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Decades of Data Suggest Racial Profiling is Getting Worse, Not Better Traffic Stop Transparency in Missouri Doesn’t Lead to Solution

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Above image credit: Photo illustration. (Amanda Krenos | Flatland)
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8 minute read

When Sierra Moore saw the flashing lights in her rearview mirror, one of her first thoughts was to text her husband — a precaution against what might happen next.

As she waited for the officer to approach, Moore juggled fear and a mental checklist for how to handle just such encounters with law enforcement. She was glad that she had already dropped off her 2-year-old son at preschool, so he wouldn’t have to watch.

It was early in the morning of Aug. 28, and Moore had been stopped on a highway entrance ramp in south Kansas City.

Ordered out of her SUV, Moore soon faced three officers. They were all White males. She is Black.

She watched as medication bottles, toys, clothes, and paperwork were tossed onto the shoulder during a search of her car. After an agonizing 50 minutes, she was summarily sent on her way.

One mystery about the stop remains, though Moore is sure of one thing.

“I thought they were just trying to harass me, but that if I became combative, maybe they’d shoot me,” Moore said. “I really feared for my life at that moment.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Reformers have sought to make it so Black motorists would no longer have to fear traffic stops — that alerting family should no longer have to be standard operating procedure when the cops pull you over.

Stopped: Profiling the Police title overlaid over image of black man behind wheel of car with red and blue lights

About This Series

Flatland and Kansas City PBS present Stopped: Profiling the Police, a multimedia series examining racial bias in Missouri law enforcement traffic stops. Installments will appear on each Wednesday from Oct. 28 through Nov. 18. The four-week Flatland series culminates with a Kansas City PBS town hall hosted by Nick Haines, airing Thursday, Nov. 19.

This project was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network.

Two decades ago, a provocative report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on our Nation’s Highways, prompted states around the country to enact laws aimed at ending racial profiling on the nation’s highways and byways.

Missouri’s law was among the first, and among the most comprehensive. The statute took effect in August 2000.

In line with recommendations from the ACLU, the state statute requires law enforcement to compile and publicly report traffic-stop data. Missouri’s law requires more than a dozen data points, including the demographics of the driver, the reason for the stop, and whether police conducted a search. The output is known as a vehicle stop report (VSR).

Reformers hoped that hard numbers would prove claims that law enforcement singled out people of color for traffic enforcement — largely by using vehicle stops as a pretext to search for drugs or other contraband. Even more importantly, advocates hoped that proof of disparities would prompt reforms to stamp out the problem once and for all.

Yet Flatland’s analysis of Missouri’s figures over the past two decades suggests these data-gathering efforts have been little more than exercises in futility. 

Missouri’s data show Black people are consistently stopped more often than White people, and far more often than their distribution among the state population would suggest they should. Indeed, the gulf between the races is widening even as data collection continues.

In the coming weeks, Flatland will explore how the effort to quantify — and ultimately stamp out — racial profiling has fallen short of expectations. We will also see if there are other solutions that can address potential racial bias among law enforcement.

“Anecdotal information, combined with levels of disproportion in the data, leads me to believe that African Americans and Hispanics have in certain instances been the target of racial profiling in Missouri,” Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon wrote in the state’s first VSR report. “We in law enforcement must recognize this as a problem and work to eliminate it.”

Two decades later, little has changed. Perhaps even worse, few seem surprised.

“I think it speaks to the racial climate in the country since 2016,” said Gwendolyn Grant, president & CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “Actually since Obama, as there was some negative backlash when he was first elected and that was followed by Trump.”

Huge racial imbalance

When Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt released the latest round of data this year, it marked the 20th year of the data-gathering effort. Flatland reviewed the two decade’s worth of figures, which detail more than 30 million traffic stops. Each year, roughly 600 law enforcement agencies report data.

Based on a median figure from all years combined, Flatland found that Black motorists in Missouri are stopped at a rate 59% higher than expected based upon their proportion of the driving-age population. The data also shows that, throughout those 20 years, Black people were about 67% more likely than White people to be stopped by police.

The data also shows that Whites are roughly half as likely as Black people and Hispanics to be searched or arrested during a traffic stop. The arrest rate for Whites is about 5%, slightly less than the statewide rate for all drivers. The figures for Black and Hispanic people, respectively, are 9.1% and 9.9%

Yet, notably, officers find contraband more frequently when they stop White motorists than Black or Hispanic motorists.

The Talk

For many Black Americans, part of growing up is having a talk with their parents about how to survive an encounter with law enforcement. (Cody Boston | Flatland)

So, why haven’t the disparities improved? There appear to be three main reasons.

One has to do with the data itself. There are enough caveats surrounding the figures to prevent ironclad conclusions.

For instance, one of the basic tools Missouri has used to detect potential racial profiling is something known as the “disparity index,” which compares the racial mix of stopped motorists to the demographics of the driving-aged population in that community.

This has the potential to skew the numbers in a relatively homogeneous town that has a high volume of non-local traffic. The racial mix of those additional motorists could very well increase the likelihood of interaction between local police and people of color.

Think of a suburb with a busy shopping mall or a county seat that serves as a hub of governmental services. A regional employment center or a hamlet that sits along an interstate are also at risk of an inflated disparity index.

