St. Louis County Residents Speak Out On Racial Disparities In Traffic Stops At Public Hearing | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County Residents Speak Out On Racial Disparities In Traffic Stops At Public Hearing

Jul 24, 2019

Updated July 24 — Members of the Missouri House Special Committee on Criminal Justice convened a public hearing in the St. Louis County Council chambers Wednesday to engage with the community about the racial disparities found in the latest Vehicle Stops Report.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, the committee chair, opened the hearing with his reflections on the report, released in June. Dogan quickly opened the floor to the public, including testimony from community members, policy directors, law enforcement agents and business owners. 

The 2018 traffic stops report revealed that African American drivers were 91% more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement than white drivers. 

“In the 20 years that we've been collecting the data on those racial disparities in traffic stops, that's the highest disparity we've ever had,” Dogan said. “It feeds into the negative perception that we've had for a long time including Ferguson and all the negative attention that brought to our state.”

Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office collected data from 596 law enforcement agencies statewide for the 2018 Vehicle Stops Report. 

In a message in the report, Schmitt writes: “Importantly, this data can help law enforcement identify disparities in stops, searches, and arrests and take appropriate action to improve both public safety and community relations."

About 10 witnesses voiced their concerns about law enforcement and racial profiling directed toward them or family members. 

Sgt. Heather Taylor, a city of St. Louis officer and president of the Ethical Society of Police, approached the committee with her experiences with racism and negative remarks from other police officers. She offered solutions to closing the disparity gap in vehicle stops, with revamping hiring practices at the top of her list.

“There is a culture in law enforcement. It always starts with who you are hiring,” Taylor said. “If someone has a questionable background, a lot of time that questionable background will come out in how they police.”

She also suggested more psychological evaluations for police officers. She said in the 19 years of working on the force and the 12 years of serving in the homicide division, she has only received one evaluation. 

Berry Jenkins, a Wellston resident and business owner, came forward and said the incidents of racial profiling that he has experienced in north St. Louis County cause him to fear leaving his own community. 

“It’s a no-win situation when you have been raised your entire life to respect the police and as you get older you find out the police doesn't have any respect for you,” Jenkins said.

When it comes to a common theme of police interactions, Dogan said his constituents always reference how the excessive stops by police decrease their trust in law enforcement.

“People are less likely to cooperate with law enforcement if they feel like they're not being treated fairly, and that in turn hurts us when we're trying to get the crime under control in our cities, which we desperately need to do here in St. Louis,” Dogan said.

He said the committee is trying to change the culture around the racial disparities that has led to black motorists being pulled over more than whites. 

“I think the biggest reason that this (racial profiling by police) continues to go on year after year after year is because they know that there is no way to be held accountable right now,” Dogan said.

He said Missouri should look to cities and agencies that are reducing disparities between black and white drivers.

Sara Baker, ACLU Missouri Legislative and Policy director, read a list of other cities that are addressing racial profiling. She said in regard to consent searches, Fayetteville, North Carolina, requires a mandatory written consent every time an officer gives a consent search and the rate of consent searches has plummeted. 

“When we bring that forward to law enforcement agencies in Missouri, they are worried about filling out an additional form or what the recording process will look like,” Baker said. 

“The overall emphasis in Missouri is to have accountability,” she said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

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