COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
The Columbia Police Department began limiting its traffic stops to primarily hazardous moving violations when the COVID-19 pandemic began in order to limit contact between officers and citizens. Now, the department has expanded those guidelines through the end of the year.
Hazardous moving violations are traffic violations that cause risk to people.
"Things like lane violations, speeding, stop sign violations, red light violations. Those types of things," said Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones.
Jones said he decided to make the extension for several reasons. The department is still working to keep officers and citizens safe as the number of COVID-19 cases increases in the county. It is also looking at traffic stop disparity data.
According to new traffic stop data from Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the racial disparity of black drivers being pulled over by Columbia police is the highest it has been since 2000.
The data shows the Columbia Police Department is more than four and a half times more likely to pull over people who are black than people who are white.
Mary Ratliff with the Columbia chapter of the NAACP said she believes one reason there are disparities is socio-economic status.
"African American folks tend to have older cars that don't have all of maybe the safety things on them up to par as they should be and that sort of thing," she said.
She said police need to look for ways to enforce the law that will not punish people of lower economic status. She said the stops can also lead to more problems for people down the road, as they may not be able to get off of work for court dates, money for fees, among other things.
"I think that they do need to explore some different ways to be able to do good community policing to keep us safe and also not to be so punitive to low income and people of low means," she said.
"There is a disparity, and the traffic stop committee that has been evaluating that information has not been able to meet for the last three months and it's not moving as quickly as I would like," Jones said. "I have tried to wait for recommendations from that committee before making any major changes but I feel like that can't wait."
Jones said this time during the extension will give the department time to evaluate investigative or pretext stops and how they impact disparity.
Jones said he suspects investigative stops impact disparity numbers. Examples of investigative stops would be when an officer sees a vehicle that matches the description of a shooting, or when they see someone leaving the house that is known to be a place where drugs are sold. The officer may make a stop for something like an equipment violation to see if that person has drugs.
Officers have to have reasonable suspicion to stop someone for an investigative stop if there is no traffic violation.
Ratliff said investigative and pretext stops can give police legal reason to stop someone while racial profiling. She also said some traffic stops can quickly turn into something else.
"That has to stop, that stopping people for all of those little anything and everything. Taillight out and all of these kind of things that escalate into something else," Ratliff said.
"I think there are things that need to be done with that information to see what is relevant to policing and what's relevant to other broader community national issues that can be addressed," Jones said.
Jones said he will reach out to the University of Missouri this week to ask for help in researching the impact on traffic stop disparities.
"We're going to look at data that is complied over this period and we have to look and see if this change has increased criminal behavior, or if it has decreased criminal behavior or if there's no change," Jones said.
"It's not as much about the number in the disparity for me as it is knowing that we're policing fairly," Jones said.
Ward 4 City Councilman Ian Thomas sent a statement to ABC 17 News voicing support for the changes.
"I'm pleased to hear about Chief Jones' order to prohibit investigative stops when there's no hazardous driving violation and no articulable intelligence of a public safety threat. It's my understanding that these traffic stops drive up racial disparities and community distrust of the police, while rarely helping with ongoing investigations," Thomas said.
Ward 2 Council Member Mike Trapp also sent a statement in favor of the extension.
"I am very pleased in the change in strategy in how we are deploying our limited police resources. The racial disparity data in traffic stops as well as other policing activities demands a strong and immediate response. This directive will have an impact on the safety of our streets by focusing on hazardous moving violations. I also hope to see it address a long-standing and growing problem with racial disparities in traffic stops," Trapp said.