Kevin Merritt

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recently released the 2018 Annual Report on vehicle stops, and once again people are outraged by the raw data. Currently, Missouri uses Census data as the benchmark for determining what the raw data means. Census benchmarking is inexpensive and uncomplicated. However, experts agree Census estimates are inappropriate and do not serve as an effective data analysis benchmark or baseline.

It is not difficult to measure whether there is disparity between racial/ethnic groups in terms of stops made by police; Census benchmarking does that well. The difficulty comes in identifying the causes for disparity. Race alone is not dispositive of why the stop was made; neither is a disparity index.

Over the past several years, representatives of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association and other law enforcement organizations have met with and discussed Missouri's Vehicle Stops data collection and the ineffectiveness of Census benchmarking with a number of legislators and civil rights groups. We have testified in a number of public hearings as well. Most recently in April, representatives of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association and other law enforcement professionals from across the state met with the AG's staff to discuss ways to improve the vehicle stop reporting system.

Our continual message during meetings and hearings is that law enforcement has no tolerance for racial bias in policing and in general is not opposed to data collection. In fact, during the recent meeting with the AG's staff, law enforcement officials suggested and worked toward the collection of additional data relating to whether the officer knew the race of the driver at the time the violation was observed and/or prior to his or her decision to make the stop.

While legislators and special interest groups push only for collecting additional data and restrictions on officers, our plea to them is not to stop collecting data, but rather to work toward solutions for the analysis of data based on valid benchmarks. Therein lies the problem; those who espouse disparity as proof positive of racial bias refuse to engage in those conversations.

There is much more to this issue than raw data of stops. Those who support our law enforcement officers should not blindly conclude bias exists without being part of the solution.

Kevin Merritt is executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association.

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