Many Missourians leave report cards behind for good once they graduate from school. This is not true for those working in law enforcement in Missouri.
Each year on June 1 the Missouri attorney general releases the Vehicle Stops Report, a report card on officers’ stopping minority drivers. The 2015 report documents that for the 16th straight year, minority drivers are disproportionately affected by traffic stops.
Each year many law enforcement agencies respond that the report is flawed, and do little else. Blue Springs, however, has not followed this familiar path. Mayor Carson Ross was a state representative in 2000, co-sponsoring the racial profiling law that mandates the Vehicle Stops Report.
Ross is proud of the law but thinks it could be improved. Blue Springs’ numbers still show disproportional stops of minority drivers. Blue Springs could have just said the report was flawed and done nothing. Instead officials studied internal data, improved policies, supervision, training and public dialogue, and now they have lower disproportions. Statewide, the report tells us black drivers are stopped almost 70 percent more frequently than white drivers. Multiple factors are involved.
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Poverty, neighborhood crime rates, tips from the public and implicit bias are likely to be involved, so a closer investigation is needed. Empower Missouri uses report data to look at what officers do in specific situations after a stop when disproportions can be based on the group proportions of drivers who have been stopped.
Consent searches are a good indicator of possible bias because they involve a high degree of officer discretion. In 2009, Blue Springs officers subjected black drivers to consent searches at a rate 2.43 times that of white drivers. In 2014, black drivers were affected at half the rate of white drivers; officers may have been overcorrecting.
In 2015 the rate is 1.81, but just 12 consent searches of black drivers were conducted. In a review of internal records, Blue Springs may find that some of these consent searches are conducted because the officer was acting on a fact about the driver, not on bias.
Officers who act on overt racism must be removed, but implicit bias is the more likely problem. What is implicit bias? Say I approach two people, one black and one white, expecting one to be the boss. I would be likely to pick white males as bosses because of lessons predominant in our culture. Embarrassing mistakes have taught me to control that implicit bias.
Officers learn to recognize implicit bias in training programs now available. Kynette Campbell, chair of the Blue Springs Human Relations Commission, sees training as an essential element of fair policing. So, when data raise a red flag about a law enforcement agency, it is important that the agency encourage ongoing dialogue among officers and residents. Blue Springs has a good report card, but other agencies need help getting their grades up.
Empower Missouri supports revisions in the racial profiling law requiring all agencies to use the strategies Blue Springs has shown to work. We hope to see the Fair and Impartial Policing Act, drafted by a coalition of social justice organizations, become law in 2017.
Don Love, a retired educator, lives in Columbia and farms in Shannon County. Empower Missouri (EmpowerMissouri.org), founded in 1901, advocates for the well-being of Missourians through civic leadership, education, and research.