COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
The Columbia Police Department has been working to review disparities in traffic stops among certain groups of the community.
Traffic stop data from Attorney General Eric Schmitt from 2019 showed black drivers were pulled over by Columbia police more than four and half times people who are white.
Disparity indexes dating back to 2000 show black drivers have been stopped at a rate higher than what is expected based on their portion of the driving-age population.
Columbia Police Geoff Jones said he does not know why police have been more likely to stop black residents than white residents at such disproportionate rates for so many years, over multiple leaderships, different population sizes and more.
"The answer is we don't know and that is why we need to do the research, that's why we need to look at the variables so that we can have answers to those questions that we've just kind of kicked down the road and dismissed as something that we don't know or we can't figure out," he said. "This is a true effort to get to the root of that and we'll just have to see where it takes us."
The Columbia Police Department began limiting traffic stops to primarily hazardous moving violations, or violations that cause risk to people, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was to limit contact between officers and citizens. The department expanded that change through the end of 2020.
Jones previously said the change would give the department time to investigate how pretext or investigative stops impact disparities.
The department is still primarily limiting stops to hazardous moving violations and intel-based stops.
The department reached out to the University of Missouri to help with the research.
Several researchers from the University of Missouri presented preliminary findings of their study at Tuesday night's meeting with the Columbia Police Chief's Vehicle Stop Committee.
Eileen Avery, director of the University of Missouri Research Data Center, and Mark Benton from the Truman School of Public Affairs presented to the committee.
Avery said the preliminary data shows there are two beats that police officers drive that have higher disparities than other areas of Columbia. Beat 70, or east campus, and 70D which is downtown. She said that research looked at the average from 2017 to 2019 for stops in those areas.
"The disparity index in 70, east campus, is actually 8.9 which is quite high, and then 70D was 5.2," she said.
A disparity level of one means officers are stopping a group of residents at a rate equal to the percent of the population that person's race group makes up.
Avery said the beat with the lowest disparity has a disparity of 1.6
Jones said he was surprised to learn east campus and downtown had such a high disparity index. He said he does not know why those two areas of town have such high disparities but he is hopeful the study can provide some more insight.
The researchers also found there are disparities among searches for alcohol and drug odors with black drivers more likely to be searched.
There are also disparities among arrests following traffic stops. Around one in four black people are arrested following a stop versus one in seven white people.
The team is currently looking at disparities and stops among the population as a whole, but Avery said in the future it will be important to look at disparities across age groups and gender groups. She noted CPD also seems to stop a number of young black males that is higher than the amount of the population they make up.
"The number for young black men 18 to 25 in terms of percent of stops and percent in the population, and this was for Columbia as a whole, was quite extreme. Quite extreme," Avery said.
The research is not able to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted stops as the number of stops has lowered because the data is not available yet. Avery did say the pandemic has slowed down the effort to look at disparities.
As the team works to complete the study, they will make recommendations for how the Columbia Police Department can increase equity. They will also search for patterns that may help the department predict disparity.
Jones said the department will look at different ways to address what the researchers present once their work is finalized.
"Hopefully we can find things that I can address through training, through policy changes, maybe even through our hiring practices," he said.
Jones also said the decision to limit stops has given the department a chance to wait on recommendations and to set benchmarks in data while still protecting officers and citizens. He said police will have to resume regulating some things like equipment violations eventually.
He said he believes the change could actually drive the disparity up, but data will show.
He said in the interim while the study is being completed, the department is working to police more fairly by limiting stops to primarily intelligence stops and improving bias training.
"As one of our training officers puts it we're fishing with a spear instead of a net. We're trying to focus on the people who are doing harm in the community instead of stopping everything and seeing what we can find," Jones said.
He said even though this may increase the disparity, at the end of the day, it is not his job to manage a number but rather have unbiased policing.
"I am not here to manage a disparity number, so if I'm stopping the people who are committing crimes and doing dangerous things, then we're stopping the right people, but I can't manage a number," he said. "I have to manage this by sound policy, sound training, and having police officers who are making decisions based on fair and impartial objective reasoning."