Editorials

Is ‘driving while poor’ a crime for African Americans living in Kansas City?

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The Kansas City Police Department must address an issue with troubling racial undertones: why officers are writing disproportionate numbers of traffic tickets to lower-income African Americans living in one section of the city.

And yet, when asked to comment, the police went radio silent.

African Americans received 60 percent of traffic tickets written to Kansas City residents in 2017, a Star analysis found, despite comprising only 30 percent of the population. Police owe the drivers on the receiving end of those tickets — as well as all taxpayers — an explanation.

Residents living in the 64130 ZIP code understandably have even more questions: Theirs is the most common ZIP code for Kansas City drivers receiving traffic citations, accounting for 10 percent of the overall tickets. But the citations are not generally related to issues affecting public safety.

These drivers are being fined at higher rates than others in the city but often for violations such as not having their license plates updated or failing to pay for insurance.

Unpaid tickets pile up when people lack financial resources. Water bill? Rent? Or pay a traffic fine for a tail light being out? Many choose more urgent needs that affect their home and family. Budgeting becomes a matter of triage.

Driving while poor should not be criminalized in Kansas City.

And it’s unacceptable that the police department essentially offered a “no comment” when asked to help interpret its own ticket writing.

Mayor Sly James’ office also took a pass on commenting, hopeful that the police department would respond to the data.

The police department employs a number of crime analysts, experts who likely can offer necessary and important insight. Citizens deserve to hear from them.

Complex aspects of race and class are involved, and more discussion is needed. If there are reasons for such stark disparities, police need to explain them.

The Star investigation also highlighted another troubling statistic. Speeding is the most common infraction for all other races, but not for African Americans in Kansas City.

African Americans, the data show, often are being cited for issues that appear to be linked more to their income level, rather than to hazardous driving.

Police efforts to cultivate better relations with minority communities could be undercut if they are perceived to be needlessly harassing some drivers.

We shouldn’t have to remind anyone that angst over aggressive ticketing for nuisance violations played a large role in the tensions that erupted in civil unrest in Ferguson after the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Writing tickets for such infractions doesn’t appear to enhance public safety. Rather, it appears to be deliberate effort to subject a certain population to intense scrutiny while residents of other neighborhoods are playing by different rules.

No one is arguing for fewer police officers in high-crime areas. But people do expect the police department to focus on criminals, while remaining mindful of the possible perception that they are targeting people unfairly, either by race or income.

The Star’s analysis should spur a community conversation about policing and further investigation of the disparities in traffic tickets. The Kansas City Police Department can’t sit this one out.

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