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Columbia city leaders, residents react to traffic stop numbers response

One week after the state attorney general’s report on traffic stop numbers showed black drivers in Columbia were pulled over three times as much as white drivers, the city released a response indicating there was more work to be done and a report from the city manager on ways to solve the issue was forthcoming.

The numbers spiked in 2016, the highest since the report began in 2000. Residents expressed anger about the numbers at Monday’s council meeting, and confused city leaders questioned the spike despite Police Chief Ken Burton’s promise last summer to keep a close eye on them.

“Here we are, 12 months later, and after 12 months of watching and monitoring our vehicle stops, the incidents of disproportionate minority contact has increased,” Mayor Brian Treece said. “The incidents of the white population being pulled over has decreased at a time when we asked the Police Department and specifically the chief to pay attention to these issues.”

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of Race Matters, Friends, said she’s been working with the department since last summer and doesn’t feel like the police administration is admitting to racial disparity. She said she was “unimpressed” with Wednesday’s response.

“When we met with them, in September, and still even at that late date they were still in denial about their data,” she said. “They did not want to believe race had anything to do with any of the disparity. Race is a disparity in every single category of data they collect.”

Treece and Wilson-Kleekamp said Thursday that they thought the response took too long, despite the fact that the department knew ahead of time that the report would come out June 1, and what it would say.

“We turned the numbers into the attorney general’s office,” Treece said. “We could have crunched the numbers and done the analysis and done the factors that led to that stop and have a little bit of backdrop or context for those numbers.”

The city’s community relations director Steve Sapp, said he took over responsibility of releasing the response to those numbers because he wanted to look at them from a broader perspective.

“The disparity report has several other components to it like search rate and arrest rate but I thought it was really relevant to look at it from a community wide perspective rather than just a narrow police perspective,” he said. “Things that happen in the community could have a direct impact on that.”

He said he admitted there would have been some value in alerting the public on June 1 that the response would not be immediate and that there are a number of things can could be done better.

“We provide the data to the attorney general’s office so do we need to be looking at the data on a more frequent basis?” Sapp said. “Do we need to be more transparent with that data on a more frequent basis? Those are all questions that we want to work through.”

Sapp said Thursday that the city recognizes the fact that it doesn’t have context for those numbers, and understands the need for urgency.

“We know people want faster answers and we know that people say ‘we’ve been waiting too long already for answers,'” Sapp said. “We recognize a lot of that but we want to make sure we take this in a prescribed nature where we get this right and we’re trying to avoid any missteps. We do have urgency in our work.”

In the release from the city, Burton talked about a new signed consent form policy that he said could influence the numbers next year. The department recently implemented the policy that anyone who has been stopped by an officer can refuse a search of their car, as long as there’s no probable cause to do so.

“That signed consent form search happens after the stop has already started so I don’t know how that changes the stop numbers,” Treece said.

Wilson-Kleekamp said that the signed consent form is only part of a way to address racial disparity but traffic stops need to be addressed the same way.

“They need to really define for what reason we’re going to stop people,” she said.

She said the city and Police Department needs to own the data it’s releasing.

“They don’t need to collect more data,” she said. “They need to be smart about when they collect their data and how they analyze it and understand what it means.”

Sapp said they have been looking at how to analyze the data. He said they’ve been using examples from other police departments in the country in order to find out how they’re addressing their own racial disparities, and the city has found that there’s often no real answer.

“They have put years of work into their research and they have found sometimes that even with the data they start collecting and the data they analyze, it still comes out to where they don’t know the exact reason that the disparity exists,” he said. “You can read in some of these reports the frustration.”

Treece said he’s proud of the officers in the Police Department and believes they do their job “honorably” but the leadership they follow needs to start with top police administration.

“I think that the council has done the right thing by setting the expectations higher that we want to see meaningful progress and meaningful change with those numbers,” he said.

Race Matters, Friends continues to call for Burton to step down.

“We need a chief that cares about data, that cares about community oriented policing,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “If we did have community oriented policing, we wouldn’t have these extended conversations about their data which has a disparity in every category.”

A report that details data and other notes the city and Police Department have collected over the past year to address racial and social equity in the city will be coming out of the city manager’s office within the next couple of months.

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