How the numbers are figured is challenged as rise continues in tickets for 'Driving while black'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2009 - When Missouri began collecting racial information about drivers involved in traffic stops nine years ago, the goal was to educate law enforcement officers about the dangers of racial profiling.
Based on the latest numbers released from the attorney general's office, the lesson hasn't yet sunk in. But police chiefs in some municipalities where the figures aren't that flattering say the problem isn't racial profiling -- it's how the statistics are put together.
This year's report showed an increase for the fourth straight year in the disparity index for African-American drivers -- the number of black drivers involved in traffic stops compared with the driving-age population of blacks in the jurisdiction where the stop occurred. (Click here to see a town-by-town database.)
If the proportion of stops for any particular race is the same as the proportion of residents in the jurisdiction for any particular race, the index would be 1. Anything lower than 1, and the group is underrepresented in traffic stops; anything higher than 1 means that more members of a racial group were stopped than would be expected based on their proportion of the relevant population.
The latest report, released Monday, shows that the disparity index in 2008 for black drivers in Missouri was 1.59, continuing the upward trend that began in 2005 with an index of 1.42, then rose to 1.49 in 2006 and 1.58 in 2007. Whites had a disparity index of .95 last year, meaning that an African-American motorist had a 67 percent greater chance of being stopped than a white one.
The full report also provides statistics for Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and others, as well as figures for searches, arrests and discovery of contraband. Numbers are available for 639 law enforcement agencies in Missouri.
When he released the report, Attorney General Chris Koster said the figures "continue a disturbing trend for African-American drivers in Missouri." He notes that the annual reports required by the state are designed to help raise awareness on the part of police departments on the need for training to make sure that drivers are stopped because of what they do, not because of who they are.
"One of the best uses of these reports is as a springboard for dialogue and communication between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve," Koster wrote in his analysis. "It is vital that Missouri law enforcement agencies continue to review the rates of stops and searches and to continue their outreach efforts.
"Law-abiding drivers have the right to travel throughout Missouri without the fear that they will be stopped based solely on their race or ethnicity. I am confident that Missourians of all races and ethnic groups and law enforcement officers from throughout the state agree with me."
Koster's sentiments were echoed by two police chiefs in St. Louis County whose communities had noticeably high disparity rates: Ladue, where the index was 13.95 for blacks and 0.85 for whites, and Crestwood, where it was 8.58 for blacks and 0.95 for whites. But they were quick to point out that the raw numbers tell far from the whole story.
"We're obviously stopping a lot of people who don't live in the city," said Ladue Police Chief Larry White, "so the racial index for the city of Ladue is meaningless."
He noted that with highways such as Interstate 64 and Interstate 170 in his jurisdiction, as well as Clayton Road, which saw a lot of additional traffic during last year's I-64 shutdown, officers in his department stop a lot of drivers who don't live in Ladue but are just passing through.
"They may be from St. Charles County, from Kansas City or from California," he said, adding that to figure a disparity index that is based solely on resident population is simply not accurate.
Crestwood Police Chief Mike Paillou made the same point, noting that his community has shopping areas that draw customers from a wide swath of the region.
"I think the idea of the report was a good one," he said. "But I don't think the formula works.
"I'm sure if you looked at our town, we're out of whack every year. I'm not a mathematician, but there's no way we will ever not be out of whack and still do our job. If a license plate is expired, the license plate is expired. If someone runs a red light at night, you don't know who's driving that car. It has nothing to do with race."
Added White: "You see a violation, you make the stop, then you deal with the results afterward."
He also noted that the figures highlighted in the report released by Koster do not take into account other statistics collected by the state, such as whether the officers say they were able to determine the race of a driver before making a stop.
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who helped compile the report, noted that the state has asked for only so much analysis of the figures, but much more could be done to determine why the disparity index for black drivers has risen steadily -- a result he acknowledged surprised him.
He noted that in North Carolina, stop rates for African-American drivers have gone down since statistics have been reported to the state.
Rosenfeld said the points raised by White and Paillou are valid and could be addressed by the state if it wanted to put additional resources into the problem.
"I think the state should ask the officers to note, in addition to the race of the driver and other items noted in the stop, whether the driver is a resident of the municipality where the stop was made," he said. "If we had that information, then the residential racial population would be a much more valid indicator of whether was someone was stopped because of race."
Others have raised the question of whether the race of the officer involved should also be taken into account. But Rosenfeld, who said he had studied just that variable in the city of St. Louis, said he did not find that to be relevant.
The question of racial bias in traffic stops will be a topic of discussion among NAACP officials from across Missouri meeting in Columbia this weekend. Claude Brown, president of the St. Louis chapter of the civil rights group, said he understands that basic police work may require a certain degree of profiling, but he wants to make sure it is not based solely on race.
He said the emphasis should be not on finding fault but on finding ways, as Koster suggested, for police departments and the communities they serve to work more closely together.
"We're going to talk about solutions," Brown said, "how to both fight crime and not take away the rights of average citizens who don't have anything to do with crime.
"You have a few policemen still out there in small towns who may feel, 'You don't have any business being in my town and I'm going to stop you.' But that's not true in urban areas. We just have to work with police departments. I think that's going to be the tone of the meeting."
That tone of cooperation was the original intent of the legislation that created the traffic-stop report, said former Sen. Wayne Goode, who sponsored the bill back in 2000.
"The main goal was one of education," he said, "because it's my feeling that many police officers just weren't aware of what was happening. It was an education process that they couldn't or shouldn't stop people because of race, making sure they have cause to stop people and that they're not reacting to racial issues."
He would like to see the state dig more deeply to find out what the statistics really mean.
"I don't know that just the raw numbers show that much," Goode said.
"The bottom line is that there is still a degree of racial profiling going on. I think it's quite a bit less than it what it was, and I would hope it would be reflected if the numbers were analyzed in depth."