- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Black drivers in Missouri were nearly 70 percent more likely than whites to get stopped by the police last year, marking a slight improvement from the year before but showing there still are significant racial disparities in such stops.

State Attorney General Chris Koster’s office released a report Wednesday showing that black motorists were 69 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over, based on their proportionate share of the driving-age population. That rate was 75 percent in 2014, which was the highest since data collection began in 2000.

Furthermore, police continue to arrest and search black and Hispanic drivers at rates “significantly higher than white drivers, even though white drivers are more frequently found to have contraband,” according to Koster’s analysis. Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and people of mixed or unknown races were stopped at rates below their proportion of the driving-age population, the report said.

The treatment of blacks by the police has gotten a lot of attention in Missouri and elsewhere since the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Despite the record-high racial disparity in traffic stops in 2014, Democratic-sponsored bills aimed at curbing racial profiling didn’t make it out of committees in the Republican-led Legislature this year.

In Ferguson last year, blacks were again pulled over at a lower rate than the statewide average, but they were still more than four times as likely to be stopped as white drivers, according to the new data.

The report also notes that about 4 percent of stops of whites resulted in arrests, compared to about 7 percent of stops for black motorists and slightly more than 7 percent of Hispanic drivers. The attorney general’s office said higher arrest rates among blacks and Hispanics might have contributed to the discrepancy in searches and finding of contraband because searches are conducted during arrests regardless of whether there’s an indication that a suspect has contraband items.

Koster said in a statement that the “statistical disproportion does not prove that law enforcement officers are making vehicle stops based on the perceived race or ethnicity of the driver,” adding that it should be a starting point for possible policy changes.

NAACP St. Louis chapter president Adolphus Pruitt said the decrease from 2014 to 2015 is significant, but said “there’s still a significant problem we have as it relates to biased based policing.” He also questioned what the data would imply if it’s not interpreted as showing racial bias by police.

“If that’s the case, that means that African-Americans and minorities have a higher propensity for violating traffic laws or violating other laws that warrant these stops,” Pruitt said. “That’s what I don’t believe.”

Koster’s office cautioned that there are holes in the data. For example, the data only deals with the driving-age population and not the population that actually drives. The disparities also could be skewed if a major highway runs through a city or town, meaning police would likely pull over drivers from other cities or states.

Koster called on the Legislature to gather input from law enforcement, cities and others on how to improve the report and the data collected. He said revisions could include strengthening penalties for departments that fail to report. Fifteen agencies failed to meet the March 1 reporting deadline.

Some legislative proposals that failed to pass included provisions to require the governor to withhold funding if law enforcement agencies don’t submit reports.

Pruitt earlier this year told lawmakers that biased policing could be underreported and has called for greater accountability to ensure officers and departments provide accurate data, including reporting pedestrian stops and note when officers hand out warnings.

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Follow Summer Ballentine on Twitter at https://twitter.com/esballentine

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