Editorials

Driving while black in Missouri is becoming more perilous, traffic stop report shows

In 2017, African-American drivers in Missouri were 85 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites, according to the latest vehicle stops report.
In 2017, African-American drivers in Missouri were 85 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites, according to the latest vehicle stops report. File photo

Discriminatory policing in Missouri is already outlawed. But the latest vehicle stops report issued by Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office offers compelling evidence that it’s time to add some teeth to a law that bans racial profiling.

In 2017, African-American drivers in Missouri were 85 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites, according to the report. That’s a 10 percent jump from the year before and the most significant disparity to surface in the 18 years the state has tracked the race of the people stopped by the police.

The number was 69 percent in 2015.

“If America is to mean what we want and expect it to mean, if our Constitution is to be protected, a number like that needs to be a red-light, flashing siren-sounding wake-up call,” said Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

Black drivers were 51 percent more likely than whites to be searched after they were stopped, according to the report. But white drivers were more likely to be found with contraband during a search than African Americans or Hispanics.

The contraband hit rate for whites was 35.5 percent, compared with 32.9 percent for blacks and 27.9 percent for Hispanics.

About 7.1 percent of Hispanics and 6.6 percent of African Americans were arrested after stops, compared with 4.2 percent of whites.

No wonder the NAACP issued a travel advisory last year warning people of color about the dangers of driving through Missouri. The numbers are egregious, as one police official said, and deplorable, as an NAACP official said.

Racial profiling is a nationwide issue. And there are no quick fixes to be found. But Missouri could get this right. The law here hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. Legislators need to act next session, and passing the Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act, a bipartisan, multi-year effort, could be a start.

The measure advanced through the House committee this spring. But it never made it to the Senate floor.

The bill would require officers to obtain written consent for voluntary searches. Officers also would be required to gather 11 pieces of information from every stop, including pedestrian stops.

The legislation is in line with the NAACP’s call for states to adopt stringent anti-profiling laws and programs, including provisions for data collection and monitoring of police activities, more funding for police training on profiling, and more sanctions and remedies for violations.

Police officials argue that the racial disparity index fails to take into account certain factors such as location of the stops, non-residential drivers, and the racial makeup of areas affected by crime.

To address the concern, Hawley introduced a regulation this year that requires the collection of the residency of stopped drivers, which could provide additional insight.

That requirement is hardly enough. Neither is implicit bias and racial profiling training for officers who must be held accountable for any discriminatory conduct.

Missouri has 677 law enforcement agencies. Only 606 submitted a vehicle stops report to the state by March 1 as required. Current law stipulates that non-compliant agencies can lose state funding. That provision needs to be enforced.

“The beauty of America and the strength of the Constitution is that it recognizes that there will always be minority groups,” Mittman said. “We must protect those factions from ongoing mistreatment.”

For too many years, Missouri has reacted with a collective shrug to data showing that driving while black in the state is an increasingly perilous proposition. The latest vehicle stop report should be met with deep concern — and at last, action.

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