Missouri law enforcement stopped black drivers at a rate 85 percent higher than white drivers last year, according to a new report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office
. In the eighteen years since this figure has been documented, the disparity has never been so great
White drivers were less likely to be stopped, searched or arrested. However, those who were stopped and searched were more likely to be found with contraband than black or Hispanic drivers
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director at ACLU of Missouri, says the difference in treatment is a real problem.
“We know that if we are policed differentially that is a violation of equal protection,” Mittman says. “In other words, the government should not treat one race of people differently than it treats others, and unfortunately, that is happening.”
In 2000, concerns about the racial profiling of drivers in Missouri prompted the passage of a statute requiring officers to report demographic factors for every driver they stop, including race, gender and age, reasons for the stop, details about the search (if one was conducted), if a citation or warning was issued, if an arrest was made and the location.
The Attorney General analyzes the data and compiles it into the annual state Vehicle Stop Report (VSR). Each law enforcement agency is expected to use the VSR to inform policies on race-based traffic stops or risk repercussions from the state
For the past eighteen years, the VSR has indicated that African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color are disproportionately affected by stops, searches and arrests. Such information is intended to shape state and local-level discourse and policy. However, recently, the very stakeholders who could make most use of the report have called its validity into question
“This year, my Office is conducting a thorough review of all regulations relating to the Vehicle Stop Report. Both law enforcement and community groups have raised concerns that some regulations are vague or unclear,” Attorney General Josh Hawley wrote in a statement. “These issues may lead to inconsistent or inaccurate data reporting in some cases, which may affect the value of certain information contained in the Report.”
One potentially major issue with the VSR is its reliance on 2010 census data. Because a demographic group’s share of the state’s driving age population may not equal its share of actual drivers on the road, the report may produce skewed figures. For instance, the reported disparity index (proportion of stops/proportion of population) for American Indians is a remarkably low 0.36
. This may reflect a lack of American Indians who are actually on the road rather than a low stop rate, the Attorney General report states.
“In explaining the stop disproportions, they’re complicated and there’s several things that could give the mistaken impression of disproportion resulting from bias,” says Don Love, chairman of the Human Rights Task Force at Empower Missouri.
And for any one jurisdiction within the state’s law-enforcement patchwork, the stop rate may be particularly susceptible to additional variables. For instance, economic factors may play a role, Love says. Because black drivers are twice as likely to be at the federal level of poverty, they may be more likely to be pulled over for having an older car with, say, a broken headlight or other defect. Or, an agency may establish investigative stops in neighborhoods with high crime rates. The increased police presence may inflate stop rates for those jurisdictions. Finally, because the VSR relies upon census data to estimate the proportions of groups of residents, it fails to incorporate the presence of commuters travelling through a jurisdiction.
Jurisdictions are responsible for explaining such additional factors in their local-level reports.
Ladue Police Chief Ken Andreski believes his small St. Louis County suburb is a good example of a place where more context is needed. Fewer than one percent of its residents are black, but he says the municipality has a strong commuter presence, with a number of private and public schools and businesses and employers that bring in much larger numbers of black drivers. This could lead to a higher stop rate for blacks in Ladue.
“While our population is very small, the transient population or the traveling population, is very diverse compared to the actual living population in town,” Andreski says. “So when we look at the numbers, and historically, if you look at raw numbers, it doesn’t bode well for our department.”
In the past, Ladue has faced criticism for the disparity reflected in the Attorney General’s report. (In fact, at one point, the suburb negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the NAACP to address allegations that black drivers were being targeted
.) This year, Ladue reported
an extremely high disparity index of 16.79 for black drivers, nine times higher than the state average.
“The way the data is taken now, I understand it, but I believe it is flawed and does not give a true reflection of the performance of the smaller cities,” Andreski says.
To correct for this issue, Hawley issued a regulation that went into effect January 1, 2018, requiring officers to document the residency of those stopped. The results of this regulation may be reflected in next year’s report.
The Ladue department looks at other indicators to evaluate its performance. Last year, according to Andreski, the department had 1,910 stops. A total of 91.518 percent of those were results of a hazardous moving violation. Of those, 90 percent were the result of speed.
“We’re not just looking at vehicles and equipment types of stops, we’re looking at stops that cause traffic accidents, stops that could hurt people,” Andreski said. “So the radar gun is, dare I say, race-neutral. If we’re stopping a lot of people for speed it shows we’re focused more on safety than anything else, in my mind.”
Love emphasizes the importance of analyzing post-stop data, which examines the actions officers take after a stop has been made. At this point, of course, the driver’s race is known to the officer, so bias has the potential to play a larger role. Additionally, the officer has more discretion in how to proceed.
And on this front, Empower Missouri delivers promising news. In 2009, officers conducted consent searches on black drivers at a 45 percent disproportion rate — a rate that, by this year, had dropped to five percent. This may indicate that “officers can learn to treat all drivers fairly,” according to the Empower Missouri report.
The ACLU is urging further improvement. It’s given strong support to the Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act
, which has been proposed in the House. The legislation aims to establish yearly agency data review, improve how consent searches are conducted, require discipline and training for officers who police unfairly and more.
Biased policing exists alongside such wide-scale racial issues including access to education and equitable legal protection, Mittman says.
“To the extent we can remind readers this is part of a complex system that impacts the lives of far too many, far too many communities of color, people of color, and those with the least amount of resources, this is a really serious problem that many of us are not aware of or don’t see,” Mittman says. “If we can fix this, it gives people a chance to better their lives.”