COLUMBIA — Black and Hispanic drivers were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched following a traffic stop by Columbia police officers in 2008, according to data released by the department Thursday.
Black drivers accounted for 23 percent of traffic stops but nearly half of the total number of searches by police last year. White drivers accounted for 72 percent of stops and 47 percent of searches.
Of black drivers who were stopped, 19 percent were searched. For Hispanic drivers who were stopped, 13 percent were searched compared to 5.7 percent of white drivers searched during stops, the report states.
White drivers were arrested in 16.5 percent of searches and black drivers were arrested in 21 percent of searches, compared to 3 percent of Hispanic drivers arrested during searches.
The statistics are consistent with traffic stop data from 2006 and 2007 that show minority drivers in Columbia are searched at higher rates than white drivers. Black drivers were searched in 21 percent of stops in 2006 and 20 percent of stops in 2007. Hispanic drivers were searched in 14.4 percent of 2006 stops and 20 percent of 2007 stops. In comparison, white drivers were searched in only 7 percent of 2006 stops and 5.7 percent of 2007 stops.
According to U.S. Census data, blacks make up less than 11 percent of Columbia's population.
Columbia Police Capt. Tom Dresner, who prepared the report that was released to the public and who was acting chief when the report was sent to the attorney general, said: “I’m never satisfied with the results ... We don’t want cops out there stopping blacks because they’re black.”
But in the report, Dresner notes that the number of blacks arrested after the traffic stops and searches shows that officers had probable cause for the stops and were not profiling.
As for the location of the stops, Dresner said police resources are committed to areas of higher crime.
Citizen Oversight Committee member David Smith said simply reporting the traffic stop statistics does nothing if the Police Department does not acknowledge that the numbers show a racial disparity.
“The whole point of the data is to hold the department accountable," Smith said. "If the numbers come out and the department doesn’t acknowledge the problem, the data doesn’t serve its purpose.”
Smith said while he appreciates the improved internal review accomplished by the department's Professional Standards Unit, the traffic stop statistics show there are still problems in how the police conduct searches. Smith is representing former Missouri basketball player Willie Smith, who alleged that he was mistreated by police responding to a burglary alarm.
Dan Viets, president of the Mid-Missouri ACLU, said higher search and arrest rates of minorities are the result of targeted policing and are not random.
“If you put more police officers in black neighborhoods, then you’re bound to catch more black people breaking the law,” Viets said.
Nearly a third of all searches and arrests from stops occurred in the First Ward. This was the first year in which data on the location of stops was included by the department.
The report arrived a week after members of the Police Department, including new Chief Kenneth Burton, met with the Citizen Oversight Committee to discuss and rewrite the first draft of an ordinance that will create an external board to oversee the department’s review process.