Despite State Law, Police in Missouri Still Struggle With Bias In Policing

Despite State Law, Police Departments In Missouri Still Struggle With Bias In Policing

By Rachel Lippmann • Dec 2, 2014 (Excerpt)

Since 2000, police departments in the state of Missouri have been required by law to report information about their traffic stops – including the race of the person pulled over.

Every year, the data have shown that minorities are disproportionately stopped and searched compared to the size of the minority population. Those disparities exist in spite of the state requiring police departments to come up with policies that combat the use of race in traffic stops.

So why is it so hard to get rid of bias in policing?

Rich Anderson had a feeling he was being targeted the day a Missouri State Highway Patrol officer pulled him over to give him a warning about his license plate being obscured.

“If you’re on a highway, there’s a lot of speeding, there’s a lot of improper lane changes and things like that,” he said. “He was a couple of lanes over, and he immediately got behind me, and he was focused in on my license plate.”

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. Anderson, a retired engineer, has never broken the law aside from a few speeding tickets. He teaches at a local college and trains middle and long-distance runners in his spare time. But officers only see that he’s a black man when they pull him over, he says.

Combating The Bias

Officers don’t explicitly use race as the factor when they stop individuals, Waheed said. They may not even be aware that it’s in the back of their minds.

“But if you see several black youth with pants sagging down, congregating at a bus stop, they’ll probably stop,” Waheed said. “Conversely, if you see a group of white kids with sagging pants standing at a bus stop, will the police stop?”

When anyone, including the police, has time to stop and think, they generally recognize the assumptions they are making, Waheed said. But so much of police work happens in a split second. So officers have to learn to recognize those assumptions from the beginning of their career. And the importance of learning about those assumptions has to be emphasized by their commanders.

“Based on the amount of attention you give to a topic, you’re telling people what’s important and what’s not,” Waheed said.

In Missouri, the topic doesn’t get much attention.

Most police officers in the St. Louis area must undergo 600 hours of training to join a department. But cadets don’t spend enough of those hours learning how to interact with the communities they will serve, said former Hazelwood police chief Carl Wolf.

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