Missouri's racial disparities in traffic stops mirror national trends

Jun 6, 2013

The Missouri attorney general's annual report on racial profiling shows little progress, despite efforts in Columbia to increase dialogue on the issue.
The Missouri attorney general's annual report on racial profiling shows little progress, despite efforts in Columbia to increase dialogue on the issue.

A new report showing that African-American drivers are more likely to be stopped by police in Missouri is consistent with finding across the United States, according to a researcher that worked on the state report released by Attorney General Chris Koster.  The report measures the racial disparity index,  a system to measure and compare the frequency that drivers of various ethnicities are stopped and the racial proportion of the population.

Over the years, the study consistently shows that African-American drivers are stopped more than other racial groups. University of South Carolina criminology professor Jeffrey Rojek has worked on the project for more than a decade. He says the finding is not unique to Missouri, but nationwide.

Don Love is the Missouri Association for Social Welfare’s Human Rights Task Force Co-Chair. He says he is not surprised by the findings. Love says Columbia has shown a racial disparity index higher than the state level over the past years. He also said, though, that the trend has recently decreased slightly as Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton has been addressing the issue and working on improvements.

“I see strong sign for Columbia progressing,” Love said. “On the other hand, it’s slow, and it is hard to put a finger on exactly what the problems are and why it is so difficult to move more quickly with it.”

Love said Columbia’s early history of slavery and segregation are legacies that make the culture so strong in the direction of inequality, that he believes it’s difficult for anyone to totally escape racial bias. But he also recognized the community’s effort on racial profiling.

Missouri has a racial profiling law on the books since 2000. The law says officers can’t pull someone over just based on race. However, Love said that the legal definition of racial profiling in the law is narrow and needs to be rewritten. 

“An officer could always say, ‘No, I don’t do any racial profiling’, and according to the definition there that would be correct,” Love said. “But Attorney General Koster in his report used the definition of racial profiling that is much more general, and amounts to saying, ‘Is there any bias towards the public based on race?’”