Missouri appears to be working hard to maintain its NAACP designation as a state perhaps best avoided. The state attorney general’s office this month released its assessment of 2018 traffic stops by local police, and the results are dismal: Black drivers are on average 91 percent more likely than white motorists to be pulled over.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt made no attempt to sugarcoat the statistics, which local law enforcement agencies are required to report. The racial breakdown of drivers involved in traffic stops helps authorities keep tabs on police jurisdictions where bias might play a role in law enforcement decisions.
An elevated number of traffic stops doesn’t always signify racial bias. For example, cities with overwhelmingly dominant black populations in theory should have a number of traffic stops skewed toward blacks. The same should hold true of white drivers in heavily white-dominated cities.
But that’s not how the numbers worked out. Particularly in the St. Louis area, blacks are being stopped far out of proportion to their representation in the population. In St. Louis city, blacks were subjected to traffic stops at a rate six times higher than their representation in the population and were 16.5 times more likely to be stopped than whites. That’s bad news for a city already immersed in controversy over reports of overt racism within police ranks.
In Bellefontaine Neighbors, blacks were stopped nearly 8.6 times more than their numbers are represented in the population. Whites were stopped less than one-tenth of their ratio in the population.
Statewide, there were a total of 1.54 million traffic stops, with most — 1.18 million or 76.5% — involving white drivers. The statewide driving population is 82.8% white. Blacks represent only 10.9% of the driving population but represented 19.2% of traffic stops.
Roughly 6.6% of cars and/or drivers were searched. Blacks and Hispanics statewide were subjected to far higher rates of search. Interestingly, however, blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to have possessed illegal items than whites, the report says.
Although the details in Schmitt’s report were exhaustive, there is still room for improvement. Including the time of day when a stop was made, for example, has helped other states identify specific police departments suspected of persistent racial harassment. That’s based on statistics indicating that traffic stops involving blacks are demonstrably higher during daylight hours, when officers can see the race of the driver, versus nighttime when lighting makes racial distinctions more difficult to detect.
The NAACP issued a travel advisory on Missouri in 2017, citing in part the high disparity in traffic stops between blacks and white. Since then, the disparities have worsened. If Gov. Mike Parson truly cares about the state’s reputation and its ability to attract new business, he should make reversing these numbers a top priority.