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Springfield News-Leader: Missouri Senate bill would increase scrutiny on police bias

Senate Bill 287, filed by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, would replace the existing data-gathering procedure the Missouri Attorney General’s office uses to measure racial disparities in traffic stops. In its place would be an enhanced system meant to combat explicit, implicit and institutional prejudices.

Among those supporting the bill Monday was Sgt. Heather Taylor, a police officer in St. Louis and president of the Ethical Society of Police, which represents black police officers in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

“Most of our officers police fairly,” Taylor told the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “But when we have a problem with biases, it’s huge. It brings embarrassment. You lose revenue.”

Taylor, a black woman, told the committee that she had personally experienced what it’s like to be stopped and questioned by police for fitting a certain description.

The bill “holds officers accountable, those few that are destroying law enforcement and embarrassing us across the country,” she said. “Missouri has the chance to set the standard and take the lead, especially post-Ferguson.”

There was no vocal opposition to the bill Monday. Other supporters included representatives of Empower Missouri, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri Baptist Convention. Nasheed, the sponsor, was not able to attend for personal reasons, so the bill was presented on her behalf by Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.

Nasheed’s legislation builds on existing analysis of how frequently drivers of different races and ethnic groups are stopped, arrested and searched for contraband. It would require cops to detail whether a drug dog was summoned, whether a mental health professional was consulted at the scene and whether a stopped individual was handcuffed while being arrested. In addition to race, the bill would require police to study whether real or perceived religious beliefs, gender, English proficiency, disability or country of origin are connected to biased treatment.

The hearing comes as Missouri is still dealing with the fallout from protests in Ferguson in August 2014 that highlighted the distrust of police among some members of racial minority groups. In Missouri, black drivers are more likely than whites to be stopped, searched and arrested — yet less likely to possess contraband, according to data from the attorney general’s office.

The disparity is pronounced in Springfield and Greene County, where blacks were stopped while driving 166 percent and 95 percent more often than expected in 2015. Springfield’s disparity was at its widest on record that year, as black drivers were about 2.74 times more likely than whites to be stopped behind the wheel.

Spokespeople for the Springfield Police Department and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately provide traffic stop data from 2016 when asked by the News-Leader on Monday.

Currently, law enforcement officers stopping a car must record the driver’s age, gender and race as well as the reason for and outcome of the stop. State law on the books since 2000 requires Missouri law enforcement agencies to submit traffic stop data to the attorney general by March 1; The state’s top law enforcement official uses that data to create the annual report.

Nasheed’s bill would require local law enforcement agencies to publish data on their own websites every month and publish their own report to go along with the attorney general’s study, which would “identify as clearly as possible situations in which racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by law enforcement activity so that further analysis may be conducted to determine whether explicit, implicit and systemic bias may be contributing factors.”

The bill also instructs law enforcement agencies to assume that implicit bias is a factor in disproportionate traffic stop data “if explicit bias cannot be determined to be involved” and says that “peace officers who persistently engage in biased policing shall be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.”

Police and sheriff’s departments that fail to comply for three consecutive years would be required to give up 15 percent of the general operating revenue received from fines, forfeited bonds and court costs for traffic violations. After six years, the attorney general’s office could increase that penalty to 25 percent and after seven years, Attorney General Josh Hawley or a successor would be able to sue a law enforcement agency for systemic bias.

Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, is the committee’s chair and spoke favorably of the testimony after the hearing.

“Anything we can do to enhance the trust between law enforcement and the public (is beneficial),” he said.