Traffic stop data shows a smaller racial disparity for black drivers pulled over by Columbia police in 2018 than in the previous year.

Of the 16,707 drivers pulled over last year, 29.13 percent were black; the disparity index for black drivers was 2.92, down from 3.28 in 2017.

Of those pulled over, 63.81 percent were white, for a disparity index of 0.80.

However, when the black driver disparity index is divided by the white disparity index, the ratio of disparity for black drivers being pulled over is 3.65 times greater than it is for white drivers. That's a more accurate measure of disproportion, said Don Love, who used to chair the Human Rights Task Force of Empower Missouri and is now on the police-convened Vehicle Stops Working Group, which is looking at the data and racial profiling — long a point of contention in Columbia.

In 2017, the disparity index for black drivers was 3.28 and white drivers was 0.76, which made the actual ratio of disparity 4.30 between black and white drivers.

Disparity indexes are calculated using 2010 census data and compare traffic stops of a specific group to the population of that group, according to the attorney general’s website. A disparity of 1 would indicate an equal traffic stop to group population ratio. Any number above a 1 suggests a disparity among traffic stops of that specific group.

Black people made up 11.26 percent of Columbia’s population in the 2010 census and an estimated 10.4 percent in 2018, according to a population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Interim Police Chief Geoff Jones talked to reporters Monday afternoon about the data in advance of the Attorney General’s annual release of the data, which law enforcement agencies all over the state must report.

Jones emphasized not getting caught up in the numbers but having the community come together to give the numbers meaning and look at them in greater depth.

“It’s important we use the numbers as a tool, but we try to find out the variables that drives these numbers and see what variables we can affect and which one’s we can’t,” Jones said.

Love, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the committee, identified the data from the "reason to search" category — specifically, drugs or alcohol — as a crucial point of disparity.

Of 505 drivers, 153 of them who were pulled over for suspicion of drugs or alcohol were white while 329 were black. The numbers indicate that almost 50 percent of black drivers were pulled over compared to 23 percent of white drivers.

“That seems huge,” Love said in an interview Tuesday. “In a case like that, I would like the police to document that the officer had a good reason to conduct the search.”

But Love also said Jones forming the committee is a good start to addressing the disparities.

“If all of us can get together and agree on what to do with the data, we can start adjusting policies so officers are getting better guidance,” Love said.

Jones, who was appointed interim chief in late January, said the department has not done anything specific to address disparity indices but has focused on policing more fairly. He said that since becoming chief, he has implemented intelligence-based practices instead of saturations.

“I suspect, but I don’t know, that us participating in Vision Zero and having less investigative stops as compared to Vision Zero stops has likely contributed to this number,” Jones said.

Vision Zero is a “transportation policy goal and data-driven strategy to achieve zero traffic deaths or serious injuries on (Columbia) roadways,” according to the City of Columbia website.

For the first time, the data included traffic stops based on residential status. A total of 4,199 black drivers who were pulled over were residents and the remaining 667 were not. 

The addition of that distinction to the report came from the Attorney General’s office, Jones said.

In 2017, former Police Chief Ken Burton said he anticipated written consent policy for searches would reduce the disparity index. Implemented in October 2016, the policy allowed drivers to give or revoke permission for police officers to search their cars with a consent-to-search form, according to previous Missourian reporting. If the driver refused to sign with their consent, then the police officer would need to request a warrant.

Jones said he didn’t know whether or not the implementation of consent-to-search forms had impacted the racial disparity index.

“Maybe it’s better to look at who we’re asking to search and who’s denying the searches ... , not just who is allowing us to search,” Jones said. “The committee needs to look at those, not just a cursory review of them, but look at what’s behind the numbers.”

Jones created the Vehicle Stops Working Group this year, a committee that addresses the context of racial disparity numbers, rather than the numbers themselves.

“I think we’re going five steps further with the committee,” Jones said. “I think that they have the power to look into this, to have these conversations, to find meaning behind these numbers. But also, make recommendations with the help of police officers on that committee so that it’s realistic and something we can address as a committee.”

He plans to make the committee permanent and hopes it can look at all aspects that may effect the racial disparity data. Jones said he doesn’t have an exact idea about the context behind the numbers, and that it could be driven by multiple factors: where their street crime unit is most active, the area with the highest reported activity or place with the highest crash intersections.

“I’m not naive to the fact that we all have implicit biases and that plays a part in how we go about our daily activities, including policing,” Jones said. “So, if that implicit bias is not being mitigated through training or experience, then that’s something I hope the committee will recognize and address.”

  • Fall 2019 public safety and health reporter. I am a senior studying news reporting and sociology. Reach me at sarahhaselhorst@mail.missouri.edu, or 573-340-5591.

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