New Missouri legislation seeks more data on police bias, but numbers don’t fix problems

Since 2000, Missouri has required police agencies to submit annual reports that attempt to weigh racial bias in traffic stops.

Dutifully, news media report the compiled results every year. Routinely, it is found that black drivers are more likely to be pulled over, yet less likely to be found with contraband.

Dutifully holding firmly to what they believe, most people dismiss the data. A new year commences and new numbers roll in.

Tuesday, the first effort in 2016 to stop that merry-go-round will be made.

New legislation will seek to expand the reporting requirements to include pedestrian stops, call for far more analysis of the information and insist on better training to address bias in policing.

A draft of the Fair and Impartial Policing Act was made available Monday, but its final form will be unveiled Tuesday in St. Louis by sponsors Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat, and Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Republican, along with representatives of the ACLU and community supporters.

The bill recognizes what Missouri law has long ignored. How police stop and interact with people on the street — not just drivers they pull over —bears heavily on police/community relations.

The term “driving while black” should have always included “walking while black/or brown/or poor.” Recall that it was the frequency with which African-Americans were stopped and questioned by police in Ferguson that was at the heart of many complaints after the shooting of Michael Brown. Some people felt like they were constantly under surveillance, a suspicion borne out by a scathing U.S. Justice Department report that found systemic problems with the police department issuing citations to keep the city’s coffers filled.

Kansas City’s Police Department has long collected more data than what is required by law. That is the benefit of a larger staff, with more resources to devote to crime analysis and what to do with the information.

Because it is what happens after information is compiled that makes all of the difference. That is about a police department’s culture, its leadership; qualities that can be encouraged, but not necessarily legislated.

Police training experts continuously stress the lead-up, the initial moments before a police/civilian interaction turns dangerous. How the officer first approached, how he or she engaged, their tone, their stance, the reaction of the civilian, all of it matters. The legislation could allow for more understanding of these crucial elements.

But there are limits to data.

Imagine if every conversation you had during a workday had to be documented, categorized for who spoke, what was done and the outcome. The state’s police departments might feel that this new legislation holds that expectation. And police unions will likely take issue with how the draft language proposes to discipline and retrain officers found to have disparities.

But if more can be done to heighten understanding of both the limits of data and its usefulness, some good can be accomplished.

Far too many people hear of disparities and fail to recognize whether other factors have been adequately weighed, such as the use of outdated census data and the impact of poverty. If someone can’t afford to fix a taillight, can it lead to a higher chance of being pulled over?

And police can in effect prove their own bias. If an officer believes that a certain type of person is more likely to be a criminal, they might target that demographic, letting others escape detection and thus keep them from showing up in the data.

Everyone has bias, no matter their race or class background. It’s a human condition. What people in power do with it, how aware they are of its influence — that’s what matters. That speaks to training and consistent work by both police and the people they serve to increase mutual respect.

For some departments, that might take the heavier hand of state law to press the point. At the very least, discussion around this legislation is a starting point for 2016.