Driving while black in Missouri: One family meets with police chief over traffic stop

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct percentages by which black residents are more likely to be pulled over than white ones in Kansas City area towns.

As James Ross drove to a friend’s house in Blue Springs, he became alarmed when he noticed a police car had been following him for a few blocks.

“This whole time, I was just pretty nervous,” he said. “I knew he was following me.”

The 20-year-old black man said the officer on June 3 was looking for any reason to pull him over. Emergency lights flashed after Ross allegedly made a right turn into a left lane.

Once stopped, the officer, who is white, asked Ross if he had any weapons. He didn’t. The officer also asked if the vehicle belonged to Ross. It did, he said. The officer gave Ross a warning, but not a ticket.

“I think the whole situation was kind of racist profiling,” Ross said.

To talk about why he was stopped, Ross and his mother, Lori Ross, met earlier this month with Blue Springs Police Chief Bob Muenz and an internal affairs detective. Their conversation brought up points that have been argued for years, as time and again state reports have shown black drivers in Missouri are stopped at higher rates than whites.

The latest report, released in May, shows the disparity getting worse, two years after the NAACP issued a rare warning telling people of color to take caution when traveling through the state.

After watching video of her son’s traffic stop, Lori Ross thought the officer was polite to her son. But that wasn’t her issue.

“My problem is that there shouldn’t have been an interaction in the first place,” she said.

In an interview with The Star, Chief Muenz said the incident was one of criminal profiling, not racial profiling. Because the department has launched an internal investigation to examine the stop, Muenz said he couldn’t comment on what may have led the officer to think Ross was involved in criminal activity.

“Sometimes there are reasons that officers are in areas they’re in and sometimes fate just happens,” Muenz said.

Lori Ross questioned that explanation.

“Who is the judge of who looks like a criminal and who doesn’t?” she asked. “Where’s the handbook on that?”

Muenz said officers often do not know the race of a driver before they pull over a vehicle because they are behind the car or it has tinted windows, which Ross’ van did not.

The chief also said officers regularly ask drivers if they have firearms on them for their own safety.

The department engages in intelligence-led policing and puts its resources where crimes occur, Muenz said. For example, he said, the department puts officers in the town’s shopping district, which is a high-target area for theft and shoplifting.

“Crime prevention is the key to crime reduction,” he said.

Growing disparity

Ross’ stop sounded like a “classic illustration of the pattern” experienced by black drivers when getting behind the wheel in Missouri, University of Kansas professor Charles Epp said.

The role of race in traffic stops is the subject of an annual report by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

The most recent figures show black drivers in the state were 91% more likely than white motorists to be pulled over by police officers in 2018. The figure has been on the rise since 2015 when it sat at 70%.

In Blue Springs, where Ross was pulled over, black drivers are nearly twice as likely to stopped. That likelihood is far from the worst in the Kansas City area.

In 2017, when the NAACP for the first time issued a travel advisory labeling a state dangerous, it cited the annual report as evidence that people of color might not have their rights respected in Missouri.

This was the first year the report gathered information on a driver’s home city. That’s significant because in past years police officials said data could be skewed if a driver of color who lived elsewhere was stopped in a city with a large white population.

That is true in some jurisdictions, the report showed. But in other locations, the stop disparity was higher when comparing data for black and white residents.

“Black drivers still are more likely to be stopped based on their presence in the residential population than white drivers,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist who analyzed the data for the attorney general’s office.

In Blue Springs, black drivers in general were 175% more likely to be stopped than white drivers. When isolating stops to residents of the suburb, which was 87% white based on 2010 census data, black drivers were even more likely to be stopped than whites.

The disparities are more striking in other Kansas City area towns, such as Lake Winnebago in Cass County, where black drivers generally were nearly 4,000% more likely than whites to be stopped. Black residents were about 400% more likely to be stopped than their white neighbors.

In Raytown and Independence, black drivers were 285% and about 250% more likely to be pulled over than white residents, respectively. The Kansas City Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office had lower percentages in that disparity than some agencies, with black people being about 133% and 50% more likely to be pulled over than their white counterparts.

Rosenfeld said it was difficult to know why the rate of black drivers pulled over across Missouri was higher than previous years. But generally speaking, the report shows “stability,” he said, in that it does not point to any major changes in the last few years.

That consistency throughout nearly two decades across a number of indicators — including disparities in stops, searches and arrests — should provoke police departments to get to the source of the problem, said Epp, who teaches at KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

“There’s more than just smoke there,” he said.

Having studied traffic stop disparities in the Kansas City area by taking 2,300 surveys, Epp said generally, when white drivers get pulled over an officer explains the violation and issues a warning or ticket.

But black drivers are more likely to be stopped for investigative purposes and may be questioned about where they are going, who owns the vehicle or if they have drugs, he said.

