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Government, Politics & Issues

Police training and citizen pressure are keys to reducing racial disparity in traffic stops

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 16, 2010 - Michael Moore didn't know why he and his wife were pulled over Tuesday afternoon. According to the Kirkwood resident, who is African American, the two had their seatbelts buckled and were driving the speed limit on Manchester Road when a St. Louis County police officer pulled them over, collected both Moores' identification and wrote them a citation for a license plate cover that was too dark.

The citation baffled the couple. According to Moore, the car's license plate numbers can be seen from several yards away. The plate cover was not too dark, he said. The fact that the officer collected both their identifications made Moore suspicious. He said that he wasn't even driving, but the officer demanded his ID anyway.

"After it was over, my wife turned to me and said 'We just got racially profiled,'" Moore said. "It's really frustrating."

Moore's experience is not uncommon in Missouri.

Attorney General Chris Koster recently released a report documenting an increase in the disparity index of traffic stops for African-Americans. The report found that African-Americans in this state are 67 percent more likely to get pulled over than whites. Some municipalities, such as Ladue, have even greater disparities: There, said Koster, blacks are pulled over 1,700 percent more often than whites. 

On Tuesday evening, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis, spoke about how to remedy racial profiling at the Eastern Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union

Rosenfeld outlined the laws that prohibit racial profiling in Missouri and put the attorney general's statistics into context. Rosenfeld kept his presentation short to allow for discussion on how the community can reduce and eliminate these disparities.

Although he mostly discussed numbers, Rosenfeld offered a few ways to drive down the disparity index.

According to Rosenfeld, local police departments in mostly white municipalities argue that the minorities pulled over in their areas are often travelers and not residents of their community. They say that skews the numbers. Rosenfeld offered a quick fix to that problem.

"A very simple change in the information the officer collects when making a stop can address that issue and move it to the side," said Rosenfeld. "All the officer has to do is ask the motorist what municipality they live in. If the motorist lives in the area where the stop is made, then the residential population is appropriate. If the motorist lives outside the area, one can use the statewide population."

Rosenfeld also suggested that residents of a community can also take action.

"It would be very useful for residents to ask their police departments to produce their racial profiling policy," he said. "They're required by law to have one, and it would be nice to know if it exists and how it reads."

Rosenfeld was also curious about how officers are trained on racial profiling.

Anti-Defamation League regional director Karen Aroesty offered a glimpse into training. She said that many police departments have come to the league for its training program, called Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons from the Holocaust. The program, which takes place at the local Holocaust Museum, deals with police in the Third Reich. Although the course is powerful, officers are sometimes left with mixed emotions, Aroesty said.

"The program is not easy because officers initially feel like they are being compared to Nazis," she said.

According to Aroesty, the program has more than 300 participants a year. Recently the police forces of Clayton, Olivette and Washington University went through the program. Every St. Louis city police cadet participates, she said. Despite the league's best efforts to train officers on racial profiling, Aroesty is still disheartened by the statistics. To get the disparity index down, solutions must involve the public and police, she said.

"To really solve it, we must have everybody at the table," Aroesty said. "The discussion must be two-sided and I don't think that effort has been made yet."

ACLU program associate and former police officer Redditt Hudson believes the discussion can't just pertain to the police, but society as a whole.

"You can't separate the issues we're facing relative to law enforcement and how they treat people from the larger issues of race and how it impacts everything in society," Hudson said.

Hudson was confident that the nation is shifting toward equality but still faces obstacles. He explained that many police officers advocate equality, but their voices are often muted by more aggressive figures in law enforcement.

"The majority of officers are good people trying to do a difficult job," Hudson said. "The number of people who will abuse that authority willfully is too large a number to ignore. I think it's a conscience decision that is made how they're going to treat minorities."

After Hudson spoke, the discussion shifted to police training and policy. St. Louis County Lt. Colonel Kenneth Gregory explained what his police department was doing. He said that the St. Louis County Police Department has the same policies and training for its veteran and rookie officers, but rookies tend to be more amenable than veterans to abiding by the policies and following what they learn in training. Gregory also said that the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies sponsors his police department's training and policies.

Despite the police department's efforts, Moore said he remained skeptical of the police and encouraged reform.

"When I hear about training and policies, it frustrates me," he said. "These policies and these laws, I like it, but they don't have any teeth. Put some teeth on it."

Patrick Sullivan, a student at the University of Kentucky, is an intern at the Beacon.

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