By Stan Schwartz
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—Although the most recent annual report of vehicle traffic stops shows that black motorists in Missouri are still more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers, the report offers a new question that might mitigate some of that disparity.
The office of the Missouri Attorney General is required, by law, to collect data on the demographics and dynamics of traffic stops made by law enforcement officers across the state. The Vehicle Stops Report law went into effect August 2000.
“Using 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,” said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
This year’s report features analysis of a new question on whether the driver of a vehicle resides in the jurisdiction of the law enforcement agency conducting the traffic stop. This question provides readers a better picture of traffic stop disparities by improving the population that traffic stops are compared against and is a step forward for the report, Schmitt explained in his summary of the report.
The summary of statewide vehicle stops data was provided by Dr. Scott H. Decker, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University; Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and Dr. Jeff Rojek, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection at Michigan State University.
The report summarizes the data from 596 law enforcement agencies in Missouri for calendar year 2018. An additional 66 agencies indicated they made no traffic stops during the year. These agencies often contract out traffic enforcement to another agency covering their jurisdiction and focus on other enforcement activities. In total, this report represents 97.6 percent of the 678 law enforcement agencies in the state.
A total of 1,539,477 vehicle stops were made, resulting in 101,671 searches and 72,017 arrests, according to the report.
In order to show bias, the report states, an officer would have to have some discretion on the outcome of the stop. In some cases, law dictates that certain procedures must be followed.
“An example of this is when a driver that has been stopped has an outstanding warrant for his or her arrest. In this situation, an officer must arrest and then search that driver. If outstanding warrants become concentrated in a racial/ethnic group in an agency’s jurisdiction, this may result in the appearance of a disparity in arrest rates when officers had no discretion in their actions and therefore could not have been influenced by bias,” the report states.
In Missouri, Blacks represent a little less than 11 percent of the total population.
Police reported they stopped close to 2.2 million white drivers and nearly 300,000 black drivers. But by percentage of population, that means black drivers were stopped at a rate 76 percent higher than expected, according to the report. When compared with white drivers, black drivers were 91 percent more likely to be stopped.
When looking at the report numbers for Audrain, Bowling Green, Laddonia, Louisiana, Pike County, and Vandalia, only Vandalia is slightly over the state average. But that could be because the percentage of population is different across these towns and counties, and the numbers don’t take into account if the drivers lived in that community or were just driving through the area.
Bowling Green Police Department Chief Don Nacke said he only looks at the numbers for his department, “which have never been a problem.” He also noted that he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers from the big cities, so he could not comment on them.
Although Pike County Sheriff Stephen Korte said he the thought the report was a good tool to have in general, the way the questions are used it makes law enforcement look bad no matter what they do.
“When you’re out on the highway doing 70 mph pulling someone over, you can’t tell what the driver’s race is,” he said. And population and percentage of minorities differs from county to county.
In 2016, he noted, his department pulled over four Asian drivers. When looking at the percentage of Asians living in the county, he said, “It looks like we’re attacking Asians. But in reality we just pulled over four drivers over the course of 365 days.”
Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller said he thought the report was inaccurate inasmuch as it was forcing statewide benchmarks on individual communities.
“It’s a much more complex issue than what the numbers show,” he said.
According to Kevin Merritt, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, “Currently, Missouri uses Census data as the benchmark for determining what the raw data means. Census benchmarking is inexpensive and uncomplicated. However, experts agree census estimates are inappropriate and do not serve as an effective data analysis benchmark or baseline. It is not difficult to measure whether there is disparity between racial/ethnic groups in terms of stops made by police; census benchmarking does that well. The difficulty comes in identifying the causes for disparity. Race alone is not dispositive of why the stop was made; neither is a disparity index.
He noted that his and other law enforcement organizations have told state legislators and civil rights groups about the ineffectiveness of the census benchmarking.
The MSA said it is not opposed to the collection of this data, but would like additional information collected.
“During a recent meeting with the AG’s staff, law enforcement officials suggested and worked toward the collection of additional data relating to whether the officer knew the race of the driver at the time the violation was observed and/or prior to his or her decision to make the stop,” Merritt wrote in a letter to media outlets.
“There is much more to this issue than raw data of stops,” he said. “Those who support our law enforcement officers should not blindly conclude bias exists without being part of the solution.”