists on sticking by her allegations, it will be our plan to not only release the video of the stop, (but to) refute her allegations and release the screenshots of her Facebook posts that she has now taken down. We don’t want to be ugly about this but she is making a serious allegation that is simply not true and we will show the public the entire body of evidence regarding the stop.”

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Lee's Summit police

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Lee's Summit police

Calhoun said that “not once did he (the officer) ever apologize. That’s all I ever wanted.”

She was only given warnings during the stop, Depue said, one wrongly given for Calhoun’s Texas license and one for driving with her lights off.

It’s standard protocol for additional officers to respond when a consent search is planned and occupants are asked to step out of a vehicle, Depue added.

“Our officers are trained annually on bias-based policing. It is a mandatory training for all sworn staff that is done each year,” Depue said.

Across Missouri, blacks and Hispanics are searched about 9 percent of the time in their interactions with police. Whites are searched just 6 percent of the time but are found with contraband at higher rates than both blacks and Hispanics.

“There’s still racial profiling in the world and so many people are blind to it,” Calhoun said.