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Jefferson City traffic stats improving, but vehicle stop numbers only one factor

Jefferson City traffic stats improving, but vehicle stop numbers only one factor

April 7th, 2019 by Nicole Roberts in Local News

Jefferson City police

Missouri's annual Vehicle Stops Report can elicit conversations and shine a light on potential law enforcement issues. But local officials and experts caution against relying solely on those reports when determining if police officers are acting on biases.

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In 2000, Missouri legislators passed a statute requiring "all peace officers" to report information for each vehicle stop made in the state; the Attorney General's Office has since released its annual Vehicle Stops Report every year, showing the number of stops, as well as post-stop information, for the state and communities. The premise behind the statute was to address issues of racial profiling in Missouri, according to the Attorney General's Office website.

"People need to be able to come home, they need to be able to go to work, go to church, pick up their kids and live their lives without fear of being stopped," Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel said.

The most recent report is from 2017, released last summer.

Vehicle stops

The Jefferson City Police Department stopped 4,545 black drivers and 10,804 white drivers in 2017, according to the VSR. Stops of black drivers decreased by about 2 percent from the previous year, said Don Love, who has worked with communities across the state while using VSR data for more than a decade.

Love also chairs the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Jefferson City's Social Justice Committee.

But black drivers in Jefferson City were stopped at twice the rate of white drivers, the VSR states. It notes black drivers in Missouri were 84 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped in 2017.

In 2016, black drivers in Jefferson City were also stopped at slightly more than twice the rate of black drivers, according to the Attorney General's Office website. In 2007, black drivers in Jefferson City were stopped about 30 percent more often than white drivers, according to the attorney general's data.

Jefferson City Police Chief Roger Schroeder said "one should be careful, caution, if one draws definitive conclusions" from the VSR as there are many unknown factors. He encourages residents to do ride-alongs and "draw your own conclusions."

"Literally half of our existence is under the cover of darkness," Schroeder said. "Come out and ride with that officer and tell me if you know what race they are at night, let alone during the day with the amount of tinted windows and the degree of tinted windows. I challenge anybody in a large percentage of those traffic stops to tell me the race of the person driving that car or truck."

Jefferson City Police Department Capt. Eric Wilde added he encourages residents to become acquainted with officers before making assumptions based on the VSR statistics.

While the rate of black drivers pulled over compared to white drivers is elevated, the group population benchmarks the Attorney General's Office uses to estimate the rate disproportion may be "faulty," Love said.

To calculate the group driver proportions, the Attorney General's Office uses the U.S. Census Bureau's information. The Attorney General's Office listed Jefferson City's white population in 2017 as 78.5 percent and black population as slightly more than 16 percent.

This census information includes the populations at the local prisons, Love said, which have a high black population. It also does not include information about individuals driving through Jefferson City, he added, which could skew the statistics.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, the Attorney General's Office began requiring officers to collect the residency of the stopped drivers to "provide additional insights on each jurisdiction's traffic-stop data," according to its website.

"It's easy to point to a number and make an allegation, but remember what Don says — there are so many ingredients that go into that figure that's spit out every year that are unknown," Schroeder said. "It's really dangerous to draw any conclusions from it, even the statistics regarding how many of people of color in a community."

Observational studies would be the most accurate way to estimate the black and white driver group populations and disproportions, Love said. He suggested observing police vehicle stops at certain intersections at different times of day to help provide a better estimate. However, it would be difficult to do this for every neighborhood in a community, he added.

Post-stop data

Those reviewing the VSR must "keep in mind for these benchmarks and these stops, you need to do some sort of estimate," Love said. He recommended looking at post-stop information to gain a better understanding for if there are factors influencing stops.

What an officer does after a stop is not dependent on estimates of drivers based on the Census data, Love said, but instead is based on the number of stops for each group.

Consent and drug or alcohol odor searches involve officer discretion, Love said, which would help show whether officers are acting on racial stereotypes.

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In 2017, black drivers in Jefferson City were less likely than white drivers to be affected by consent searches, according to the VSR. This is a decrease from 2013, when black drivers were 55 percent more likely than white drivers to experience consent searches, Love said.

"I take it as evidence that (Jefferson City Police Department supervisors) are being responsive to the sort of concerns being raised and taking some actions and maybe they're doing plenty now, enough that it's going to take care of the problem," Love said. "But it's simply not going to happen by accident. If they did nothing, then the officers would keep on with that high disproportion, so there must be some awareness of what we do when it comes to black drivers being disproportionately impacted."

Schroeder and Wilde said they have not done anything differently in regards to consent searches over the last few years. However, Schroeder said he was "pleased" by the decrease.

"It's probably a reflection of what these captains do and our supervisors do and our officers are doing. They're becoming more aware of it, more conscious of why they do it," said Schroeder, noting the officers go through implicit bias training and participate in more comprehensive in-service training.

For drug and alcohol odor searches in 2017, black drivers were affected by odor searches at more than four times the rate of white drivers, according to the data.

For these searches, Love said, officers may see a dangerous lane violation or hear speech slurs, as well as smell an odor. However, he added, officers may also make a search based solely on odor.

Love said JCPD might want to review a policy requiring officers to cite more evidence, other than odor, for these searches — such as lane violation or slurred speech.

