‘Fix it’: Kansas City drivers tell of racial profiling at Missouri committee hearing

After a state report again showed that black drivers in Missouri are more likely to be pulled over than whites, members of a Missouri House special committee on Thursday heard from Kansas City-area residents who said they have experienced racial profiling.

Among them was Elyshya Miller, an African-American woman who said when she lived in Blue Springs she was stopped by police officers as often as five times a week while driving to and from her house.

At times, she was asked to prove she lived there, she said.

“That should not have to be taking place in 2019,” Miller told the committee members.

The public hearing was the second held by the Special Committee on Criminal Justice on the issues of racial profiling and civil forfeiture. The other hearing was last week in St. Louis County.

The 2018 Vehicle Stops Report, which was released in May by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, showed that black drivers were 91% more likely than white motorists to be pulled over by police. It was the largest racial disparity in vehicle stops in Missouri history.

The gap has been widening since 2015, when it was 70%. Citing the annual report as evidence that people of color might not have their rights respected in Missouri, the NAACP in 2017 for the first time issued a travel advisory labeling a state dangerous.

At the beginning of the hearing, State Rep. Shamed Dogan, a St. Louis County Republican who chairs the committee, said Missourians found the recent report troubling. The committee, he said, wanted to get to the bottom of why this disparity existed.

The head of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association, Kevin Merritt, started his testimony by saying: “We have no use for racially-biased policing.”

Merritt took issue, as he has in the past, with the report using populations from the 2010 Census as a benchmark to determine a city’s “disparity index.” He called the methodology flawed, saying it does not identify the cause of a disparity.

For example, he said, the report showed that the Carter County Sheriff’s Office had a high disparity index because, in an area with one black resident among its nearly 5,000 citizens, deputies in 2018 pulled over five black drivers, skewing the percentage.

In response, Dogan pointed to larger jurisdictions in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas that also show wide disparities.

“What agencies have engaged in racial-bias policing year after year after year?” Merritt asked.

“Uh,” Dogan responded, “there are lots of them.”

Speaking for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Lt. Justin McCullough said the agency had not received a “bias-based profiling complaint” in the last two years.

Within the last five years, which encompassed 1.8 million stops, there were six complaints, McCullough said. Those six had been resolved to the complaintants’ satisfaction, he said.

Blue Springs

Miller, the former Blue Springs resident, said she had moved there to give her son a better life. Her family was the only African-American one in her subdivision, she said.

She recalled a time when two police officers pulled up next to her backyard and said her son matched the description of someone they were searching for.

When she asked what the description was, Miller told the committee, the officers told her the person was 6-foot-2 and weighed 325 pounds.

Her son was 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds, she said.

She moved to Kansas City.

“I want to say to this panel today, ‘Fix it,’” she told the legislators.

Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz was one of a few law enforcement officials to attend the meeting at the Robert J. Mohart Multi-Purpose Center.

He came to listen and learn, he said. He took notes as Miller spoke and, during a break, said he wished Miller would have filed a complaint with the police department so it could investigate what she said happened.

“We do not tolerate racism,” Muenz said. “If you were to come in and show me that this officer is racist, they’re out tomorrow. Today.”

The recent state vehicle stop report showed that black drivers in Blue Springs were nearly twice as likely to stopped than white people. That was far from the worst in the Kansas City area, according to the report.

Miller was also critical of the committee for holding the meeting at 9 a.m. on a Thursday, when working people couldn’t attend.

Others also made mention of the low attendance. In a metro area with an estimated 2.1 million residents, just 25 people attended the hearing.

The committee also discussed a report by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway that showed $9.1 million in cash and property was seized through the use of civil asset forfeiture in 2018, compared to $7.1 million in 2017.

More than $5.7 million of that seized last year was transferred to a federal agency, the report showed.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Constitution limits state and local governments’ abilities to take and keep cash, cars, houses and other private property suspected of being connected to crimes. Critics have labeled the practice, called civil asset forfeiture, as “policing for profit.”

Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the advocacy group Empower Missouri, said impoverished property owners, especially without help from attorneys, may become overwhelmed by the legal process of trying to get their seized property back. It can set off a chain of events that may force those with low incomes to struggle more, she said.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.