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Response to the 2017 Vehicle Stops Report

June 4, 2018

Dear Constituent:

Last week, the Missouri Attorney General published the 2017 Vehicle Stops Report, summarizing data from every law enforcement agency in the state. In response, the City of Columbia issued a press release, taking ownership of our data and acknowledging a disparity index for African American drivers of 3.28, an increase from 3.13 in 2016.

While the press release is an important first step, the Columbia Police Department (CPD) needs to do a lot more work to analyze, understand, explain, and ultimately correct these shocking disparities. While African American drivers were stopped at a rate 3.28 times higher than their proportion in the population, White drivers were stopped at a rate of just 0.76 of their population, yielding an overall disproportion of 4.30. If you are African American in Columbia, you are more than four times more likely to be stopped by a CPD officer than if you are White.

In the press release, Police Chief Ken Burton is quoted as saying, "The data shows that vehicle stops tend to be conducted in areas where we see the highest numbers of reported violent crime, calls for service and accidents." Actually, that's not what the data show, although his statement could explain the data if "highest numbers of reported violent crime, calls for service and accidents" occur in areas where there are vastly more African American drivers than White drivers (more than four times as many).

Chief Burton goes on to say that CPD "reviews the stop data of specific officers who have a high disparity index." This is another good step but, rather than present a detailed analysis of those reviews (which could be done without naming individual officers), he offers the unsubstantiated claim, "We’ve found that those officers were generally pulling over individuals in the beat they are assigned to or had a high disparity index because they didn’t pull over very many people." City Manager Mike Matthes follows up with "We continue to look at data and we have not seen an apparent pattern of profiling, ..."

Personally, I am appalled by these racial disproportions, which may be due to racial profiling and/or a whole host of other causes related to CPD's internal procedures. I congratulate Chief Burton and City Manager Matthes on starting this conversation, but we need to do more than "look for a pattern of profiling" and move on when we do not find it - we need to understand these causes in depth, articulate them to the public, and make changes if necessary - simply "looking for a pattern of profiling" and just moving on when we do not find it is unacceptable. This is an issue of public trust and transparency - values that are absolutely foundational to Community-Oriented Policing, for which City Council declared its unanimous support in February.

The Community-Oriented Policing Resolution specifically emphasized the importance of "facilitating public discussion of the racial disproportions in CPD's traffic stops and searches, so that a shared understanding may emerge of factors that contribute to disproportions and what can be done to address them." Therefore, at this evening's City Council meeting, I plan to ask my Council colleagues to support a motion that will require CPD to develop a thorough analysis and explanation of the racial disparities, and present it to the public before the end of this year. This would be an excellent action item for Sgt. Fox to include in his Community-Oriented Policing Transition Plan.

A good place to start would be to examine a summary of the data that breaks out the overall disproportion of stops of African American drivers (4.30) into "Investigative Stops," "License Violations," "Equipment Violations," and various types of "Moving Violations." One immediate observation is that the highest disproportion (9.04) is for Investigative Stops, where African Americans accounted for more than 50% of all stops, even though they represent less than 10% of the population. CPD should be able to explain to the public precisely what leads to an Investigative Stop - for example, are they stops of specific vehicles whose owners are under suspicion for a crime or believed to have information that would help solve a crime? Then, they should either present evidence that these stops legitimately target African Americans at nine times the rate of Whites or identify other causes, which may include officer bias.

Similar analyses and public explanations must be provided for other disproportions such as African Americans being stopped 5.71 times as often as Whites for License Violations and 6.61 times as often for Failure to Signal. Are these disproportions the result of officers' patrol areas, actual racial differences in these violations, or officer bias? This study will require detailed knowledge of CPD's internal practices, procedures, and policies, and transparency with the public - in a community policing model, police officers are comfortable explaining how they do their work. Having observed Deputy Chiefs Schlude and Gordon describing SWAT procedures at the most recent NAACP forum, I am confident CPD can take this next step.

Then, when the community and police professionals have a shared understanding of the data, we can judge whether there are institutional injustices or individual officer biases at CPD and address those through changes in policy, training, and personnel. This is not going to be easy, but it is extremely important - an essential element in our transition to community policing.

On the subject of community policing, there are three remaining Community Policing Town Halls:

  • Thurs., June 14 (6:00 - 7:30 pm): Ward 3 Town Hall at Hanover Village Apartments, 1601 Hanover Blvd.
  • Sat., June 23 (10:00 - 11:30 am): Downtown Columbia Town Hall at City Hall, 701 E. Broadway
  • Thurs., June 28 (6:00 - 7:30 pm): Ward 2 Town Hall at Sunrise Optimist Club, 2410 Parker St.

If you cannot attend, please complete the online survey

Finally, I wish to thank Don Love with Empower Missouri for his help with this newsletter and his tireless work analyzing the Vehicle Stops Report and cajoling law enforcement agencies to work with their communities to understand the data and make necessary changes.

Cheers, Ian