According to the 2017 post-stop information, black drivers were 13 percent more likely to receive a citation than white drivers. White drivers were slightly more likely to receive a warning following the stop than black drivers, according to the data.

Black drivers were arrested following a vehicle stop at twice the rate as white drivers in 2017, according to the VSR.

In 2017, black drivers were arrested for outstanding warrants at more than two-and-a-half times the rate of white drivers.

Outstanding warrants usually involve situations where drivers did not settle previous charges, Love said, adding the disproportions could also be related to economic status. He said poor individuals may not have the funds to pay a ticket, be able to take off work to appear in municipal court or be able to get a babysitter for their children while the parents are in court.

Chapel said Jefferson City has been improving and "going down by fractions in terms of the number of people getting stopped," adding black drivers were stopped less than in 2016.

"There has been a small percentage of decrease in Jefferson City, and I think that's intentional because the Police Department (and) the chief are doing things to make sure the community doesn't feel over-policed because that gets in the way of officers being able to integrate with the community and have relationships there. I think we're doing better than many communities in the state. But we could do better — we could do a lot better — and we should keep pushing toward that."

One of Chapel's recommended improvements is requiring Jefferson City police officers to wear body cameras, which could help deter potential racial profiling.

While the VSR can be interpreted in different ways, Chapel said, it's important Missourians and police officers throughout the state look at what the data does at its core — tracking the number of stops of black individuals versus other members of the community. If those stops and disproportions increase, he added, it is "irrefutable" that black people are being stopped more.

If officers — not just in Jefferson City but throughout Missouri and the country — do not have probable cause to pull over a black driver, then "leave them be," he added.

Schroeder said he does not want to give the perception that JCPD is "discounting the importance" of the statistics, adding the department does quarterly reviews of its traffic stops instead of waiting for the annual report. He added if there is an "elevated number of minority stops, we want to know about it every three months" and immediately speak and counsel the officer.

"We respect the law, and we respect the issue," Schroeder said. "It's causing people to have a certain perception of us in a negative way. We're not out here to make enemies. We need our community as much as they need us, and what people are saying based on loosely gathered statistics that we are racist — and that's the implication, make no mistake about it — I resent that because they're basing it on what? A number."

Documentation, communication

When there are disproportions between black and white drivers, Love said, it's important police departments enforce detailed documentation. This may include requiring officers to write down more information for why they pulled drivers over.

One example, Love said, is having officers provide more details when they make investigative stops.

In 2017, black drivers were stopped for investigative reasons at 2.58 times the rate for white drivers, according to the VSR.

The VSR instructs officers to mark "investigative stops," Love added, but it does not explain what is considered an investigative stop. So "officers' use of the check-off appears to be inconsistent statewide."

"The investigatory stops could be playing an important role in protecting public safety, but agencies need to be able to make that case to skeptical community members," Love said. "This starts with knowing how many stops were made for investigative reasons. This can be done by using the investigative stop check-off on the VSR form. Then supervisors can monitor the reasons for investigating. If officers can't cite specific and articulable reasons, then the supervisors help them improve job performance."

Documentation can help police supervisors identify any potential problems and create a teaching opportunity for officers.

"For a lot of this, the problems don't come up because they're bigots, racists on the department," Love said. "Most of the time it's because they're given the impression of, 'This is the right way,' or 'This is the way my supervisor told me to do it,' or 'This is the way my partner told me to do it,' or whatever. They think it's OK, and they're doing the job right."

JCPD has been "proactive" in addressing issues, Wilde said. Police supervisors will speak with the officers and have them go through more counseling and training to address disproportionate traffic stops.

Reviewing documentation regularly will help move officers throughout the state in a positive direction, Love said.

"You have more control on whether they're using their training correctly, and supervisors have more detailed knowledge on what they're doing and start to see complaints go down, hit rates go up because they're doing things better," he said. "You get more cooperation from people because they don't feel like they're being alienated by being mistreated all of the time."

Chapel said it's important the black individuals not feel alienated and are treated fairly and equally.

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The Missouri NAACP issued a travel advisory for the state in 2017, stating someone who is black, a woman or perceived as a person of faith or disabled may be treated differently if they travel or live in Missouri. The travel advisory is still in effect today, Chapel said.

"If your litmus test is going to be a person's skin color, then you need to get a new life," Chapel said. "That doesn't meet with my moral code. That doesn't meet with the law, but yet it's still a reality in Missouri, and nobody is fixing it.

"For decades, NAACP and other civil rights organization have worked to try and make Missouri fairer. I'm not saying we're going to by some paradigm of purity or living in an ivy tower, but it needs to be fair. Stop pulling people over based on their skin color. Just stop it. Don't do it."

Documentation can also help police departments communicate their actions to community members. This communication plays a key part when fostering community and police relationships, Chapel added.

Despite it potentially improving statistics, Schroeder said, he will "never" give police officers a minimum or maximum production number.

"Sometimes we get attacked because I haven't said, 'Do not do this because it makes my statistics better,' because I think that defeats the purpose of protecting the community," Schroeder said. "Go out there, use good judgment, be fair, be equitable under all circumstances, and the stats are just what they are. But I'm not going to tell them, 'This is the quota because I'm being criticized or we're being criticized,' because there is no independent evidence of any kind of wrongdoing but our numbers are subject to criticism, and that takes you down a dangerous road."