Blacks twice as likely to be searched

A Columbia police study finds evidence of a racial gap.
Sunday, June 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:49 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Blacks in Columbia are more than twice as likely to be searched during a traffic stop than whites, according to data compiled by Columbia police and reported to the state attorney general.

In 2003, Columbia police conducted 1,777 searches during traffic stops. Whites were searched less than 9 percent of the time; blacks were searched just under 24 percent.

Yet, the percentage of total searches in which contraband was found was slightly higher among whites.

Scott Decker, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said both the search rates and contraband hit rates were consistent with data from across the state and country. The Columbia Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in Missouri are required to report racial data of their traffic stops.

“Police tend to be more discriminating in searching whites,” Decker said. “The higher threshold of suspicion is consistent with the higher contraband rates.”

Contraband was found in 354 instances; 301 times it was either drugs or alcohol. The drugs or alcohol — predominantly drugs, Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said — were in the possession of a black person in 137 of those instances, or 42 percent of the time.

Blacks were arrested for drug offenses at a rate similar to the possession rate, according to Columbia’s 2003 arrest records. Blacks accounted for 41 percent of the 969 total drug arrests last year.

According to the 2000 census, blacks make up about 11 percent of Columbia’s population.

Boehm said he would need to examine the circumstances and locations of the searches in order to explain the disparity between search rates. He suspected that a good number of searches were occurring in the central city, specifically Beat 50 and Beat 55.

Beats 50 and 55 are bounded on the south by Broadway and on the north by Business Loop 70. Beat 55 extends to Stadium Boulevard to the west. Beat 50 is bounded by College Avenue on the east. The two are separated by Garth Avenue.

“We receive a lot of complaints related to drug activity and sales from those areas,” Boehm said. “Many times, searches are related to officers having a reason to believe there are drugs in the vehicle.”

Stephen Wyse, a local attorney and former police officer, said police might be less likely to check whites for violations.

“Most law-enforcement officers do their job honorably and don’t make conscious decisions to target people of color,” Wyse said. “However, the institutional dynamics are hard to change. If you’re a minority, you’re going to face stricter scrutiny.”

Wyse cited the “natural hunter attitude” of some police officers. He said although whites and blacks commit crimes at the same rate, the scrutiny faced by minorities makes the phenomenon of “DWB” — “Driving While Black” — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Because police have the expectation that they’re more likely to find drugs on blacks, they may be more attuned to following the procedures to produce evidence,” Wyse said.

Boehm said Columbia police focus on suspicious behavior, not skin color.

“We make every effort to see that our officers are trained and supervised to look for criminal and suspicious activity,” Boehm said. “The color of one’s skin does not play a role.”

The attorney general’s report showed a similar disparity in both traffic searches and traffic stops. Blacks in 2003 were pulled over by Columbia police at a rate more than twice what their proportion of the local population would indicate. Decker said that figure may be inflated because it uses residential population as the benchmark.

“The gold standard would be the race and ethnicity of the drivers driving,” Decker said. “The driving population may look different than the residential population.”

Decker said the search data is more accurate because it presents the entire population of traffic stops.

Statewide in 2003, whites involved in traffic stops were searched just under 7 percent of the time. Blacks were searched over 12 percent of the time. The contraband hit rate was nearly 6 percentage points higher for whites.

Of the documented traffic-stop searches in Columbia in 2003, about 60 percent were described as “incident to arrest,” meaning the search was done because of an arrest. About one-third of all searches were done with the driver’s consent. In those two categories, the ratios were consistent between whites and blacks.

Decker said the search data suggests two things.

“First, each department should engage in more analysis of their own data,” Decker said. “Second — and I think Columbia is out in front in this — police should meet with community groups to discuss their policies and training procedures.”

Boehm agreed with Decker’s analysis.

“An open dialogue with the community is a positive thing and we strive to do that,” Boehm said.


In 2003, of the 1,777 searches Columbia police conducted during traffic stops:

n Whites were searched fewer than 9 percent of the times they were stopped;

n Blacks, just under 24 percent of the times they were stopped.

Drugs or alcohol were found in 301 instances:

n in the possession of a black person on 137 of those instances, or 42 percent of the time;

n in the possession of a white 161 of those times (the other 3 times were of other ethnicity)

Source: Columbia Police Dept. report

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