After state report finds racial disparity in traffic stops, advocates and lawmakers call for change

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Racial tension between law enforcement and the black community is high.

In 2000, the Missouri legislature passed a statute that requires all law enforcement officers to report a driver's race for every traffic stop to the attorney general's office. That statute came about because of allegations of racial profiling from concerned citizens.

For almost 20 years, we've had the information, but now lawmakers, civil rights and criminal justice advocates, mothers and musicians are saying it's time we do something with those numbers.

The 2017 Missouri Vehicle Stops report says black drivers were 85 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, even though they make up less of the driving population.

FOX4 asked about a dozen Missouri agencies for interviews on this topic, but they chose not to accept our offer.

The disparities in the traffic stop worries a lot of people, like a composer and an opera singer who produced a piece called "DWB -- Driving While Black."

The opera singer wrote the lyrics based on national headlines, anecdotes from family members and fears about her own son.

"All you have to do is read the paper. Watch the news. Listen to people around you. It's scary," Roberta Gumbel said.

Roberta Gumbel

As accusations of brutality and shootings of unarmed black men by police came to light in recent years, Gumbel's fears for her 18-year-old son's interactions grew.

"The concern that he might find himself in a situation where he's pulled over, or profiled, same thing, pulled over and in position that is foreign to him, that no one should have to be in," she said.

Gumbel's friend Susan Kander composed "DWB," and approached her about writing the socially motivated opera.

"I have two sons who don't have that problem. They're not driving while black. And I was just so anxious on her behalf while all this was going on," Kander said.

Kander felt she could bring an awareness about racial disparities in traffic stops and other police interactions to a traditionally non-black audience.

"We want them to experience it from Roberta's point of view, from an African American mother's point of view," Kander said. "A parent is a parent, and we all have our concerns. And we thought it was a very natural thing to say, these are concerns all parents should have and can understand. This should be something everyone can understand if they take the time to stop and think about it if they have it shown to them," she said.

After the performance of "DWB" at the Saint James United Methodist Church, there was a panel discussion and questions from the audience, which provoked a lot of emotions.

"I think we all need to stand up and do something about injustice. That's what I think about that," audience member Bill Yord said.

"Outstanding. I think the performance was true to form, true to life. Many of the experiences they were acted out, I've actually experienced and lived through," audience member Tony Banks said.

The Attorney General's Vehicle Stop Report was brought up during the panel discussion. Along with a disparity index, the report also looks at contraband hit ratios, search rates and arrest ratios.

The Attorney General's Vehicle Stop Report

Black drivers were one-and-a-half times more likely to be searched than white drivers. Six-and-a-half percent of stops involving black drivers led to arrests, compared to just over 4 percent for white drivers.

But according to the report, black people were less likely to have contraband found on them during traffic stops than white people.

Toya Like, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Criminal Justice Department, said those disparities are harmful.

"It really does further divide trust among the African American community that law enforcement are going to treat them fairly, that even if they engage in what we deem as respectability politics, it doesn't afford them any advantages with whites who perceive them as dangerous," Like said.

"That you can engage and do all the things you're supposed to and still not make it home safely," she said. "It sends the message that the police are not there to protect us, are not there to serve us, but actually see us as enemies and therefore, we are subjected to those kinds of hostile encounters with them."

The NAACP issued a travel advisory for the state of Missouri in 2017, citing the information from the attorney general's report.

"It's a reflection of our implicit biases that we suffer from today," Like said. "I'm not saying that most officers go out and are consciously aware of the biases that they hold, but we certainly cannot explain why African Americans are so over represented in these tops by police. So I think it is an absolute reflection of systemic racism within our society and how racism has really equated to the unconscious biases that we all possess, and how those implicit biases are affecting policing and who they decide to pull over, who they stop and search."

Toya Like

Just like Gumbel, Like is a mother. Her concerns about police interaction dictates her behavior when it comes to her son. He once called her and told her he was going to walk home from a friend's house at night, a few blocks from their own home.

"I immediately jumped up and said, 'Oh no you're not.' Because I don't trust that even in our own neighborhood, that if he were walking and he were stopped by the police, what that encounter will entail," Like said.

Those fears come from experiences that date back to her college days.

"We went to a movie and we were speeding on the highway and the police officer pulled us over," Like recalled. "And when the officer came to the vehicle the officer drew his weapon, and that was my first time seeing a gun that close to my face. And the officer drew the weapon on my friend who was in the military who was driving at the time."

Like said the officer backed off when she learned the driver's military status and nothing happened.

Those are the kinds of things one of the "DWB" panelists, Merrell Bennekin, investigates. He's the executive director of the Police Board of Commissioners Office of Community Complaints in Kansas City.

It's his office's job to evaluate and investigate complaints, including biased-based and race related complaints, against Kansas City Police officers.

"Anytime there is an incident, if it's not a positive one, it does hamper and hinder any progress that can be made," Bennekin said. "But it is important that we're able to have discussions, such as the one on Sunday, so we can try to build bridges with the community."

