When it comes to racial profiling in Missouri, every year is like a replay of Groundhog Day.
The state attorney general releases the annual vehicle stops report in June.
The report finds that blacks are pulled over at significantly higher rates than whites.
This year, for instance, the report released by Attorney General Eric Schmitt found that blacks in Missouri are 91% more likely to be pulled over than whites.
People of color also are searched for contraband at significantly higher numbers than whites, even though police find such contraband at similar or lower levels for individual minority groups.
Police chiefs, particularly in cities with high racial profiling numbers, rail at the report, saying more information is needed.
It was like this before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014 brought national attention to the annual racial profiling numbers in Missouri, and it is thus five years later.
But, now, some of those police chiefs asking for more information have a problem.
Phillip Weeks, an activist in St. Louis, sued several cities and St. Louis County last week because they won’t share with him the information he is seeking to add clarity to the annual racial profiling numbers. With the help of the nonprofit Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Weeks sued the city of St. Louis because it refused to provide the underlying database that has officer-by-officer data. This would allow researchers to determine if any particular officer was skewing the numbers, or if there was anything else unusual about the individual officer reports that might raise suspicion.
Weeks also sued St. Louis County and the cities of University City and Webster Groves. In that lawsuit he is represented by attorney Laurence Mass. In both suits, Weeks also sued the Regional Justice Information Services Commission, or REJIS, which maintains the information in an electronic database.
The various entities either said they didn’t have access to the information in an electronic format or refused to provide the individual department serial number that is used to track individual officers’ vehicle stops. The DSN number is protected from release by the Sunshine Law because it’s a personnel record, some of the various entities argued.
That’s the same answer I got from St. Louis County three years ago.
At the time, former county police Sgt. Dan O’Neil was engaged in a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the county police department. O’Neil was the officer who alerted former police Chief Tim Fitch to an alleged scheme in the South County precinct where certain officers, under the direction of Lt. Patrick “Rick” Hayes, were targeting black drivers. Hayes was fired by Fitch, and later reinstated to a lower position by the police commission. Earlier this year, O’Neil settled his lawsuit with the county for $750,000.
In 2016, I asked for the vehicle stops of one particular South County officer, and his daily activity logs, to be able to compare the information. The county denied my request.
Weeks did better than me. He actually obtained DSN numbers from the county, though the county later wrote him back and said it was a mistake. The city told Weeks that DSN numbers were “closed personnel records,” according to his lawsuit.
All of this serves to make it more difficult to get to the bottom of racial profiling numbers that police chiefs complain every year are meaningless without more context.
“We know there are racial disparities in traffic stops and searches of black motorists by SLMPD. Gaining a better understanding of the department’s practice and pattern of stops and searches is necessary if we want changes to occur. Unfortunately, it appears that the City, the SLMPD and other agencies across the state are trying to cover up these policing practices by hiding records that should be made public by state law,” Weeks said in a news release. “If there wasn’t something to hide, why would they go through all the trouble to hide it?”
Adds one of Weeks’ attorneys, Amy Breihan of the MacArthur Justice Center:
“SLMPD’s refusal to turn the data over is just an evasion tactic to sidestep public accountability.”
The whole point of the vehicle stops report when it began 18 years ago was to bring public accountability to the issue of racial profiling in Missouri.
Nearly two decades later, Weeks’ lawsuit offers a path toward that end goal.
“There is no way to tell from the Attorney General’s reports (or agency reports published by the Attorney General) whether any individual officers have a pattern and practice of racial profiling,” Weeks’ lawsuit argues. “Yet such information is critically important to the public, who have a very real and serious interest in ensuring that officers of the law are engaging ethically and legally, and not targeting members of minority groups for traffic stops.”