When Attorney General Eric Schmitt released the 2018 Vehicle Stops Report (VSR) on May 31, we learned some very disturbing news. The racial disparity between stops of drivers is at its highest level since publication began in 2000, with black drivers in Missouri 91 percent more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement than white drivers.
I can imagine that at a breakfast table somewhere in the state, a well-meaning white newspaper reader shook their head upon seeing this statistic and mumbled to the family hunched over their cereal bowls, “That is just wrong. Black people need to organize, talk to the police, and do something about this!”
Theologian Carter Heyward, a European American, once spoke of how she had said to an African American colleague following a turbulent time on campus, “I am so tired of talking about racism.” Her co-worker’s reply was, “That is blatant white privilege. Not only do you not have to experience racism, you don’t even have to bear the discomfort of talking about it.”
Regardless of our race or ethnicity, we all have a role to play in dismantling racial oppression. That’s why Empower Missouri, a diverse organization, staffed the effort to assemble community leaders at two press conferences about the Vehicle Stops Report, sent out a statewide press release, and is working to provide a data visualization resource on our website, which will be available in coming weeks.
Law enforcement sources annually complain that the Vehicles Stops Report data is meaningless because 1) they cannot see the race of the driver before they pull over the vehicle; and 2) many People of Color they pull over are not area residents, but are rather just passing through, which increases the chances that a Person of Color will be stopped in their jurisdiction.
It’s important to note that not all data in the report reflects judgements that officers make while clueless as to the race of the driver. Empower Missouri looks especially at three categories of actions in the report data:
- Who is asked for a consent search?
- Who is asked for a drug/odor search, sometimes utilizing a specially trained dog?
- Who is charged with resisting arrest?
Each of these actions takes place far enough into a vehicle stop that the officer has made an assumption about the race of the driver. While some municipalities do not show racial disparities on these three items, many do. Don Love of Columbia, an expert on the VSR data, shared a list of 24 Missouri departments where black drivers were at least twice more likely to be asked for a consent search than white drivers. In Clayton, which had the highest disproportion rate, black drivers were 6.17 times more likely to be asked than their white neighbors.
This year, Attorney General Eric Schmitt published data as to whether drivers were area residents or passing through. While many who were pulled over were away from home, overwhelmingly persons stopped were area residents in the data most departments reported, and racial disproportions were still revealed, looking only at what residents experienced.
Empower Missouri’s mission is to advocate for the well-being of all Missourians (including black drivers) through civic leadership, education, and research. Our Central Missouri-Lincoln advocates are already taking leadership roles in dialogue with Jefferson City Police Department administrators about why the Jefferson City numbers show racial disparities. We applaud this diverse group of local citizens for putting their values into action; that’s empowered leadership! We hope other communities will do likewise.
Jeanette Mott Oxford