KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Traffic tickets for economic-based crimes are burying already poor Kansas City residents under a mass of fines, a newspaper analysis has found.
The Kansas City Star reported it found significant racial disparities among the tickets issued last year by the Kansas City Police Department and processed by the Kansas City Municipal Court. Sixty percent of the tickets given to Kansas City residents went to African-Americans, although they make up just 30 percent of the population.
Speeding is overwhelmingly the top traffic offense for all races — except African-Americans, for whom it ranks third. For African-Americans, the top charges are for lacking a license plate and insurance, both offenses with their roots in poverty.
Another issue is the city's most ticketed zip code has a high crime rate, where police have a strong presence, increasing the chance drivers will get caught for traffic violations, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "It's a law of averages and opportunity."
Police did not respond to the Star's request for comment.
Larena Bryant said she's not necessarily a bad or unsafe driver, although in 2017 alone she was stopped seven times and cited with 13 traffic tickets by the Kansas City Police Department — five for no insurance, six for driving on a suspended license and two for expired tags.
"Now it's pay this ticket or pay this light bill," she said. "It's pay this ticket or pay this rent. It's adding another bill on top of what I already have."
Stacy Shaw, founding partner of Stacy Shaw & Associates, a Kansas City law firm specializing in traffic cases, said possible solutions are a sliding scale for car registration fees and improved public transit. Once, in a type of social experiment, Shaw asked her firm's employees to take only public transportation to their downtown office for a week to better understand what unlicensed and uninsured drivers would have to go through if they decided to not risk driving.
"It simply could not be done," she said, adding that taking the bus resulted in a three-hour expedition for one employee who lived in the suburb of Independence.
For nearly 20 years, the state of Missouri has collected traffic stop demographic data, and it has long shown racial disparities. But there hasn't been much done to address the problem beyond pointing it out in an annual report from the Missouri Attorney General's Office, said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director with the ACLU of Missouri.
"It's time to get real about this problem," Baker said.
For Quinton Lucas, a Kansas City City Council member, the first step should be for the city to review any ordinances that "criminalize poverty."
"Society tends to blame police when really it's up to us to come up with criminal codes," he said.