The search data is also open to question because they are not always discretionary, which is often the case with an outstanding warrant or arrest.

The higher arrest rate among people of color is also cited as one possible reason for the higher contraband-hit rate among Whites. The argument is that, because an arrest compels a search, it is more likely to come up empty rather than a search based purely on a suspicion by the officer.

Recent attorney generals have taken steps to refine the data.

For instance, the stop report now delineates the motorist’s home community. An appendix breaks out the disparity index for both resident and non-resident drivers for all reporting agencies.

New data points available next year also will include the officers’ assignment — picking up the difference, for instance, between a traffic cop and someone assigned to a violent crime task force. The officer’s reason for giving a citation or warning also will be recorded. 

The second reason the stop report has failed to live up to expectations is an apparent lack of teeth within the statute.

The law requires each agency to report its previous year’s data to the attorney general no later than March 1 of the following year. 

Law enforcement agencies are also supposed to have a policy prohibiting race-based traffic stops. The agencies are required to periodically review their stops data to see if there is evidence of racial profiling, and then provide counseling to any officers that seem to be targeting motorists based upon their race.

The governor’s office has the power to withhold state funding from noncompliant agencies.

Each year, attorney generals have publicly listed the agencies that did not submit data. Flatland tallied more than 500 nonfilers over the 20 years, many of which were multiple offenders, made up mostly of small, rural departments.

Available evidence suggests the financial implications were minimal.

In the two years that the attorney general listed the amount of fines within his annual report, in 2003 and 2004, the total tallied a little more than $14,000 spread across 33 agencies.

More recent data, provided by the Missouri Department of Public Safety, showed it withheld about $60,000 total in training funds during the past seven years. The number of agencies penalized each year was about a dozen.

Along with the slap on the wrist, state leaders have lost their voice on the issue of racial profiling. That retreat from the bully pulpit represents the third potential reason the stops data has not seemed to make much of an impact on racial disparities within traffic stops.

Researchers who have been involved with the analysis from the beginning remember the early years, where they would fly around the state with the attorney general to make public presentations about the data.

Those tours stopped after a while, replaced with boilerplate messages from the attorney generals about using the data as a “springboard for dialogue and communication between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.”

“Statistical disproportion does not prove that law enforcement officers are making vehicle stops based on the perceived race or ethnicity of the driver,” Attorney General Chris Koster reminded readers for several years. 

He added: “The compilation and analysis of data, however, does help both law enforcement and the community with a starting point for dialogue to appreciate each other’s perspective and arrive at common ground.”

Lost opportunity

The drive to end racial profiling was always about much more than stopping harassment of minority motorists. It was seen as an important step toward improving the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color — and a crucial building block for the ultimate goal of reducing violent crime in the nation’s inner cities.

It should come as no surprise, advocates said, that Black people have little interest in cooperating with a police department that seems to have it out for them every time they get on the road. The implications reach all the way into the courtroom, the ACLU wrote in Driving While Black.

“If jurors don’t believe truthful police testimony,” the report said, “crimes are left unpunished, law enforcement becomes much less effective, and the very people who need the police most are left less protected.”

Far from improving, it seems as if the level of trust between people of color and police could very well be at an all-time low. The deaths in recent months of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, both Black people who died at the hands of White police officers, have prompted widespread protests and super-charged the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ironically enough, Missouri released its latest round of racial profiling data just before police and protestors clashed in Kansas City, Missouri, during a George Floyd demonstration on the Country Club Plaza.

Schmitt released the data on the Friday before the June 1 statutory deadline, just as weekend protests were starting in the city. The release garnered little media attention at the time.

In the end, asking researchers to definitively prove or disprove racial profiling is something that might be unachieveable, said Jeff Rojek, a professor within the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.

A former Los Angeles cop, Rojek first got involved with the Missouri stop data during graduate studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He and other members of the original team have continued to work with the state on the data.

“It is one thing to think about it,” he said, “and then you start having to wrestle with all the problems and uncertainties of the data, and what you know and what you don’t know.”

Making the data available to the public and police departments was great for transparency, Rojek said.

But, he added, “I don’t think – in any context – did it get to the point where it was going to solve our problems of this actually being evidence of racial profiling and what can we do about it.”

Unanswered questions

As for Moore, the Black woman stopped in south Kansas City, she is just now starting to feel comfortable driving again.

She learned later that her husband had frantically checked with area law enforcement agencies to find out details of the stop. He had called his wife after seeing the text, but the officers ordered her to hang up, one making a move for his holster as Moore answered.

All she was told at the scene was that her rear windows were too dark and her turn signal wasn’t working. The 50-minute episode only ended when the men dismissed her after she asked for their badge numbers and the name of their supervisor.

Moore registered a complaint with the Kansas City Police Department. A detective interviewed her and her husband.

But in an Oct. 12 letter, the department told the couple the case had been closed. Searches of the department’s databases and GPS system produced “no evidence that the persons you encountered” were members of the KCPD.

Check with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol, they were told. That the law enforcement agency remains unknown doesn’t diminish Moore’s thoughts about the stop.

 “I think it was just a racial thing,” she said. “They have power and we don’t. And they can do whatever they want.”

Next Week: Comparing communities

Mike Sherry is a former writer and editor for Flatland. He is now a communications consultant for nonprofits. Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency.

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