Tale of Four Cities and Traffic Stops
Chesterfield comes out looking very good in the Attorney General's report.
A statewide law calling for racial data on every driver stopped, or whose vehicle was searched, and who was arrested, can be a waste of time and money.
This is especially true in rural areas of Missouri where there may be few people who are Asian, Hispanic and black. Even with some police departments in metropolitan areas, the data can be useless in determining if departments are making so-called DWB traffic stops— “driving while black.”
With the recent release by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office of the 2011 data on traffic stops, here are four area departments; three along I-64 and the fourth along I-70. In that review Chesterfield looked the best.
A 1.0 disparity rating by the Attorney General’s Office means the number of people of a specific race stopped by the police matches the percentage of population in that local group. In Chesterfield, the amount of whites stopped versus population is at 1.02 which matches the census figures nearly exactly.
The disparity number for traffic stops involving blacks is not close to the census population figures at all. In 2011, in Chesterfield the number was at 2.89. However, it was the first time in a decade the disparity number was below a 3. It is also a low number compared to other police departments.
But those designated Asian and Hispanic drivers being stopped are well below the local census figures with a 0.38 for Asians and a 0.31 for Hispanics.
The AG’s office disparity ratio compares these figures with a statewide average. I think that's a ridiculous method. You need to compare the figures against a countywide average. Metro areas typically have higher minority populations, while overall statewide totals will typically skew to a larger white driving population.
Other traffic stop data does supply countywide numbers.
Out of 9,963 traffic stops in 2011, 8,758 or 88 percent involved whites; 84.6 percent of Chesterfield population is white; 723 stops involved black drivers or 7.2 percent. Chesterfield's black population is about 2.6 percent.
Chesterfield has both large retail and commercial areas that draw people from the region for jobs and shopping. Whites represent 72 percent of the St. Louis County population and blacks represent 21 percent. Throwing these numbers into the mix, it appears you are most likely to be stopped by cops in Chesterfield if you are white.
Countywide, 33 percent of all drivers stopped by the police for traffic violations are black. This makes the 7.2 percent number in Chesterfield look good.
You can see how screwy these numbers are when you look at another municipality. Pine Lawn in North Country has a 96 percent black population. But their disparity number for traffic stops of white motorists is at 16.45 while the number for black drivers is only 0.78.
While Pine Lawn’s white population is 1.3 percent, the traffic stops of whites is at 23.4 percent of all stops. There is a simple reason for this—money.
A small stretch of westbound I-70 lanes are in Pine Lawn. The city generates much needed revenue by heavily enforcing its section of I-70. Politically for Pine Lawn elected officials this is good because most of the high dollar traffic citations are not going to local residents, but to out- of-towners on I-70.
While Chesterfield police patrols and responds to accidents on I-64 they do not run radar on I-64. They leave that to the Highway Patrol and the St. Louis County Police Highway Safety unit.
Town and Country
Speaking of cities where a lot of out-of-towners get traffic citations, in Town and Country the disparity number for white drivers is 0.97 and for blacks is 4.60 or twice that in Chesterfield.
Town and County elected officials like to brag how residents don’t have to pay a city property tax. They don’t tell you the city makes up the difference with heavy traffic enforcement on the interstate highways—giving out tickets for violations.
In 2010, 54 percent of the accidents in Town and Country were on divided highways, but 82 percent of the traffic citations were written on the interstates and Highway 141.
Now 85 percent of all traffic stops in T&C were white drivers; 12 percent were black drivers; 86.5 percent of T&C is white and 2.6 percent is black. But considering T&C does heavy enforcement on I-270, these numbers aren’t that bad.
The disparity numbers in Ladue are very high. For whites the number is 0.87 and for blacks the number is 16.89. That is worse than the disparity number for whites in Pine Lawn.
Some 82 percent of all traffic stops in Ladue involved white drivers; 15 percent of all stops involved blacks. Only 1.0% of Ladue residents are black.
This is the lowest rate for blacks in over a decade by the Ladue Police. In 2006, 23 percent of all traffic stops in Ladue involved black drivers.
For years, Ladue police have been accused of making "Driving While Black" traffic stops.
In the January 1980 issue of St. Louis Magazine, I wrote a two-part article profiling local police departments.
In that article I wrote how Ladue cops in the 1970s on the midnight shift would refer on the radio to stopping blacks who had not committed a traffic violation as “Visa checks.”
More recently Larry White, a retired captain from the Missouri Highway Patrol was hired as the Ladue police chief. He was fired in less than two years. He sued over the firing, claiming the mayor and councilpersons told him they did not expect Ladue residents to receive traffic tickets or be arrested for DWI.
Ladue residents caught driving drunk where expected not to be charged, but driven home. Chief White claims he was told his officers were to stop blacks driving in town.
Ex-Chief White has been losing in court, not on the facts but on technicalities involving Missouri Sovereign Immunity case law. The lawsuit is alive only because it is being appealed.
But something good has happened in Ladue since the lawsuit was filed. The disproportionate numbers of black drivers stopped are coming down—while still remarkably too high a figure.
West County police traffic stop data shows that Ellisville, Ballwin, Manchester and Creve Coeur have slightly better disparity numbers than Chesterfield.
Meanwhile, Town and Country, Frontenac, Des Peres and Ladue all have high numbers involving black drivers.
This close review of the data showed no problems with the Chesterfield police, and that the data often—but not always—gives an inaccurate view of the facts.