Love The Missouri Vehicle Stops Report

For more than 20 years, the Missouri Vehicle Stops Report (VSR) has documented that Black drivers are disproportionately affected by officer actions during traffic stops, but disproportions do not prove discrimination, even when Black drivers are stopped at a rate per estimated driver 1.68 times the rate for White drivers.

Discrimination must be identified by looking at the facts officers knew when they acted. Were the facts enough to justify their actions--were the facts reasonable under the Fourth amendment? "Reasonable" is defined by judges as "specific and articulable." A specific person, not a racial stereotype. Not vague intuition.

And were the facts applied equally to all protected groups as required by the Fourteenth Amendment? Were some drivers stopped for violations that are usually ignored? Or were some drivers let off for violations which usually trigger a stop?

The disproportions in the VSR do provide the essential step of flagging possible discrimination. Careful analysis of the data allows us to see the situations in which officers might be treating individuals differently because of protected group--and to see improvements when they occur.

For instance, Black drivers were disproportionately affected by Drug-Dog Alert Searches until the Rodriguez decision required officers to cite "independently supported reasonable suspicion" before summoning a drug dog. The VSR data documented the disproportions and then documented that the disproportions disappeared when officers were held accountable for acting on credible facts. 

A similar decline occurred with disproportions in Consent Searches. When consent search disproportions were finally publicized, so that officers could see their actions can have an unfair impact of Black drivers, the disproportions began to decline. Since 2020 White drivers have had slightly higher rates per stop for consent searches than Black drivers.

Investigative stops have been suggested as an explanation for Black stop disproportions since the first year of the VSR, but good data didn't begin to be available until checkoffs for types of investigative stops were added in 2020. Black drivers are disproportionately stopped for investigative reasons, but so far officers have not been checking off enough of them to account for the Black stop disproportion.

As dependable information from a new checkoff for driver residency has become available, it's become possible to see that large numbers of stops of Black drivers--and large disproportions--occur when they are outside of their home jurisdictions. The statewide stop disproportion for Black drivers in their own jurisdictions is low enough to suggest that officers can treat groups fairly; Black drivers in home jurisdictions were stopped at a rate per estimated driver 1.19 times the rate for White drivers, compared to the disproportion for all drivers of 1.68 and the disproportion for non-resident drivers of 2.24.

Sometimes, resident Black drivers have high stop disproportions even though the rate of the stops per driver is low compared to other jurisdictions. The disproportion is high because officers are seldom stopping White drivers, not because they are making excessive stops of Black drivers. I take this to be evidence of White Privilege; Whites can be trusted to control their actions but Blacks must be kept under strict enforcement.

The same pattern emerges in other high-discretion situations. Some agencies have high Consent Search disproportions even though their rate of Black consent searches is below the state average; officers almost never suspect White drivers enough to want to conduct a search when they have no probable cause.

If Black drivers weren't stopped to disproportionately when out of their home jurisdictions, public concern would be greatly reduced. Socioeconomic factors might be documented as the cause of the disproportion, for instance. But why are non-resident Blacks so vulnerable to stops? Do they drive differently when away from home? Are they more likely to be spotted by officers? Are officers acting on observed violations that justify the stops? Are the same standards for violations applied to all drivers? Are specific jurisdictions responsible for the disproportions? Can these jurisdictions document that the stops are made for convincing reasons that are clearly independent of race?

The checkoff for residency also makes possible for the first time reliable rates and disproportions for residents because their population is easier to estimate accurately. Looking just at stop rates per estimated driver, considerable variation occurs across the state. Some jurisdictions, from the evidence, consider high stop rates essential for public safety; other jurisdictions find lower rates are effective. 

Within these variations, some jurisdictions have relatively low stop rates for Black drivers but still have high disproportions against them. The only way this can happen is for the stop rate for White drivers to be exceptionally low, compared to other agencies. Black drivers can be stopped at "normal" rates, suggesting they are not being targeted, but similar violations of White drivers might be ignored. Unless an agency can document that the same evidentiary standards are applied to everyone, it has a civic responsibility to eliminate the discriminatory actions. 

The VSR data is finally flagging situations that can be examined and addressed with improved law enforcement policies. Are large numbers of stops of non-resident Black drivers addressing a real public safety issue? Can the issue be addressed without stopping average people who are just on their way to work, shopping and recreation? What can be done to help officers overcome the temptation to favor White drivers? 

For more information and discussion see the page on the statewide 2022 VSR and the page on Columbia's internal data.

Don Love
Updated July 7, 2023