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Missouri police continue to disproportionately pull over Black motorists

(via Flickr/davidsonscott15)

For the 23rd consecutive year, data show Missouri police officers pulled over, ticketed and arrested Black motorists at higher rates than their share of the population.

A new report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office shows white motorists who were pulled over received a citation 40% of the time and arrested in 3.65% of cases. Black drivers received a citation after almost 58% of stops, with 5.26% arrested.

During 2022, police made more than 1.25 million traffic stops. More than three-quarters of the stops were of white motorists and roughly 17% were of Black, while the state’s population is more than 81% white and 11% Black.

Lee Slocum, a professor of criminology and criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, sat down with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jonathan Ahl to talk about the report.

Jonathan Ahl: What do you make of this trend that for the 23rd year in a row, Black motorists are disproportionately getting stopped in Missouri?

Lee Slocum: I think that's a difficult question to ask. But what I would want to know is why things haven't changed over time? And I don't think that we have a good answer to that. I think that we're starting to get the data that will help us understand what's going on there, but it certainly is a disturbing pattern.

Ahl: What don't we know that we need to know?

Slocum: I think one of the things we need to know is how these processes are operating in different agencies and in different places. In some places, the disproportionate stop may be due to how things are measured. Other places, it may be due to bias, and in other places, it may be due to things like differential enforcement patterns and policies and practices. So I think to understand what is going on and why we haven't solved this issue, I think it requires more data and digging into specific individual level data for each agency and understanding what is going on there.

Ahl: Are you saying the overall numbers don't tell us all that much, and it's really more what is Department A doing and what is Department B doing?

Slocum: It's not that the overall numbers don't tell us anything, but I think they make it hard to understand what the solution is, and that solution might look different in different agencies.

Ahl: Do you have any ideas of what you think needs to change?

Slocum: What I think needs to change is I think first of all, each agency needs to take a look at their own data, understand what is happening there. For example, do they see individual officers who are stopping black individuals at a higher rate than other officers? Or is this how they're deploying their officers? And then I think the next thing they need to consider is whether these practices are having the goal they want, which I assume is to keep communities safer, especially over the last 5 to 10 years.

Ahl: We've heard a growing cry that police are racist or at least have a large racist element within them. Doesn't data like this suggest that that may be the case?

Slocum: It certainly fits that pattern, yes. But I want to stop the narrative that things are not changing. Places like St. Louis County, St. Louis city, they are making changes to address a lot of these issues. So there are good things going on - things like jail reform, police reform, even some legislative reform is going on. So I think there are good things that are happening.

Ahl: Do we have any hope for substantial change?

Slocum: Yes, there is hope. There are people working on reform, there are people dedicated to reform. A lot of that is going on in the St. Louis region. There's been a level of distrust that has kind of built up over many years, and it's going to take a long time to change that. But there are specific policies and practices that are being implemented that can, can help to alleviate some of the issues in the region and at the state level.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. His duties also include covering central and southern Missouri for Harvest Public Media. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.