Some local law enforcement and judicial officials believe the criminal justice system is ultimately equitable despite the presence of some implicit bias, while others believe changes are necessary to eliminate bias.
"Everyone has biases, and it is just important in law enforcement that the officer does not allow his biases to guide his decision making process when it comes to criminal offenses and how he treats people," Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill said. "I believe there is support for the argument of racial bias in the system through racial profiling investigations, through Department of Justice investigations and through the creation of laws specifically for the war on drugs."
Justin Carver, Cole County lead public defender, agrees implicit bias exists in the system and points to studies that show higher incarceration rates, longer sentences and more death sentences for people of color. He thinks training on implicit bias for law enforcement, as well as lawyers and judges, is needed.
"I also believe we need to end qualified immunity for law enforcement and prosecutors," Carver said. "Qualified immunity effectively prevents civil liability for all but the most wildly outrageous cases. When agencies stop and or search minorities at a higher rate, there should be a consequence such as loss of funding. The attorney general's traffic stop data for at least a decade shows a pattern of problems, but there is zero consequence for disproportionately stopping or searching minorities.
Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson said implicit bias isn't something that exists "in the vacuum of one particular field or profession."
"It exists in every single one of us, and it isn't exclusive to race," Thompson said. "Whether it is based on race, gender, religion, political beliefs, socio-economic background or some other factor, it's there on some level. It's something that is formed by each person's individual background and experiences. Simply being a member of the justice system does not automatically make anybody more or less biased than anyone else, but given that implicit bias exists in all of us individually, it always has the potential to impact the system if not checked."
For Jefferson City Police Chief Roger Schroeder, the question of whether implied bias exists in the legal system is "impossible to answer with any degree of accuracy because it represents different things to different people," he said.
"We are sworn to an oath of office, and we accept that professional obligation with the highest degree of seriousness," Schroeder said. "Implicit in that oath of office is a commitment to give our life in the performance of our duties. Nothing could be more solemn nor carry a deeper meaning than a law enforcement officer's oath of office."
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said, "Implicit bias is everywhere and in everyone. While I do not specifically see any racial bias in law enforcement in this area, I would be remiss if I did not say that there is none. If I saw it, I would address it," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also said there are no truly quantifiable measures for implicit bias.
"Some say, for law enforcement, it is the racial profiling data," Wheeler said. "I do not believe this is a true representation of racial data. There are just too many unknown factors to consider."
Missouri's annual vehicle stops report in May showed minority drivers are pulled over at a higher rate than white drivers statewide and locally. Local law enforcement officials said the report shows they are dealing with people of all races in an equitable way.
Cole County Associate Circuit Judge Cotton Walker said he does not assume there is bias, as "each case must be examined to assure the actions of individuals, citizens and law enforcement alike, are accurately considered. Ultimately, when cases come to court, this examination is the job of the judiciary. We must have leaders in each branch of government (executive, legislative, judicial), at every level (federal, state, local) who understand the task, commit to the work and respect their oaths to assure a just, equitable system."
When looking at how to address bias, Thompson said, "The trickiest part of dealing with implicit bias is that, oftentimes, we don't even realize we have it. What we can do, and are doing, to combat implicit bias is to learn what our personal implicit biases are and how they affect us as individuals. This is already taking place on a local and statewide level. Prosecutor, law enforcement and judicial trainings around the state now regularly include implicit bias training so that we can better understand how it affects us and the decisions we make."
Hill said, "To create a more equitable legal system, I believe we need to re-examine how our laws are enforced in the court system and have prosecutor accountability."
"My personal opinion is that we really need to reallocate money away from prisons and put it into drug treatment, mental health and schools," Carver said. "If we deal with the social needs on the front end, we will be safer, need far fewer prison beds, and we will have more people paying taxes."
Schroeder said, along with making sure there is justice for the victims of crimes, "each person must hold themselves accountable and each community member must hold those in whom they delegate certain justice system responsibilities accountable."
For JCPD, Schroeder said, "the first and one of the most important items on our agenda is to recruit and select the best possible candidates to police our community in a manner acceptable to our constituents. We don't lower the bar just because it's never been more difficult to identify good police officer candidates. We haven't deviated from the process which includes multiple interviews, written tests, physical fitness assessment, polygraph examination, background investigation, medical assessment and psychological assessment."
Schroeder said JCPD devotes considerable effort to recruit minority candidates "to reflect the community we serve, and we currently have more African American and Hispanic police officers (14-16 percent) than we have ever employed.
"We emphasize training and provided in excess of 8,000 hours of training in 2019," he said. "This total is three and one-half times the total annual hours mandated by the POST Commission. Our community policing efforts include a Community Action Team (C.A.T.), a crisis intervention team, an education oriented traffic unit, a Community Services Team (S.R.O. and D.A.R.E.), a citizen observation program and a Citizen/Police Academy to name a few.
"Additionally, we have acquired software which allows us to track the frequency of use of force events, traffic pursuits, officer involved traffic crashes and other incidents of administrative concern," Schroeder continued. "We have expanded our Office of Professional Standards to presently include two lieutenants who focus exclusively on recruiting, in-service training and the investigation of allegations of misconduct."
To create a more equitable legal system, Wheeler said, "we have to continue implicit bias training because it does work. This training should not be that same every year. It should be effective training. It should have passion towards the training message and be informative to the topic. It should be taught in a manner that talks to individuals and not at them.
"We, as law enforcement, also need more diversity within our ranks," Wheeler continued. "I believe diversity is imperative for law enforcement. This is very difficult though due to the reduction in all law enforcement applicants over all.
"The last thing is funding," Wheeler concluded. "You cannot have good training without paying for it. You cannot take people off of duty for training without paying someone else to fill their shift. You cannot have good recruits or the retention of good staff unless you pay for it."
Walker added: "I believe the system, as conceived, written and necessarily amended is equitable. The fact that it took many years, decades even, to improve the system as written is evidence that, even as our founding fathers created the greatest representative government in history, we must keep working at it to assure the goal of equal justice for all is achieved."