And research shows the link between traffic stops and crime suppression is weak, Epp added. According to the attorney general’s report, white motorists were more likely to possess contraband, even though black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at higher rates.

This year’s report ignited a renewed call for change among civil rights advocates, who urged police officials and lawmakers to work toward reducing disparities.

Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said the report showed, for the 18th year in a row, that people of color are disproportionately stopped and searched by the police.

“The data should act as a red flag to law enforcement officials,” Baker said in a statement. “Without significant reform Missouri will remain a state where minority drivers are harassed and unsafe.”

State senator Karla May, D-St. Louis, said the question remained: “What is the state of Missouri willing to do about the report?”

“We cannot continue to allow this injustice,” May said.

Other states have taken steps to reduce traffic stop disparities, Epp said. That could mean examining where officers patrol the most, what they are directed to do during a stop or how many stops officers are required to make. While looking at individual officers can be important, the most effective way to get at the problem is to look at departmental policies, he said.

To Missouri’s credit, said Rosenfeld, the St. Louis criminologist, the state is “well ahead of the game” in requiring vehicle stop information be collected, analyzed and publicly released each year.

As far as he knew, “we’re the only state that does that,” he said.

Criticism of report

Some in law enforcement pushed back against criticism fueled by the report, contending the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The head of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association, Kevin Merritt, asked the public not to draw conclusions based on the data. Law enforcement officials have pushed to collect additional information on whether officers knew the race of the driver before pulling them over, he said.

“There is much more to this issue than raw data of stops,” Merritt said.

Rosenfeld, one of three researchers who worked on the report’s analysis, said the public should be cautious in interpreting the report because the 2010 Census was used as the population base when determining a city’s “disparity index.” Populations can change in nine years, he said.

It’s an issue Merritt has raised. Experts agree, he said, that using census estimates does not serve as an “effective data analysis benchmark or baseline.”

Whatever the numbers, critics of the report said it doesn’t show why people were pulled over.

“The difficulty comes in identifying the causes for disparity,” Merritt wrote. “Race alone is not dispositive of why the stop was made; neither is a disparity index.”

In a report on the Columbia Police Department, Jeff Milyo, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri, called the disparity index “uninformative about the existence of racial bias in traffic stops.”

Milyo has suggested the attorney general’s office use a method call the “veil of darkness,” which has been used to investigate racial profiling in New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities. The method, which has its own critics, compares traffic stops made during different times of the day under the assumption a police officer can’t tell a motorist’s race at night.

But that assumption may not always hold true, Epp said. For instance, the race of a driver may be seen at night because of streetlights.

In Missouri, law allows the governor to strip state funding from police agencies that don’t comply with the state’s racial profiling law. At least as far back as 2015, no state funding has been stripped for that reason, State Budget Director Dan Haug said.

State funds can also be withheld from agencies that fail to submit annual data on traffic stops. In the 2018 report, information from 66 departments was missing, though some may have contracted out vehicle stops to other agencies.

Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross was one of the state representatives who sponsored the legislation to begin collecting traffic stop data in 2000.

He said he didn’t know if this year’s report was problematic for his city. But as the mayor and a black man, Ross said, he does not tolerate racial profiling. He urged anyone with a complaint to come forward.

“We are proactive when it comes to race relations,” he said.

‘It terrorized me’

People can lose trust in police if they feel they are being pulled over because of their race. It can cause a breakdown in community relations, Epp said.

That faith was fractured when James Ross was pulled over.

That night, he had a dream he was being stoned by the police.

“It terrorized me,” Ross said. “It woke me up out of my sleep and I woke up my whole house. It was too much.”

His mother, Lori Ross, is a foster care advocate who has 28 children. Some of them are white and some are minorities. She has noticed her children are treated differently by the police based on their skin color.

Several years ago, Blue Springs police officers drew their firearms on one of her other black sons while he was seen trying to get into a house. The officers eventually learned he was cat sitting for a neighbor, she said.

Then, as in the case of the recent traffic stop, she filed a complaint. The family may take legal action this time if they don’t see a change.

Every year, the Blue Springs Police Department examines data on stops made by officers to look for trends, Muenz said.

There are also annual trainings on cultural diversity, implicit bias and racial profiling, he said. Officials with NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice have spoken to the department’s officers throughout the years about racial issues.

But the Ross family wants more to be done.

“I want to see accountability,” Lori Ross said.

For James Ross, Blue Springs is his hometown. He wants to be safe; he wants his black friends to be safe; and if he ever has children, he wants them to be safe, too. But he “can’t live every day like this,” he said.

“Like when you feel like you just want to stay home, you want to be in hiding,” he said. “It shouldn’t have to be like that. I should be able to go do anything I want. I should be able to go to the grocery store or the gas station, just like white people, and not worry about someone stopping me.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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.
Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.