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Decriminalization and data in Kansas City, Mo.

This article on “Decriminalization and Data in Kansas City, Missouri” caught our eye because it highlights how data is often used as a barrier to change. For years, the League of American Bicyclists has lamented a lack of bicycle-related data and a transportation system built around data systems that only consider motor vehicles, not people. In this article, Michael Kelley with BikeWalkKC talks about how the inaccessibility of data is used to avoid confronting whether people biking and walking are overpoliced.

Just as with data on bicycling generally, there are no federal requirements that require data on policing that might answer BikeWalkKC’s questions. A small federal program, called Section 1906, can fund data collection on racial demographics in traffic law enforcement, but it is optional and under-used. In the absence of good data, advocates like BikeWalkKC are finding ways to make the case that decriminalizing biking and walking are good public policies. 

Enthusiastic efforts to adopt the “Idaho Stop” in many states show that many people who bike already feel that decriminalization of safe and normal ways of moving about by human power are good ideas. I hope that this article catches your eye too and helps you think about how we can move forward for better data and better outcomes. 

Advocates, journalists, activists, and researchers across the country report that arbitrary laws governing how people who walk and bike create the potential for over-policing of pedestrians and bicyclists, especially People of Color. (Find links to stories from other cities in our previous blog post) BikeWalkKC continues to advocate for the decriminalization of walking and biking in KCMO, and as we’ve pushed for this policy change, a persistent  question has emerged: “Where’s the data, and how do we know this is a problem in KCMO?”

The answer, in short, is that BikeWalkKC does not have access to the data on this issue. Yet we know the over-policing of people walking and biking in KCMO is a problem because of stories like these:

“…I can re-call 2-3 times where I would be walking home from the library and KCPD would stalk me weaving through 52nd, 53rd and 54th streets as I made my way South on Main Street, never speaking with me like a human being with something like “hey we’ve had break-ins in the area and we’re out patrolling” not a word…” – Devin Burton

“…I am a middle-aged white woman…I have crossed against the light, crossed in the middle of the street, broken all kinds of pedestrian laws right in front of police officers probably hundreds of times. I have not once been stopped for jaywalking or ‘walking in the street where a sidewalk is provided’…” – Winifred Jamieson

“…I’ve had clients arrested for having one foot over the white line in a downtown crosswalk. For simply crossing the street between houses in a neighborhood. Anytime a foot is even a fraction off the curb when there is also a sidewalk. Simply being in the street is cause to arrest for many officers. I know I have seen it dozens of times in the last two decades.” – Rick Johnson, criminal defense attorney

In the absence of quantitative data, we must rely on stories like these, submitted through our “Tell Us Your Story” platform, to get a better understanding of this issue.

This still begs the question: if BikeWalkKC doesn’t have data, then who does? The answer is the Kansas City Police Department. Because the KCPD is responsible for enforcing these laws, they are also responsible for tracking who they cite for violating these laws. 

Knowing that the KCPD collects the data is only one part of the issue. What makes this more challenging is that this data doesn’t exist in an open, transparent portion of the KCPD website. Organizations like BikeWalkKC have to request the data from someone in the KCPD, and even then, we often need the assistance of an elected official or member of city staff when making that request.

When data is provided by the KCPD, it paints an incomplete picture. In particular, we don’t know the following:

  • Where in the city these tickets were handed out
  • What was the race and ethnicity of the people who received these tickets
  • Whether the violation of dirty wheels, a bike in disrepair, or jaywalking was used as a pretense to initiate an interaction about something else

This problem isn’t limited to decriminalization, and it won’t go away with the adoption of Ordinance #210100. The question of greater access to data is something which could also impact the implementation of Vision Zero. It’s part of the reason why BikeWalkKC supports local control of the Kansas City Police Department.

It appears that the decriminalization ordinance will be held a bit longer as members of the City Council work to address some of the questions that have arisen, including those related to data and questions about jaywalking. BikeWalkKC is using that time to continue engaging with partners and informing the public about this issue (check out our FAQ on the issue by clicking here).

We continue to receive letters of support from partner organizations. Some of the most recent submissions come from:

These organizations join 14 others who have already provided letters of support on this issue. 

As an individual, you can still use your voice to advocate for decriminalization. Click this link to send a personalized message directly to the mayor and your councilmembers, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.

We remain confident that the City Council will adopt the decriminalization ordinance, but that legislation alone will not solve the problem of incomplete, inaccessible data. BikeWalkKC recognizes that this is only one step in efforts to make our streets safer and more equitable for everyone.