Ever since Missouri began collecting data on the racial characteristics of drivers stopped by law enforcement, annual reports have shown black drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, more likely to be searched and more likely to be arrested.
That’s not the case for every agency, but there are places — Boone County included — where the difference is especially large. Statewide last year, black drivers were stopped almost two times what would be expected if stops were proportionate to the population of blacks old enough to drive.
For the Rolla Police Department, the rate — measured by what the report calls the disparity index — was 1.6 times the proportion of black drivers and for the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department, it was almost twice the proportion of black drivers. In St. James, the disparity index is 0.89, which means black drivers are stopped a lower rates than their proportion of drivers.
For the first time for 2020, the Vehicle Stops Report will include additional data in an effort to better pinpoint the causes of those disparities. Under new rules issued by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, officers will collect additional information, answering three new questions and collect other additional details to better report outcomes of individual stops. The new data will be published for the first time in 2021, after agency reports have been compiled.
Schmitt on Wednesday said the changes were spurred by a desire for his office, and many stakeholders around the state, to obtain as “clear of a picture as possible” of what leads to the stops, where they take place and who the drivers are.
“The law enforcement officers we talked to understand we need to do as good a job as possible of being respectful of everybody no matter their race, gender or creed,” Schmitt said. “We are tasked with this in the attorney general’s office — it’s been a data set for a very long time — so we have taken on the challenge of making this more representative of what’s actually happening.”
The proposed changes were published in the Missouri Register on Aug. 1 and finalized Nov. 15. A 30-day comment period opened after the new rules were proposed and five comments were received. The new rules and recording forms will be effective Jan. 1, 2020 for law enforcement agencies statewide.
The new data to be collected include the residential zip code of the driver, the duty assignment — such as SWAT or traffic enforcement — of the officer making the stop and, if a citation or warning was issued, the reason for that action.
The only comments listed in the register were submitted by Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones. Some of his suggestions were accepted, such as making the duty assignment the one being performed at the time of the stop instead of the regular daily assignment to recognize that officers sometimes take on other responsibilities. Others, such as recording data beyond a binary gender assignment of male or female for every driver, were not.
Jones, through department spokesman Jeff Pitts, said the outcome of the changes remains unknown but their intent is to provide the most accurate data possible.
“The future is unknown, but the intent is to collect the most accurate data possible,” Pitts wrote on behalf of Jones.
In the wake of years of data showing black motorists are pulled over in the city about three times their share of the population, Jones in May empaneled a committee to dig into why the disparities exist and make recommendations on how to eliminate them.
Data from many agencies, including the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department and the Cole County Sheriff’s Department, show no racial disparity in traffic stops.
“The Vehicle Stop Committee has been charged with examining existing data, identifying variables affecting an officer’s decision to stop a vehicle, finding solutions, methods or process to fill data gaps, identifying policing training and or best practices that should be examined for changes and finally to make recommendations that they develop to Chief Jones,” Pitts wrote.
The residential zip code question addresses a subject of angst for law enforcement almost since the implementation of the vehicle stops report.
The racial disparity index published in the annual report compares the number of stops of a given demographic with the population of that demographic in the agency’s community. If an agency stops people passing through town, the race of those drivers would increase the disparity index if only a few members of that demographic live in the jurisdiction.
Agencies or law enforcement officers will also have the option of not including the zip code if for various reasons a reliable zip code cannot be provided — a recent move, no identification, a different nationality.
Don Love, who for years has analyzed the data in the vehicle stops report, serves on the committee empaneled by Jones. While the zip code information provides an easy way to know where drivers are coming from, it also presents a statistical challenge, he said.
“The zip codes only cover drivers who have been stopped, not all drivers in the jurisdiction,” Love said. “If there is a stop disproportion against a group of drivers then the zip code results would overestimate that group’s proportion. There may be a way for statisticians to correct for this error. The worst that would happen would be that the zip code method overestimates a group’s proportion, which would lower the disproportion.
“So if there’s still a disproportion even when the benchmark is known to be too high, a problem is evident.”
The addition of duty assignment information will provide more details about the situation behind the stop, allowing stakeholders to see if discrimination is occurring and what to do about it, Love said.
“Springfield Chief Paul Williams told me years ago that his stop disproportions were the result of officers targeting people known to be involved in serious criminal activity,” Love said. “I thought, at the time, that officers making this sort of stop could not make enough of them to skew overall disproportions, but the ‘special assignment’ officers would catch this situation.”
“I think that to get the sort of stop disproportion seen for some agencies there has to be some large scale effort to make no-tolerance stops in specific areas,” he adds. “General patrol and dedicated traffic officers would be making these.”
The last of the new questions on the reporting form will allow officers to list a reason for a citation or warning. While the reason for an arrest was on the form previously, an option to report the reason for issuing a ticket or warning was not.
Agencies and officers will also have the ability to add some greater detail to responses already included on the reporting forms. The biggest change in that area is the addition of categories for investigative stops. The new form will allow for reporting on if the investigative stop was spurred by a call for service, a crime bulletin or on the officer’s own initiative, but Love said even more checkoffs should be available to record a wider array of reasons.
“Pretext stops have been a concern of black drivers for years,” Love said. “In a pretext stop, an officer decides to make a stop for a violation that would usually be ignored because it is so minor. Any violation is enough to justify a stop, according to the courts, but if officers are using pretext stops to conduct investigations they need to cite facts that justify the investigations.
“Pretext stops would be recorded either under officer initiated investigations or investigations motivated by detectives or bulletins.”
The new form will also allow agencies in cases where a ticket or warning was issued to report why — a moving, equipment or licenses or registration violation. Alcohol has been added to the section for reporting contraband and an additional age category for drivers over 65 was also added.