Local activist group says video shows Des Moines police officer racially profiling 2 black men
Police body camera and cruiser cameras show a July 15 traffic stop, which a local activist group claims is evidence of racially biased policing. Wochit
The Des Moines Police Department is investigating a July traffic stop after an activist group published police recordings of the incident and claimed that they showed evidence of racially biased policing.
The activist group, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, is pointing the finger at Des Moines Senior Police Officer Kyle Thies, who pulled over two black men on July 15 after they drove out of Union Park on the north side of the city.
On Wednesday, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement released multiple videos of the police stop, including two takes from body camera footage and two from inside the police cruiser. CCI leaders say the traffic stop is just the latest suspect incident involving Thies and minorities; the group has previously filed two complaints with the police department's office of professional standards for similar reasons.
In the video, Thies is shown repeatedly asking the two men if they were carrying weapons. He claims to smell marijuana in the car and to spot marijuana residue on the car's floor. It's unclear from the video what prompted the stop.
Thies tells the pair that he believes the passenger is carrying a weapon because he is "acting funny."
"Your buddy's giving me the idea that maybe he's got a gun, you know what I mean," the officer says. "That's what I think."
"How?" the passenger asks.
"Just the way you're holding yourself, man. That's why we're nervous, man. That's it," he said. "If you're scared because you got a little bit of weed, that'll be one thing."
The officers removed both men from the car.
"You're making me think something funny's going on," Thies says on the video as he pats down the driver, Montray Little, a 23-year-old from Des Moines.
After searching the car, the officers apparently found no drugs or weapons. But Thies continued to interrogate Little while he sat in the back of a police cruiser in handcuffs.
At one point, the officer pushes the man to admit he was smoking marijuana or was around others who were smoking. He threatens to write a citation if the man won't confess. But Little maintains that he was only smoking cigarettes.
Even after releasing both men, Thies seemed to suspect some foul play.
"I feel like I was missing something," he said on the video after he re-enters the police cruiser.
Des Moines police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek said he had not reviewed the videos as of Wednesday evening. But the department will consider their public release as a complaint and begin an investigation, he said.
"We're definitely going to look into it," he said. "And there will be an administrative review."
Neither officer is currently facing any discipline from the incident.
Both Little and his passenger, Jared Clinton, 21, of Des Moines, declined to comment. But Clinton's mother spoke out, saying that the incident fit a pattern of racially biased policing.
"I'm horrified. I've been saying this for years that our kids are barely making it out of routine traffic stops," Laural Clinton said. "We've been lulled into some kind of security, thinking that, 'Oh, at least you didn't get killed or go to jail,' as some prize for being harassed."
She said her oldest son was harassed by a police officer in downtown Des Moines just eight days before the recorded incident. He was smoking a cigarette outside a bar he was patronizing as police claimed he fit the description of a wanted suspect, she said.
And her 21-year-old has been hassled by police before, she said.
"He cut his dreadlocks off because he can't walk outside the house without the police stopping him," Clinton said.
She said she continually talks to her three sons about how to interact with police. Keep your hands visible, she tells them. Comply as much as you possibly can.
"Don't smoke in your car, keep your music low, wear your seat belt," Clinton implores them. "I've had all those conversations."
But she couldn't fault her son, who sat still with his hands visible during the traffic stop.
"I couldn't be more impressed in how both of them conducted themselves," she said. "It should be a how-to video — and a how-not-to video for the police."
Clinton said she wants the public to know that the black community faces these sorts of incidents routinely.
"This stuff goes unnoticed," she said, "and there are no consequences."
Bridget Fagan-Reidburn, an organizer with Iowa CCI, said the community deserves better from its police force — particularly from Thies.
"He has a history and a pattern," she said.
The last two complaints CCI made against him were determined to be "unfounded," Fagan-Reidburn said.
CCI on Wednesday released several data sets that the group claims shows evidence of racially biased policing. One data set purported to show that the officer in question has a history of targeting young black men and that, in fact, 100 percent of the people he arrested in 2017 were black.
On Thursday, CCI released a statement revising the initial claim about the data on Thies' bookings. Parizek said police inspected the same data CCI had looked at and found that Thies was responsible for 253 arrests, with 127 arrestees being black — about 50 percent.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 11 percent of Des Moines residents identify as black or African American. Another 3.4 percent identify as belonging to "two or more races."
Bridget Fagan-Reidburn, community organizer with Iowa CCI said, "We, unfortunately, had this piece of the data wrong. But unlike the DMPD, we can admit our mistake and take responsibility. The updated data for Thies’ booking history still tells the same story. In our opinion, he has a clear pattern of targeting young black males, and it has to stop."
After releasing the footage, Iowa CCI launched a petition calling for the Des Moines Police Department and the Des Moines City Council to end racial profiling. The petition has been signed by over 550 residents in less than 24 hours.
After the videos became public, police received an influx of comments and questions on social media regarding the behavior employed during the traffic stop, Parizek said, adding that they cannot reply to every post about the incident.
"We expect our officers to be tactful and tactical," Parizek said. "If we aren't tactful, we may offend someone, leave a bad impression and appear unprofessional. If we aren't tactical, we may die. A lack of tact can be corrected with one of, or combination of, training, re-instruction and, possibly, discipline. A tactical failure could become irreversible. Ideally, we work to find the balance of the two so that we can be safe, as well as respectful.
"Every aspect of this encounter will be evaluated during the administrative review."
Thies made $36.22 an hour as of 2017, a little over $75,000 annually before overtime, according to city records.
In the broader picture, racial disparities in policing in Iowa have been the subject of contention in recent years.
In 2016, a report released by the ACLU/Human Rights Watch indicated that black Iowans were seven times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white Iowans even though studies show that the two groups use illicit drugs at the same rate. That disparity was the second-worst in the nation.
Earlier that year, legislation intended to study and combat profiling by law enforcement failed to advance at the Statehouse.
A Des Moines Register investigation in 2015 included interviews with black Iowans who almost universally said that they believed police singled out minorities for questioning.
BLACK IOWANS SERIES:
- Conversations: Black parents teach children to act with caution
- Iowa profiling policies fall short of standards
- Equipment stops: Good policing or pretense for profiling?
- Black Iowans tell of their encounters with police
- Studies show black Iowans stopped more often than white Iowans