An annual report from the Missouri Attorney General tracks traffic stops data from each law enforcement agency in the state, and proposed changes could increase the accuracy of a formula that area law enforcement officials said doesn’t accurately portray the situation for a given community or county.
Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that he will implement a change to the Vehicle Stops Report, which compares totals of people representing ethnic groups like Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American who are involved in a traffic stop. The annual report began in 2000, and Hawley announced that subsequent data will include whether or not a person is from the jurisdiction in which he/she was stopped. That’s important, local law enforcement officials said, because the current method often doesn’t reflect the actual population law enforcement officials encounter each day.
Hannibal Police Chief Lyndell Davis said changes to the current formula could improve the accuracy of the data, because he said the in-city total for African-American residents — just under 6.5 percent, compared to just under 11 percent statewide — only includes people residing within the city limits. But the figures for each ethnic group don’t include transient populations, such as people come to Hannibal temporarily to break the law by selling drugs or committing other crimes in town. For example, if a person comes down from Chicago or another city to engage in criminal activity, the statistics can climb artificially as Hannibal police officers perform their daily enforcement duties, he said.
“We chase behavior or criminal activity,” Davis said. “Race isn’t a component until we later on have to identify somebody.”
Because Hannibal is a community with a majority of Caucasian residents — about 90 percent, compared to the state average of about 83 percent — members of other ethnic groups represent statistically much smaller portions of Hannibal’s population. Because of that, if one or two members of an ethic community are committing crimes, it can quickly skew the results, Davis said. He said the report often focuses on African-American drivers, because the statistics for members of other races in Hannibal are very small numerically.
“We would welcome any reasonable modifications that more accurately reflect the type of population that we’re actually encountering, and not what is just native to Hannibal,” Davis said.
Palmyra Police Chief Eddie Bogue echoed Davis’ hope that changes to the reporting would make the data more accurate.
Davis said the statistics don’t clearly reflect the reality that eight or nine out of every ten vehicle stops in Hannibal involves a Caucasian driver.
“When I explain it to people like that, they say, ‘Oh, well that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to target any certain race,’” he said.
In Palmyra, Bogue reported similar issues with the current reporting formula. The town has a higher population density of Caucasians than Hannibal, at about 95 percent. African-Americans represent about three percent of the in-town population, notably smaller than the state percentage. He said that out of 1,689 traffic stops, 1,467 drivers were Caucasian, 145 were African-American, 38 were Hispanic, 31 were Asian and eight were classified as “other” ethnicity.
Bogue noted that year-to-year data stayed relatively constant, and Palmyra police officers make between 1,400 and 1,700 traffic stops each year, with about 60 percent of those stops on the highway — where many of the motorists are passing through town. Davis said Highway 61 and Highway 36 bring visitors into Hannibal who are law-abiding, along with people who plan to commit crimes in Hannibal. Bogue stressed that all the members of his department enforce the law fairly with each encounter.
“I’ve never done it myself, and I’ve never seen anyone I’ve worked with profile for any race,” he said.
Palmyra police officers have in-vehicle and body cameras, which provide high-quality video and often audio of a traffic stop or other scenario. Davis said Hannibal officers have had in-vehicle cameras for “well over a decade” and body cameras for officers since the spring of 2013 — years before departments were required to have the cameras after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Davis said recordings from the cameras can aid officials in dispelling a claim of racial profiling or determining if there is a problem. He reported that “99 percent of the time,” the video shows that a claim was false or exaggerated; if a problem occurred, the department would correct the situation with disciplinary actions like suspension or termination. He noted that the videos are scrutinized carefully within the department, as they make sure officers are following their training and handling each situation in a safe manner. He commended city officials for making the investment of about $6,000 per vehicle for technology that helps to determine exactly what happened during a traffic stop.
“A city of this size, making that commitment upon my request, shows that our intentions are to have a high-integrity department, and if we do falter, we should have video evidence to show if we did or did not,” Davis said. “And it’s good for the officers, because there are a lot of false claims made against law enforcement — not just here, but throughout the country, and video evidence is the often the only thing that saves officers in our experience far more than it ever hurts them.”
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