COLUMBIA — The Citizens' Police Review Board received training Wednesday night in understanding the nuances of officer-citizen interactions.
MU law professor David Mitchell and MU sociology professor David Brunsma led board members in a discussion of how different "scripts" — individual perspectives based on unique combinations of race, ethnicity, gender, age and location, among other things — can impact interactions between the public and police.
The professors discussed how different people can interpret situations in different ways and how those different interpretations can turn something as simple as a traffic stop into a full-blown confrontation.
"It was fascinating," board chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez said after the meeting, adding that the complexity might make her a little more nervous when the time comes for the board to review its first case.
Everybody brings a different perspective to a situation, Mitchell told the board.
"Not better, not worse, but different," he said.
The reason certain situations get out of control is people think about a situation from their own vantage points, he argued. A black 55-year-old woman from St. Louis is likely to have a different perception of police than a white 21-year-old man from Boonville.
Mitchell said the vantage point of the board — having a calm discussion in a comfortable conference room in City Hall — is much different from that of citizens and police involved in an incident, where a chaotic situation could cause people to rely on preconceptions, stereotypes and longstanding fears.
The board discussed an issue Mitchell termed "DWB," or driving while black. His discussion came just one day after the attorney general released a report on 2009 traffic stops, showing that black motorists are pulled over in Missouri at a disproportionately high rate compared with white and Hispanic motorists.
In Columbia, black drivers are more than twice as likely as white drivers to get pulled over by police, and they are more four times as likely to get arrested.
These disparities in the rates could be explained by a number of factors, Mitchell said, and a report with just the numbers doesn't tell the whole story about how police are handling the stops. But people are only going to understand those numbers through a pre-existing filter, he said.
"What matters here is perception," Mitchell said, using an example of police pulling over minority drivers. "Even if the stops were legitimate, the participants will walk away believing they were pulled over because of their race."
After the meeting, both professors said they were pleased with the level of discussion and engagement, though Mitchell said the professors chose not to "really push the envelope."
"The meeting had potential to be really uncomfortable," Brunsma* said, referring to the diverging perspectives and relationships of different board members with law enforcement. "We wanted to create for them a safe space in which to have these important conversations."
At 7 p.m. on June 9 the board will convene in the City Council Chambers to hear Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton present changes in SWAT policies.