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Sheriff: Data doesn't show policing bias

Sheriff: Data doesn't show policing bias

June 13th, 2019 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

The Missouri Attorney General's 2018 report on traffic stops once again shows disparities in how frequently people of different races are pulled over by law enforcement.

"Blacks were 91 percent more likely than whites to be stopped based on their respective proportions of the Missouri driving-age population in the 2010 Census," according to an executive summary from Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Local law enforcement and the Missouri Sheriff's Association have pushed back against concluding the data shows racial bias in policing.

"I sincerely believe my deputies are stopping drivers for traffic violations absent any type of racial profiling," Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism said.

Kevin Merritt, executive director of MSA, acknowledged the data does show a disparity in the frequency with which ethnic and racial groups are stopped, searched and arrested.

"The difficulty comes in identifying the causes for disparity," he said in a Monday news release. "Race alone is not dispositive of why the stop was made; neither is a disparity index."

State results

The racial disparity index compares how frequently people of different races and ethnicities are stopped to census data. For example, if a particular ethnicity makes up 10 percent of Fulton's driving-age population and also 10 percent of all people stopped by the Fulton Police Department, that would be a racial disparity score of one. If they're stopped at a higher rate, the index goes up; lower, it goes down.

The report measures policing disparities in how often people of different races are stopped, searched, found with contraband and arrested. At a statewide level, black people face an RDI of 1.76 for stops (by comparison, white people are at .92 and Hispanic people at .77).

However, both black and Hispanic people are more likely to be arrested after a stop than white people (6.4 and 6.3 percent of the time, compared to 4.3 percent for white people). Black and Hispanic people were also more likely to be subjected to a vehicular search than white people.

Schmitt mentioned a number of limitations in the study. For example, searches may be conducted with the driver's consent or because an officer saw contraband sitting in plain view. The data itself may be imperfect, too.

"The 2018 Vehicle Stops Report uses the racial/ethnic portions of the driving-age (16 plus) 2010 Census populations of each jurisdiction for its benchmarks," Schmitt said. "This is an imperfect benchmark as a person does not need to live in an area to drive through it and a person may not drive despite being old enough to legally do so.

"This report is subject to limitations as described above and simply aims to provide a starting point for local dialogue."

Local results

Data for the Callaway County Sheriff's Office shows an RDI of one or lower for all ethnic groups except black individuals. The RDI for people who identify as black increased to 2.14 from 1.57 in 2017 and 1.44 in 2016. (In fact, all law enforcement offices in Callaway County showed an RDI of 1.05 or lower for all groups except black individuals.)

Black people are also more likely to be arrested following a stop, with 17.3 percent of stops ending in an arrest, compared to 10.2 percent for white people.

In prior years, Chism has pointed out the raw data doesn't reflect where people live. The sheriff's office conducts many traffic stops along highways, including I-70, which connects Kansas City and St. Louis.

"While traffic enforcement is one of many duties we have, it is not our primary duty," Chism said, adding that deputies made an average of 5.4 traffic stops per day in 2018. "Our primary focus remains on criminal investigations."

It's true that those cities have a much larger minority population than Callaway County: St. Louis, for example, is about 47.6 percent black as of the last census, while only 4.6 percent of Callaway County residents identify as such.

New data included with this year's report shows that isn't the whole story, however. This year, for the first time, law enforcement agents were tasked with recording whether or not those stopped were residents of their jurisdiction.

The disparity index for stops of black people is lower when looking only at Callaway County residents. But, at 1.64, it still shows that black Callawegians are stopped more frequently than their white neighbors. Data for the Holts Summit Police Department shows a similar story: 1.96 for all stops and 1.43 for residents.

In Auxvasse, however, the resident/nonresident distinction makes all the difference. For all stops made by the Auxvasse Police Department, the RDI for black individuals is 2.42; looking at only residents, it's .64.

Data for the Fulton Police Department shows the inverse. The disparity index for black people in all stops is 1.17, but looking only at residents, it's actually higher: 1.32. The Fulton Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Chism said sheriff's office staff receive annual training in recognizing bias, racial profiling and so on.

"I value the great work my deputies are doing in the county, and frankly, this report changes nothing as to how I lead this agency," he said.

Chism also pointed out that typically, deputies don't get a good look at a driver until after pulling the car over.

"Bluntly, I believe the deputies should be commended for their courage and willingness to walk up to a vehicle not having a clue who is in the driver's seat," he said. "They do this for low pay, and frankly, it's not a job many would do."

He expressed concerns that the "crucifying of officers for merely doing their job" is driving a decline in law enforcement applicants.