Community outrage over the September traffic stop of Rev. Kevin Cosby drew a capacity crowd to a forum on racial profiling at the St. Stephen Family Life Center on Wednesday afternoon. The talk was dubbed “Policing the Black Community,” but most of the discussion focused on Cosby’s experience with the Louisville Metro Police Department.
The traffic stop of the Simmons president and St. Stephen Baptist Church pastor resulted in a police investigation over charges of racial profiling from Cosby and some members of the Louisville Metro Council.
The forum began with a short presentation by Dr. Deborah Keeling, associate dean of faculty affairs at the University of Louisville, who has studied traffic stops made by the Louisville Metro Police Department since 2013. Her display was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Rev. Clay Calloway, co-host of the “Saturday Morning Solutions Show” on 1350 WLOU.
In addition to Keeling, the panel included Metro Council President David James, D-6, who is a former LMPD officer, and the defense attorney Jan Waddell, who successfully defended four youth dubbed the “Misidentified Four” after they were wrongly accused of assault and robbery.
Cosby and his wife were stopped in his Audi on Sept. 15 at around 10 p.m. According to Cosby, the officer did not explain why he was stopped and asked the minister’s wife, who was in the passenger seat, for her license after asking, “What are ya’ll getting into tonight?”
Cosby felt he and his wife were racially profiled because they were driving an Audi in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, also criticized the Louisville Metro Police Department for the stop. First Division Maj. Eric Johnson responded by sending Hollander an email message denying claims of racial profiling.
After the uproar, LMPD said Cosby was pulled over for making an improper turn and having an illegal license plate frame that covered up a portion of the license plate.
LMPD has not released the body camera or vehicle video from Cosby’s stop, but Cosby did take video on his cellphone that has appeared in several television reports.
Cosby released a statement Thursday that said: “There have been those that have questioned my true intentions for releasing a video of my traffic stop on social media. The purpose of releasing the video was not to draw attention to myself, but to shine light on an issue that affects a large portion of our community. It is my hope that we can engage in civil discourse that might result in an empathetic understanding of people whose life experiences may be different from ours.”
In her presentation on Wednesday, Keeling made a point to differentiate between racial bias, police targeting a specific group, and bias policing, which determines how a member of a specific group is treated after a traffic stop.
“Bias is in your head and it’s in your heart. There’s no data you can collect that can see that in an individual. If it is a part of a cultural climate of an organization, there may be some suggestions in the data, but we can’t definitively say that people are acting with bias,” Keeling explained.
Overall traffic stops have decreased since 2014, Keeling said, because of what she called the “Ferguson effect,” referring to the rioting that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black man was shot by a police officer. But Keeling’s data showed that between 2014 and the end of 2017, 61 percent of people pulled over in Louisville were white and 32 percent were black, even though African-Americans only make up 22 percent of the city’s population.
Keeling also found 8.3 percent of black drivers stopped are arrested as opposed to 4.8 percent of white drivers. She said there needs to be more research to fully understand the racial disparity. Keeling said she would like to look at the data on a division level to determine if a black driver was more likely to be pulled over in a white neighborhood compared with a black neighborhood.
“We really need that data, because we need to figure out what’s going on. We need to know why the numbers of black drivers are inflated over their representation in the census data,” Keeling added.
Calloway began the panel discussion by presenting research done by Eastern Kentucky University on the history of policing in the South. Police departments, he said, were originally established to enforce fugitive slave laws and after emancipation police departments were used against civil rights activists.
Calloway said this legacy still affects attitudes within law enforcement that lead to unequal enforcement of the law. The minister pointed out that the Jefferson County Fraternal Order of Police is selling online the same kind of license plate frame which LMPD says justified Cosby’s stop.
During the panel discussion, James said from the video he’s seen and the descriptions of the stop, the officer involved made several mistakes including not identifying himself and not telling Cosby the reason he was being stopped.
James requested LMPD statistics on the number of people cited for illegal license plate frames over the last five years. The total was 392 people.
Waddell said he looks for bias whenever he takes a case, but the police department has come a long way since he started practicing 40 years ago.
There are degrees of racial profiling, the attorney said. In some cases, officers use a traffic stop to detect some greater kind of criminality, which Waddell said actually benefits the community. He pointed out that Louisville’s murder rate in the 2014-2017 period Keeling examined (when the rates were reaching record highs) increased over the same period that traffic stops declined.
In addition to James, Metro Council members Holland, Jessica Green, D-1, and Barbara Sexton-Smith, D-4, attended the forum. Both Green and Holland voiced their support for Cosby at the forum and vowed to look further into the issue of racial profiling in west Louisville.