Opinions vary regarding this week’s police vehicle stop report from the Missouri Attorney General’s office that indicated black motorists were 70 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped.
While state civil rights advocates believe the numbers indicate a dramatic increase in incidents of racial profiling, law enforcement officials say the numbers do not tell the whole story.
Attorney General Chris Koster called the numbers “a disturbing trend for African-American drivers in Missouri,” and met last Wednesday with Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff to discuss the issue.
The report compiled data from about 700 law enforcement agencies and covers some 1.7 million traffic stops in 2009. It also creates a “disparity index” which measures the likelihood drivers of a particular race are stopped based on their proportion of the driving age population of the state. A disparity rate greater than 1 indicates disproportionate rates of stops for members of a particular population according to the U.S. Census. The state disparity index for black drivers was 1.62 in 2009.
The Pettis County Sheriff’s Office saw a sharp increase in its disparity rate for black motorists, moving from a rate of 1.47 in 2008 to a 2.39 in 2009. The rate for the Sedalia Police Department fell from 1.53 in 2008 to 1.31 in 2009. Rates for Hispanic drivers continued to hover below expectations based on population, with Pettis County hitting a rate of .52 and SPD .81.
In it’s agency response to the report, the sheriff’s office noted the close proximity of food processing plants that employ “a large number of Hispanic and black workers,” and commuters to University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg as reasons for the higher numbers.
Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said that while the numbers can be useful, they don’t necessary reflect an issue with racial profiling.
Bond pointed out that in raw numbers, his office had conducted 592 stops in 2009, while only 41 involved black motorists.
“We had 41 stops last year, and that averages to about three a month. If you spread that out among 16 road officers, just a small increase will skew those numbers.”
Bond said, by example, a community that had no murders last year but two this year would statistically show a 200 percent increase in murders, but that would not be “a true picture of how dangerous that community was.”
“I don’t see these numbers as cause for concern. I don’t believe we participate in racial profiling. I don’t see that in my department and I wouldn’t tolerate it,” Bond said.
Sedalia Police Chief John DeGonia echoed Bond’s concerns that while census data show blacks to account for 6 percent of the population in the city and about 4 percent in Pettis County, the proximity of educational and employment centers, the presence of two highways, and the large crowds drawn by the Missouri State Fair could mean more black motorists are on the roads than would be represented in the local population.
“These numbers don’t account for outside populations and pass-through traffic that comes through town,” DeGonia said. “Despite that, I think we are doing well, but we can always do better.”
Both agencies reported regular training for officers in cultural sensitivity and understanding racial perspectives in an effort to prevent profiling.
“We spend a lot of time and money doing this. I didn’t see this as a major problem when I came here but I set this as one of my priorities. We strive to do the right thing every day and those reports help us do that,” DeGonia said.
Ratliff said by telephone on Thursday that her meeting with Koster “went very well.”
“It was a very informative meeting. We talked about looking at the data and what conclusions we could draw,” Ratliff said.
While she admitted there could be room to interpret the meaning of the report’s findings, she believes the report “proves something we have been saying for a long time – there is a problem with racial profiling in Missouri.”
“Now the data is there and it gives us the tools to try and correct some of the problems we see within this report. Now we have the data and the tools to see that we have recourse to address this issue,” Ratliff said.
She said the issue was of prime concern for the state organization this year, as it will host the national organization’s annual meeting in Kansas City in July.
“One of the reasons we were chosen was because of our central location and many members expect to drive. It will cause a tremendous uproar if we encounter this kind of thing during this time,” Ratliff said.
Koster, speaking by telephone on Thursday, told the Democrat “a high disparity index is not conclusive proof of racial profiling, and encouraged people to use the numbers as “a starting point for addressing this issue.”
“The data is available for policy makers to draw their own conclusions. No one individual or group can solve this problem alone. Addressing it needs to be a consensus effort by policy makers, law enforcement, and community members. The best chance we have is to increase awareness and sensitivity around this issue, but these numbers should raise concerns for all fair-minded people in Missouri,” Koster said.