- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Springfield News-Leader, June 20

Less talk, more action to address racial disparity in traffic stops

For the 14th year in a row, Missouri’s annual Traffic Enforcement Report, released earlier this month, shows there is racial disparity in traffic stops by police across the state.

The growing disparity - a “disturbing trend,” according to Attorney General Chris Koster, at the highest level since 2000 - is causing statewide concern.

Springfield’s disparity level showed black drivers were 2.46 times more likely to be stopped than drivers who are white - our city’s second highest level in 14 years of collected data. It also shows that black drivers who are stopped are twice as likely as white drivers to be searched and arrested. Black drivers also were twice as likely to be stopped in Nixa and more than three times as likely in Ozark.

Cue another year of law enforcement officials and local NAACP leaders discussing that while it looks like there might be a bias problem causing more black drivers to be stopped or searched, the data really is unreliable and doesn’t really prove anything, but, yes, if there were a problem we all would very much like to fix it.

Cue analysts who say it is hard to draw real conclusions about whether the treatment of minorities is explainable or unfair.

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams says the traffic report ties into discussions our city is having about poverty. There is more crime in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, many of which have more minorities, he says. He doesn’t think bias explains the disparity levels, “with the caveat that I can’t get into someone’s head, and there may be an issue we can’t ferret out at this point.”

Wes Pratt, director of Institutional Equity and Compliance at Missouri State and head of the Criminal Justice Committee for NAACP of Springfield, conducts racial bias training for police. “It’s hard to discern if (the disparity levels is) an issue of racial profiling versus people not being able to pay their vehicle registration or are stopped for equipment violations. . that is the dilemma,” he says.

Two studies by Mike Stout, a professor of sociology from Missouri State, explains the disparity in part by geography, demographics, poverty, driving behavior and criminal activity but says ultimately the study can’t be used to prove or disprove bias.

So this annual report that should serve as a springboard to change instead allows continued inaction on a persistent problem.

Cheryl Clay, president of NAACP Springfield, says she appreciates Williams’ response to concerns and says police are trying to be accountable. “But, no matter how far you drill it down, the numbers are still high,” she said. Clay says she hears complaints about stops. She thinks it would be worth looking at pedestrian records, too. “When trouble erupts, a lot of times it’s the young men of color who are stopped and questioned,” she said.

Even if the data doesn’t prove bias is behind the traffic stop disparity, there is certainly a perception that it is.

We’d like to see law enforcement and community leaders act on that perception rather than wait until next year to wonder again what the numbers mean.

Part of that action is supporting better research. Stout plans to do another study, supported by Williams, with three years’ worth of Springfield police data from 2013, 2014 and 2015. Stout points to additional useful data he would like, including the number of repeat offenders, which could help explain high numbers. He says there’s value also in qualitative information such as viewing recorded interactions.

More important, he said, is to address the social context: What can we do as a community to come together and make sure minorities - and all people - “can get ahead and live the lives they want to lead?”

We suggest the question that we cannot seem to get past - “Is there actually a problem?” - be answered with a public “yes.” Perhaps then we can get to the problem’s roots and solutions.

Find the Traffic Enforcement Report, with information about the disparity index and city by city reports at https://ago.mo.gov/home/vehicle-stops-report.

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Kansas City Star, June 21

Here are two bills that Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri should veto

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has until July 14 to decide the fate of dozens of bills passed by the General Assembly this year.

Two of those bills would be particularly harmful to the Kansas City area and he should veto them.

Attack on local control

House Bill 722 restricts cities and counties from doing two things: Setting minimum wage limits or employment provisions that exceed federal or state requirements; and regulating what type of shopping bags merchants can use.

The bill is a sign of the legislature’s willingness to please business interests. Its sponsor, Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial, Mo., is state director of the Missouri Grocers Association. No wonder he opposes a plastic bag ban.

But it’s not the state’s role to stop local governments from discussing and possibly adopting policies that benefit their communities.

