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St. Louis police use force against Black residents far more often than whites, study finds

St. Louis police use force against Black residents far more often than whites, study finds

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ST. LOUIS — St. Louis police used force against Black people more than three times as often as on white people, and in 9 out of 10 times when police pulled a gun, it was at a Black civilian, a study released Thursday found.

The Center for Policing Equity examined police report data from 2012 to 2019 and found the overall rate of use of force by sworn officers had dropped by 18%. Still, police used force against Black people more than four times as often as they did against whites based on population and more than three times as often when controlling for other demographic factors and neighborhood crime rates, the report said.

“What we typically hear from police officers is that use of force happens predominantly in areas with high crime,” said Hans Menos, vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the center. “So we try to control using neighborhood-level demographics, and even after controlling for that, the number (of Black people who have force used against them) is still higher.”

The seven years studied were particularly fraught for U.S. police departments. In 2014, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, setting off unrest across the country and amplifying the criticisms of police, their use of force and the racial disparities being discovered. Police departments, including here, were forced to reexamine policing methods and adopt strategies to reduce bias in their work.

Mayor Tishaura O. Jones called Thursday’s report part of an important conversation here and vowed to “learn from the past.”

“We’ve known for years about how racial disparities in policing affect the St. Louis region; this work with CPE helps quantify them,” she said in a statement sent to the Post-Dispatch. “Our administration is focused on getting the right professional connected to the right emergency call, which will help us decrease the use of force overall, eliminate disparities, and help our police officers focus on their main job — solving violent crime. Eliminating racial disparities in policing is key to making St. Louis safer for all of its residents.”

Outgoing police Chief John Hayden called the report “very much appreciated” in a statement, saying it “will continue to be utilized to ensure the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is progressing in a direction of increased accountability, transparency, and community involvement.”

“It is understandable that this kind of research can bring about scrutiny and question policing practices. However, we embrace the challenge to do better and consider all suggestions from professionals, community stakeholders, and citizens,” he said.

The Center for Policing Equity, a Connecticut-based nonprofit research group, says its goal is to make communities safer by fighting bias. It was co-founded by Tracie Keesee, a former captain at the Denver Police Department and deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion at the New York Police Department, and Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University.

The center reviewed the St. Louis County Police Department earlier this year.

The report released Thursday details widespread racial disparities in city policing. Researchers included several kinds of force in the study, from drawing guns to using pepper spray to punching, kicking or restraining someone.

Black people made up 48% of the city’s population over the study period, white 43%. But Blacks were the subject of use of force in 92% of the instances in which a gun was displayed, pointed or fired, and 89% of the times a Taser was pulled, the report says.

Other findings include:

• Black people were more often pulled over in their vehicles and were slightly more likely to be arrested or cited after being stopped.

• They tended to be pulled over more often for license violations; white people were pulled over more often for moving violations.

• Black residents were stopped on foot by police more than twice as often in total. But the rates depended on location: In areas with an average amount of crime and poverty, Black and white people were stopped on foot at about the same rate. The racial disparity grew in wealthier areas.

• Pedestrian stops by police decreased 82% between 2012 and 2019, while vehicle stops increased 12% from 2016 to 2019.

The police department did note that it had changed several use of force policies within the past several years, including requiring use of de-escalation techniques in certain situations, explicitly banning the use of chokeholds, requiring a report be filed every time a weapon is drawn on a civilian and banning no-knock warrants in drug cases. Officers are required to step in if they see another police officer using excessive force.

The Center for Policing Equity intends to take a deeper dive into the data and talk with residents about their experiences with police, Menos said, which could take more than a year. The center is hosting a virtual town hall with the mayor, the Violence Prevention Commission and the St. Louis Department of Public Safety on Sept. 23.

“The first step in making public safety equitable is identifying existing racial disparities in policing,” Keesee said in a statement. “The results of these analyses find reason for optimism, along with critical areas to improve to advance our joint goal of equitable policing.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The location for the Center for Policing Equity has been corrected.

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