By Jeff Lehr
A report released Friday shows that officers in Missouri continue to stop black drivers at significantly higher rates than other racial or ethnic groups, although Joplin’s police chief believes the local numbers do not necessarily reflect racial profiling.
The Missouri attorney general’s office released a report on about 1.7 million vehicle stops conducted by 631 law enforcement agencies across the state in 2011.
The figures show black drivers are about 72 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers. While blacks were the lone racial or ethnic group more likely to be stopped than whites, the figures show minority drivers in general more likely to be searched and arrested than whites.
Annual reports on vehicle stops in Missouri going back to the year 2000 suggest that the disparity in stops of black drivers has increased in 10 of the past 12 years. While Attorney General Chris Koster called the increases “a disturbing trend,” he warned that the data for individual communities is “not conclusive evidence of racial profiling.”
“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 said. “It is vital that Missouri law enforcement agencies continue to review the rates of stops and searches, and to continue their outreach efforts.”
The data reported by law enforcement agencies is used to calculate disparity indexes comparing the proportion of vehicle stops for drivers of a particular race or ethnic group with the proportion of the state or local population of that group. A value of 1.0 represents no disparity, values under 1.0 indicate underrepresentation of the group in stops made and values above 1.0 indicate overrepresentation.
The statewide disparity for blacks was 1.63 with respect to vehicle stops in 2011, compared with 1.61 in 2010. By comparison, the statewide index for whites was 0.95, for Hispanics 0.65, for Asians 0.50, and for Native Americans 0.20.
In Joplin, the blacks disparity index was 1.66 last year, which was down from 1.76 in 2010. The index for Hispanics in Joplin was 0.50, for whites 1.05, for Asians 0.21 and for Native Americans 0.12.
Joplin police Chief Lane Roberts cautioned that the report’s statistical data lacks analysis and that there are numerous factors other than racial profiling that may have a bearing on why blacks are stopped at a disproportionate rate. For example, there are socioeconomic and income factors that may play into the data, he said. There also are circumstances particular to individual communities, such as the displacement of people Joplin saw in the aftermath of last year’s tornado, he said.
Roberts said he does not know how any of that may have affected the numbers with respect to vehicle stops.
“My role is not to analyze what causes the disparity,” he said. “My role is to ensure our law enforcement activities are based on conduct, not race.”
He said he is confident that racial profiling is “not one of those causes in Joplin because we watch that very carefully.”
Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean had not had a chance to review the report but expressed confidence in Roberts addressing any problem it might reveal.
“The chief is very proactive in making sure something like that is not going on,” she said of the possibility of racial profiling.
The mayor said that on a police force the size of Joplin, there is always the possibility of isolated instances. But she feels confident “if there is something like that going on, it will be brought forward and dealt with by the chief — because our tolerance for that is zero.”
Ruthie Cox, president of the Joplin branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, believes the numbers speak for themselves.
“Racial profiling has been here for a long time, and I don’t see it disappearing,” Cox said.
Cox believes young black residents of Joplin and women of all races are more prone to being stopped by police. She said she would be interested in knowing how many of the vehicle stops are repeated stops of the same person.
The report also tracks search rates and arrest rates for vehicle stops. Hispanic drivers were 1.72 times more likely than white drivers to be searched in Missouri, while blacks were 1.53 times more likely. That’s despite data showing that both Hispanics and blacks were actually less likely than whites to have contraband found during searches. The “contraband hit rate” for whites was 24.42, compared with 13.51 for Hispanics and 18.42 for blacks.
Cox views that as a telling detail.
“It seems to me they’re concentrating on African-Americans,” she said. “If they don’t produce as much contraband, which ones should you be stopping? They can say it isn’t racial profiling, but it is.”
Joplin police Lt. Brian Lewis said Joplin’s search rate numbers were reported incorrectly to the state initially. The city’s corrected search rate figures for 2011 are 3.80 for whites, 7.67 for blacks, 7.59 for Hispanics, 1.00 for Asians and 3.51 for Native Americans. The arrest rates for each of the groups was 8.52 for whites, 14.42 for blacks, 14.99 for Hispanics, 1.00 for Asians, and 3.51 for Native Americans.
Several local law enforcement agencies reported a disproportionately high rate of vehicle stops of black drivers in 2011. The disparity index for vehicle stops of blacks in Jasper County was 1.56, in Newton County 2.18, in Carthage 2.17, in Webb City 1.63, and in Neosho 1.92.