In 2015, the Office of Community Complaints received two bias-based police complaints. In 2016, there were five. In 2017, all of the six bias-based complaints were race based. There weren't any race based complaints in 2018.

All of the complaints from the previous years were either unsustained, meaning they were unable to determine whether there was a violation of policy or procedure, or closed for other reasons.

Merrell Bennekin

"It should be noted that even though a complaint isn't sustained, it is addressed in some fashion. Every complaint that is filed with this office is reviewed not only with the Board of Police Commissioners but also by the chief of police, his office and staff. We do take some action even if it is not disciplinary in nature," Bennekin said.

Along with investigating complaints, Bennekin also teaches at Kansas City's Police Academy.

"There is an entire module just on racial profiling and biased based policing," he said.

Other training sections also cover implicit bias for academy cadets and officers who are already sworn in. The Kansas City Police Department declined FOX4's request for an interview on this topic, but did provide information about bias and cultural training.

"Instructors include aspects of implicit and explicit bias or diversity in a variety of subjects taught at the Academy," KCPD spokesperson Sgt. Jake Becchina said through email. "There are some classes that are about these subjects specifically and then some classes that are not about these subjects but the subject is discussed to varying levels in relation to the class."

Specific in academy training for KCPD recruits (all of class hours are on subject matter):
  • Cultural Diversity – 9 hour class
  • Cultural Diversity Fair – 5 hour class
  • KCAVP – 2 hour class
  • Mediation – 4 hour class
  • Minority Relations – 2-3 hour class
Related academy training for KCPD recruits (subject matter is discussed at some point during these classes):
  • Tactical Communications – 9 hour class
  • Communication Obstacles – 6 hour class
  • Dealing with Aggressive Behavior – 9 hour class
  • Car & Pedestrian Checks – 28 hour class
  • Constitutional Law – 32 hour class
  • Ethics & Professionalism – 4 hour class
"Since 2017, KCPD Instructors have produced racial profiling and implicit bias courses for the KCPD sworn officers and other regional police departments to attend at the Regional Police Academy," Becchina wrote. "In addition, Dir. Merrell Bennekin’ s De-escalation course covers some implicit bias for the recruit side."

Bennekin said the attorney general's report is concerning, but he has bigger concerns about the information.

"I'm more concerned with what do we do with that data? What are the actual steps we are going to take to address those issues?" Bennekin asked.

The "DWB" opera was designed to raise awareness and spark conversation, but Missouri lawmakers introduced legislation they say will reduce disparities in traffic stops if passed.

State Rep. Brandon Ellington's House Bill 150 would require officers to get written consent from people before they searched them or their cars.

"People need to stop looking at it under the simple guises of racial disparity and look at it under the guises of institutional abuse," Ellington said.

The bill would also require random supervisor review video and audio from traffic stops.

"We're talking about government institutions. And we're not saying police are bad or police or good, we just want accountability across the board," Ellington said.

"So when we look at a disparity index that has drastic imbalances in numbers and populations that doesn't equate to the amount of people that's being pulled over, then we need to address that," he said. "So we're talking about stopping profiling, abusive profiling and guaranteeing that citizens are being protected by institutions."

The American Civil Liberties Union is working on Missouri House Bill 484 with a St. Louis lawmaker, called the John Ashcroft Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act.

"A bill that would essentially say, we are moving beyond collecting data and with the data that we have, we after periods of reviews, could have penalties assessed against law enforcement agencies that do engage in racial profiling," said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director of the ACLU of Missouri. "So it's basically adding some teeth to our already existing law prohibiting racial profiling."

If passed, an agency with high racial disparities in traffic stops would be given a change to improve. If that doesn't happen over a period of years, money collected from fines and fees would be used got more training.

The bill also adds to the information that an officer must report each time they stop a driver, and adds to the attorney general's responsibilities when it comes to analyzing the yearly reports.

"This is about the quality of life in Missouri," Baker said. "It should be equal for everyone. I should be able to walk down the street and have the same experience that anyone from any racial or ethnic background has and that's simply not what's happening in Missouri."

"There's also a cultural shift that needs to happen in Missouri where we are closer to one another, and recognize that we have more that binds us together than drives us apart," she said.

Roberta Gumbel

That message of coming closer together and understanding each other to bring about change is what Gumbel hopes her audience will take away. While she sang her soprano heart out, her son, the basis behind the opera and the emotions, watched in the audience.

"As soon as I started driving, my mom always told me, 'Be careful. It's dangerous to drive and be black at the same time,'" Rapheal Prevot said. "So it's something I did know how she felt. I didn't know quite how powerful it was or how powerful the fear was for her."

It's a powerful fear that Gumbel hopes everyone will open their eyes to.

"It may be something they've never had to think about, but being blind to it doesn't help solve the problem. They've got to be aware of it. They have to be. It can't just be a black problem. So this is where we are in this country," Gumbel said.

The data from 2018's traffic stops is due to the attorney general's office by March 1.

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