The Columbia Police Department, through its self-reporting of data on vehicle stops to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, found while the city’s disparity rate among Black and white drivers went down last year, Black drivers still were roughly three to 3 1/2 times as likely to get stopped by department officers.
Is this number accurate?
Race Matters, Friends Executive Director Chad McLaurin, based on his understanding of the data, says the disparity rate is actually higher.
“The numbers I came up with were 4.7 within the Black community,” he said.
McLaurin has access to the comprehensive stops data as a member of the police department’s Vehicle Stops Committee, where he also sits on the data subcommittee.
The department, in its agency comment to the attorney general’s office, noted the department’s data management software vendor “was not able to make the needed alterations to the collection form prior to Jan. 1.”
Therefore, the department did not have a complete picture of its 2020 data until April, when updates were completed.
“The department continues to work with its contracted vendor to support and improve its records management system,” said Toni Messina, communications and outreach supervisor for the police department. “The city’s information technology department is a valued internal partner in this effort.
“At this time there are no plans to contract with a different software provider.”
The statewide and agency-specific Vehicle Stops Report was released June 1.
Some data collected last year, because of changes to questions for the report, will not reveal trends until the 2021 report next year.
When stop rates are compared for white and Black drivers in Columbia, McLaurin was seeing the roughly four to 4 1/2 times rate based on his assessment of department data.
More: Columbia police chief: Work continues to address bias in policing after vehicle stops report
“That is two to 2 1/2 times more than the state average is for those same demographics,” he said.
The state’s disparity rate for all stops for Black drivers was 1.62.
When calculating the disparity rate, departments compare the proportion of stops to the proportion of the population. Any deviation higher than one indicates a racial group has a higher rate of stops.
“I would say Columbia still has a massive problem,” McLaurin said, adding that while changes to police interactions reduced the disparity index slightly, it was not much.
Reviewing the scope of policing in Columbia
The disparity rate in Columbia is due to more than just department policies and data collection, and the root of the problem extends to the state level with lawmakers, McLaurin said.
Even so, the city should review the duties of police and find ways to move responsibilities to other departments or social service agencies, he said.
“Why are we not investing federal money into social service networks, and (for) things that aren’t criminal activity, have other people respond and provide support?” McLaurin said. “… I think that is one of the big things.”
The department contacts social service agencies when warranted, Messina said.
“Often during a call for service, we discover that victims and suspects have conditions that affect the situation, such as poverty, hunger, poor health or mental illness,” she said. “This is where we may call upon partner agencies and individuals to extend service beyond or instead of an arrest.”
McLaurin would like to see the scope of work by the police reduced while agencies and other departments are highlighted so people know where to turn.
More:Disparity rate improved in 2020, but Black motorists in Columbia still more likely to get stopped by police
“Basically, I think we need to shrink the police department, their scope and scale with that and move their funding from what we use on policing to something that builds community,” he said.
Progress is being made on better addressing community mental health, but it does not involve transferring work away from the police, Messina said.
The city is looking at mental health program staff, structure and coordination.
“Since this all starts with a call for service, all involved will need training to assure that calls are appropriately assessed and dispatched,” she said.
As for situations where police presence is not necessary, the department is working toward opening up avenues that don’t entail a call to 911.
Residents can call 311 for non-emergencies, Messina said.
More:Community responds to disparities in vehicle stops
Who can audit police performance?
Another step the department could take is a performance audit, either through the Missouri Auditor’s Office or a third-party auditor.
Attempts were made to have the state auditor’s office come in last year, but the idea was shot down by a council member labased on it being an election year, McLaurin said.
This audit would include looking at police data, he said.
“We really need them to take a look at what are the purposes of their programs and their functions?” McLaurin said.
When considering a performance audit, it is not clear what that would include, Columbia Public Information Officer Sydney Olsen said.
“It may change depending on who would perform the audit, whether it be the Missouri State Auditor’s Office or another agency,” she said.
More:Changes coming to police Vehicle Stops Report
‘Tracking this data will help the city improve its service to all customers’
As of now, the focus for Race Matters, Friends is on the data gathered by the department and the group’s analysis, which could have been part of the audit.
“There is no dashboard of community indicators by which the city council can assess the value of a policy or the police department,” McLaurin said. “They can’t answer any of these questions because (department) data is so fragmented and it’s not organized in a way that helps them manage.”
This dashboard should look at all city policies, not just police, he added.
For changes to police policy, Chief Geoff Jones should be able to look at how that change is influencing existing operations.
“There should be some kind of measurable impact to figure out, No. 1, is there a problem? Where are the problems? If we are going to implement a solution, is that solution really looking to solve that problem?” McLaurin said.
The city is working toward having this public data dashboard, Olsen said.
“The city is in the final stages of completing its strategic plan, which is scheduled to be presented to the city council at the first meeting in July,” she said. “Part of that plan includes a public dashboard where the city will track specific goals and how the city is doing upholding the performance measures to reach those goals.
“Tracking this data will help the city improve its service to all customers and recognize areas where there is room for improvement.”
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