Since 2000, police departments in the state of Missouri have been required by law to report information about their traffic stops – including the race of the person pulled over.
Every year, the data have shown that minorities are disproportionately stopped and searched compared to the size of the minority population. Those disparities exist in spite of the state requiring police departments to come up with policies that combat the use of race in traffic stops.
So why is it so hard to get rid of bias in policing?
Doing The Right Thing
Rich Anderson had a feeling he was being targeted the day a Missouri State Highway Patrol officer pulled him over to give him a warning about his license plate being obscured.
“If you’re on a highway, there’s a lot of speeding, there’s a lot of improper lane changes and things like that,” he said. “He was a couple of lanes over, and he immediately got behind me, and he was focused in on my license plate.”
It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. Anderson, a retired engineer, has never broken the law aside from a few speeding tickets. He teaches at a local college and trains middle and long-distance runners in his spare time. But officers only see that he’s a black man when they pull him over, he says.
“I’m not so sure that the officer actually had any malice,” Anderson said. “To me, I think it’s a little more telling that quite often, they thought they were doing the right thing.”
Anderson’s experience is the result of what’s called "implicit bias," the deeply engrained assumptions that people aren’t even aware they make about others. The bias plays out in various ways in policing, from whom the police stop to where they patrol.
“When I have conversations with law enforcement officers, they’ll say, blacks commit most of the crimes, and the data suggest that,” said Khatib Waheed, who has facilitated dozens of workshops on combating implicit bias, including for the commanders of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “But can we assume that crimes are only committed in the black community or are there crimes being committed in other communities as well? For example, if you go on a college campus, you’ll find just as much drug use as you will in any part of the black community. But are the police policing those areas?”
Combating The Bias
Officers don’t explicitly use race as the factor when they stop individuals, Waheed said. They may not even be aware that it’s in the back of their minds.
“But if you see several black youth with pants sagging down, congregating at a bus stop, they’ll probably stop,” Waheed said. “Conversely, if you see a group of white kids with sagging pants standing at a bus stop, will the police stop?”
When anyone, including the police, has time to stop and think, they generally recognize the assumptions they are making, Waheed said. But so much of police work happens in a split second. So officers have to learn to recognize those assumptions from the beginning of their career. And the importance of learning about those assumptions has to be emphasized by their commanders.
“Based on the amount of attention you give to a topic, you’re telling people what’s important and what’s not,” Waheed said.
In Missouri, the topic doesn’t get much attention.
Most police officers in the St. Louis area must undergo 600 hours of training to join a department. But cadets don’t spend enough of those hours learning how to interact with the communities they will serve, said former Hazelwood police chief Carl Wolf.
“We learn how to shoot, we learn how to Tase, we learn how to fight, we learn how to use nightsticks,” he said. “Very seldom do we have to use that part of our training, but that’s what a lot of our training is focused on.”
The heavy focus on tactics ignores the fact that a majority of police work is about dealing with people, Wolf said.
The Anti-Defamation League began offering its own program on implicit bias almost 10 years ago in cooperation with the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. “Law Enforcement and Society – Lessons of the Holocaust” is meant to help police officers understand how the Nazis used the police to perpetuate the genocide that defined the Holocaust.
“It helps them understand that it's as a matter of their core values and it's in their own personal best interest to be aware of the nature of stereotypes, not only as they are stereotyped but as they stereotype other communities,” said Karen Aroesty, director of the ADL's St. Louis chapter.
Wolf, the former Hazelwood chief, made the course mandatory for his department after attending one of the earliest classes.
“At some point in time you have to understand that, yeah, you’re the police. But you know what? You’re still a citizen, you’re still a human being, and you have to do what’s right,” he said.
The lesson fit right in with Wolf’s emphasis on community policing, or the idea of working with residents to solve small problems before they become big ones. He said he would emphasize that value over and over again when talking to officers about their individual traffic stop data.
Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see how well the message took. In 2012, the last year that Wolf was chief, Hazelwood police searched nearly 11 percent of the black drivers they pulled over. That puts the city in the middle of the pack compared to its neighbors. By comparison, Hazelwood officers searched just five percent of the white drivers they pulled over. That’s the second-biggest gap in the difference between white drivers and black drivers searched.
Wolf, however, said his focus on interacting with the community paid off.
“[In 2006] when the Ford motor plant left, and the city was in a financial strait, at one point, the city looking at contracting policing out to the St. Louis County police ,” Wolf said. “When that item was discussed at a council meeting, we had almost 800 people show up demanding that we keep the Hazelwood police department.”
It’s not enough for people to take a one-time class, said the ADL’s Karen Aroesty. She is concerned that people skills never become a priority as officers advance in their careers.
State standards require officers to take three hours of training on racial profiling every three years. In Aroesty’s opinion, that is not nearly enough. Officers who have been on the force for a few years need training that looks different than the classes taken by officers who are just starting out, she said.
“I think they get a lot more cynical,” Aroesty said. “And I think they are influenced by what they have seen. Which again, if you go back to the race issue, is influenced by the connection of race and poverty and crime.”
The Anti-Defamation League has drafted legislation that would boost the amount of required training to eight hours annually, and mandate that departments form community-police partnerships like Wolf did in Hazelwood. Aroesty said the collaborations would give police leadership more authority to address bias in their departments.
“I would hope that this conversation would actually empower command staff to have more capacity to say ‘look, if you really can’t do this job without a high level of bias that is negatively impacting the community, then you can’t do this job,’” she said.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann