With statistics pointing in one direction and police opinions another, determining the role and significance of racial profiling within law enforcement in Boone County is a delicate issue.
In Attorney General Jay Nixon’s annual report on potential racial profiling in traffic stops, statewide statistics showed that blacks were almost twice as likely to be searched during traffic stops as whites.
However, police reported finding contraband on whites 1½ times as often as on blacks. Numbers reported by police departments in Boone County showed an even larger disparity in statistics.
This is the fifth consecutive year the attorney general’s report has shown similar rates of searches during traffic stops.
The question, then, is whether these numbers can be explained as a result of standard “criminal profiling,” as police contend, or the taboo theory of “driving while black.”
MU criminology professor John Galliher said the statistical disparity can be credited to an “institutionalized racism.”
“Black males are traditionally more suspicious,” Galliher said. “They fit the role of a ‘symbolic assailant’ in many people’s minds, including police officers. We don’t think of it as racism, but as prudent, that we need to be afraid of black males.”
Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff said it’s time something is done to address the disparity in numbers. She said the NAACP plans to discuss its concerns with members of the state legislature next year.
“We are meeting and working on responding to the report so that we don’t have another year just saying, ‘Oh, the numbers are bad again,’ ” she said. “We need to start fixing the problem instead of just talking about it.”
Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said the line between criminal profiling and racial profiling is necessary to law enforcement, but in practice might not always be immediately obvious.
“Racial profiling is based on ethnicity and is therefore unacceptable,” Reddin said. “Criminal profiling is based on behavioral characteristics and is an essential part of (police work).”
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said some indicators that can lead to a search during a traffic stop are suspicious items in plain view, a smell of alcohol or drugs when approaching the car , or sporadic movements by the driver before the officer reaches the window.
“A lot of it comes down to intuition,” Boehm said. “Using criminal profiling to lead to a search is very positive and necessary, as long as (the officer) is using proper criteria, and race is not one of those.”
In Boone County, the Sheriff’s Department reported similar trends. Blacks were searched in 18 percent of stops and whites were searched in 8 percent. The disparity in rates of contraband found was even larger in this report. Contraband was found on whites 16 percent of the time as opposed to 6 percent for blacks.
Although police maintain that statistical data alone is not enough to claim this is a pressing problem, Reddin acknowledges that the situation is not ideal.
“To say there is no problem is not right,” he said. “But it is our goal to be as humanly objective and fair as we can. I cannot give an answer why the numbers are showing this.”
The Columbia Police Department reported that blacks were searched in 23 percent of traffic stops while whites were searched in 9 percent. Searches of whites, however, resulted in found contraband more often than did searches of blacks, 17 percent versus 15 percent, respectively.
“We’re not going to base our concerns on numbers alone,” Boehm said. “ You must look at the individualofficer’s reasoning each time.”
Reddin and Boehm agreed that factors other than statistics would provide evidence of a profiling problem.
“If we were racially profiling drivers, I would expect to hear numerous complaints from drivers, which we don’t, and to be contacted by the attorney general’s office, which we haven’t,” Reddin said.
According to Reddin, the Sheriff’s Department is unlikely to pay special attention to policies and disciplines against racial profiling unless these steps occur.
How the department determines when enough complaints have been reported is unclear, because complaints are not kept on record to be easily accessed, Reddin said.
Also, it is not the policy of the attorney general’s office to contact individual departments about the statistics in the annual racial profiling report.
“The attorney general’s office is merely collecting and reporting information,” said spokesman Jim Gardner. “We present our findings to community leaders as another mechanism for them to address concerns themselves. (Departments that are waiting for contact from our office) may be missing the point of the entire report.”
The Columbia Police Department keeps all complaints on file, but does not keep statistics covering what percentage of complaints includes racial profiling.
“(Complaints) are very rare, but are always addressed directly and completely,” Boehm said.
Despite attempts by police officers to minimize the issue, Galliher said racial profiling is unavoidable in today’s society.
“It’s a self-perpetuating part of long-term American culture; it’s what we learn growing up,” he said. “Maybe it is unreasonable to expect police to rise above these societal prejudices just because they’re in uniform.”