Can Missouri's vehicle stops report lead to laws with sharper teeth?
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster wants legislators to make an annual racial disparity data report more impactful. This comes as his latest report, covering 2015, continues to show big discrepancies in how often police stop black drivers compared to white drivers.
According to Koster’s document, black drivers were 69 percent more likely than white drivers to be pulled over statewide. The Democratic official’s report showed a slight decrease from 2014 in the “disparity index” for African-American drivers. (A “disparity index,” according to Koster’s office, "measures the number of times members of a particular racial group are stopped against that group’s share of the total driving-age resident population.")
That means that the people who are stopped are compared to the 16-and-over population of the jurisdiction. The numbers used lead to a disclaimer:
“While statistical disproportion does not prove that law enforcement officers are making vehicles stops based on the perceived race or ethnicity of the driver, this compilation and analysis of data provides law enforcement, legislators, and the public a starting point as they consider improvements to the process and changes to policy to address the issues.”
Some of the takeaways from the report include:
- The highest disparity in the St. Louis region is in Pine Lawn, which stopped white drivers at a rate 17 times higher than their local population. Pine Lawn also made more than one traffic stop per resident in 2015.
- Agencies with high disparities for black drivers include Ladue (14.25 times), Sullivan (13.08 times), Marthasville (10.67 times), Glendale (10.46 times) and Arnold (10.27 times).
- The St. Louis County Police Department stopped black drivers at a rate 1.5 times greater than their population, and white drivers at .9. Eight percent of stops of white drivers and 12 percent of stops of black drivers resulted in searches. And 26 percent of searches of white drivers resulted in contraband, while 23 percent of searches of black drivers did.
- The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department stopped black drivers at 1.4 times greater than their population, and white drivers at .7. Seven percent of stops of white drivers and 10 percent of stops of black drivers resulted in searches. Eighteen percent of searches of white drivers resulted in contraband, while 14 percent of search of black drivers did.
Ladue's disparity index went down compared to 2014. Ladue Police Chief Rich Wooten said that his department has made big changes over the last few years, including placing an emphasis on going after "hazardous" moving violations.
"So [hazardous moving violations], as we have sort of identified, is sort of a race neutral enforcement action," Wooten said. "Meaning it’s on driver behavior. What we’ve looked at is when we were heavily enforcing license plates, headlights, taillights or those types of equipment violations, we were looking at a very different racial makeup of those sort of violations. So we have emphasized the hazardous moving violation, which is again is part of public safety."
Changes in the offing?
Near the end of the report’s executive summary, Koster noted that the statute authorizing the vehicle stops report has only been changed twice in the last 16 years. He said “it is time for the General Assembly – which ordered the collection of vehicle stop data 16 years ago – to decide how to make the annual vehicle stops report more meaningful.”
“The General Assembly should solicit suggestions from the relevant stakeholders, including law enforcement, local governments, and representatives from the communities they serve – regarding measures to improve the report,” Koster said. “Revision should include changes in the type of data collected and to strengthen the penalties for individual departments that fail to participate in the reporting process.”
Don Love is with Empower Missouri, a progressive advocacy organization that wants to see changes to how the report process plays out. Love said there have been instances when the report compelled departments to make changes.
“Data should be collected and made public so it’s possible for people to see what’s going right and what’s not going right,” Love said. “The problem is there really wasn’t any teeth to it that they had to do these things. Or if they didn’t have the resources that somebody would help them find those resources. So that’s where it falls short.”
Koster noted in his report that the disparity index “gauges the likelihood of a given race or ethnic group beings stopped based on their proportion of the residential population – not the population of motorists on a jurisdiction’s streets.” Love said that can be problematic.
“People don’t just stay in their own jurisdiction,” Love said. “They drive from one jurisdiction to another. And some jurisdictions experience a lot of that cross-jurisdictional traffic. So you really can’t tell what the proportions of the drivers are out there on the streets to be encountered by the officers.”
(Koster’s report said there is “no data available for the racial demographics of motorist traffic, so it cannot be calculated for the purposes of this report." Wooten contended that Ladue's disparity index is high because the city's residential population is overwhelmingly white, but a more African-American motorist population travels on two major highways that go through the city.)
State Rep. Shamed Dogan sponsored a bill earlier this year to change how the report’s data is collected – and to strengthen penalties against departments that show a pattern of racial profiling. The Ballwin Republican questioned why Koster is calling on lawmakers to make changes after the legislature adjourned – and when he won’t be attorney general after 2017.
Koster spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said in an email that "one of the recommendations of the AG's Roundtable on Representative Policing in 2014 was for a legislative task force to consider ways to make the annual report more meaningful."
"Before lawmakers act to change any requirements of the law, we believe they should hear from stakeholders to consider the practical impact and significance of any proposals," Gonder said. "This would include law enforcement officers and agencies, local governments and the communities they serve."
With the current law, Dogan said there’s “nothing that can be done right now” if “an individual department or an individual officer has a disparity index that’s way off the charts.” (Gonder said the only penalty for a law enforcement agency not provided the data would be for the governor to withhold state funds from that department.) He wants to monitor departments that have high indexes – and possibly take away those agencies’ accreditations if things don’t improve.
“I think it should be a topic of discussion in both the governor’s race and the attorney general’s race,” Dogan said. “Because if we want to be seen as a state that’s welcome for everybody, regardless of their racial background or any other characteristic, if we want to get those negative headlines about Missouri that we keep seeing turned into positive headlines, I think that combating racial profiling is a perfect way to do that. Because it shows that we’re committed to equal justice for all.”