DAVID WEBBER David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.
The Missouri Attorney General’s annual report once again documents black-white differences in the Columbia Police Department’s traffic stops. Blacks are more than three times as likely than whites to be the driver in a traffic stop. Officially, Columbia’s disparity index is 3.28 for Blacks, .76 for whites, and about .60 for Hispanics and Asians.
For comparison, in Independence, MO, the disparity index is 3.96 for blacks and .76 for whites; for Springfield it is 2.61 for blacks and .97 for whites; for Jefferson City it is 2.6 for Blacks and .83 for whites.
I believe there is a “school to prison pipeline” that has imposed large-scale destruction on the Black community and a heavy cost on American society. Sadly, a phrase I first heard in 1968 still pretty much describes race in America: Blacks are last hired, first fired.
On any given day, blacks make up nearly half of Boone County jail inmates. National studies find that blacks are incarcerated at a high rate and for longer periods than whites.
However, placing simplistic attention on overall traffic stops is likely to further reduce trust in police and the criminal justice system and to increase calls for fewer traffic stops all around.
CPD reports last summer that overall traffic patrol has declined, in part due to budget constraints. As I have written about previously, there appears to be more traffic chaos such as illegal U-turns.Less traffic enforcement to avoid racial profiling controversies would be a bad idea.
“Racial profiling” conveys the idea that drivers are stopped due solely to their race. It suggests that blacks are intentionally selected by police officers to be stopped. An alternative explanation is that due to historical inequities in housing, jobs, and education, blacks are more likely to live in high crime areas.
City officials need to report traffic stops and other police actions at a more detailed level than for the city at large. City ward or beat data would shed more light on any patterns of racial difference.
Without indications of racially biased police attitudes and behaviors, we should be slow in calling for the resignation of any public official, but persistent in proposing fundamental social change to reduce current wide racial disparities in arrests and incarceration rates.
Data from the Attorney General’s report that has not been reported in the media, is that the citation rate for stopped whites and blacks is virtually the same—11.9 for whites and 11.5 for blacks.
If the CPD had many racist officers, the citation rate would be vastly higher for black drivers. Additionally, Hispanic and Asian drivers are stopped at a lower rate than whites, so it is not likely that people of color generally are targeted to be stopped.
Compared with white drivers, blacks are disproportionately less likely to be stopped for moving violations but more likely to be stopped for equipment and license problems. The actual number of stops for investigative reasons are 138 for whites and 156 for blacks—certainly unequal but together they are only a fraction of the 12,437 traffic stops in the city of Columbia.
Blacks are more than half of the 502 stopped drivers who are detected to have outstanding warrants. Because police officers have lists of outstanding warrants, and look for these offenders, I suspect this contributes to racial differences in traffic stops.
My personal experience with low income citizens is that outstanding warrants are not uncommon. Frequent reason for such a warrant are probation violations or “failure to appear” due to forgetfulness, distrust of the system, or desire not to face legal consequences for a crime with which they are charged.
When apprehended, such offenders routinely go to jail waiting for several months for a public defender to process a plea to a less serious crime. Reducing outstanding warrants may be a promising path to reducing traffic stop disparities.
The criminal justice system is not very just. Expanding and funding the public defender system, reducing bail, insuring equal sanctioning, using alternative sentencing are effective, ways to reduce outstanding warrants.
Furthermore, reducing joblessness and poverty, will reduce inequities in vehicle quality and license compliance.
Disparities in traffic stops are just the tip of an iceberg of racial injustice that public officials need to address and reduce. Meanwhile, local police departments need to enforce the law as equitably and just as they can.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.