As Kansas City Mayor Sly James and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said in a letter to the governor, “cities can serve as laboratories in experimenting with new approaches to social and economic issues, without risk to the rest of the state and without forcing the rest of the state to come along for the ride.”

The fear of the Republican-controlled legislature is that these experiments will actually succeed and be copied by other local governments.

The General Assembly has become heavy handed in recent years. Nixon should veto this latest attempt to stop cities from acting in their own best interests.

Charter school expansion

House Bill 42 was supposed to present a long-awaited fix to Missouri’s student transfer provisions, which are causing financial hardship for some struggling school districts.

But as usual, conservative lawmakers insisted on using an education bill to promote other agendas.

The bill on Nixon’s desk would allow charter schools to set up in all of St. Louis County and most of Jackson County. Currently, charter schools operate only within the Kansas City and St. Louis school district boundaries.

The bill would also enable online schools, including for-profit models, to operate in Jackson and St. Louis counties.

Public school administrators understandably fear that charter schools and virtual schools would recruit their students, taking state and local education money with them.

“There’s this belief that charter schools by default are better than public schools,” said Dale Herl, Independence School District superintendent. “There is zero evidence of that.”

Jackson County districts such as Grandview and Independence serve high numbers of low-income families and achieve good academic results. They need more state resources, not less, to continue to serve their communities well.

House Bill 42 creates new problems without adequately fixing the flawed transfer provision that drains money from unaccredited districts. It definitely deserves a veto.

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Columbia Daily Tribune, June 22

Dylann Roof is Guilty

As a general proposition, “hate crimes” are hard to prosecute. The intent of the law touches our sensibilities, but when it comes to proving hate in a court of law, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is hard. Put another way, one can reasonably say most murders are hate crimes deserving extreme punishment, but that removes sentencing prerogative from judges and juries, an essential principle of constitutional due process.

However, if any crime is easy to classify as driven by hate, the slayings of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., surely qualifies.

The confessed killer said so. Twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof said he wanted to start a “race war.” He sat quietly through a prayer session, calmly observing the people he soon would shoot in cold blood. Before the mayhem was over, he had killed six black women and three black men including Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor and a member of the state Senate.

Roof had made no bones about his disdain for black people, but how can the law anticipate what such a person might do? After the fact, we can condemn and punish, but then it’s too late. Such horrific acts must be headed off by individuals who exercise restraint instead of abandon.

Dylann Roof has done his best to exacerbate the racial gap. Most of us will condemn what he did and feel for the racial congregation he violated. We will discuss anew what might be done with our laws to create the sort of gun-free culture prevalent in most other developed nations. We will be frustrated.

America is unique as a supposedly ultra-civilized culture still awash in frontier instincts. Most of our politicians, no doubt reflecting what they see as constituent sentiment, believe an essential expression of personal freedom is the ability to carry lethal weapons hidden on our persons.

When gun control laws are suggested, the gun lobby goes nuts and most political leaders timorously fall in line. They do this even when proposals fall far short of prohibiting possession. Even expanded registration of ownership drives them nuts.

But as a non-carrier, I admit new laws likely would do little good. Our affection for gun freedom is a cultural thing. Populations generally disdainful of gun ownership comply because it’s not the thing to do, not because someone passed a law. The law reflects popular sentiment, not the other way around.

In this country, even many people outraged at horrific mass murder shy away from any consideration of further gun control, even though these acts of violence always are enabled because it’s so easy to carry guns.

A hateful person without a gun is not the same threat to society. He/she might have the awful motivation but not the means to inflict such wanton damage.

I wish we could pass laws to deal with this, but I agree with the gunnies. We would likely bother good guys more than bad guys. Diminished gun possession will depend more on personal preference than legislation. As we see more events like the one in Charleston, maybe we will begin to get the spirit.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 22

A waterlogged nation fails to learn from its repeated floods

In 2011, as a wall of water was surging down the Missouri River toward St. Louis, engineer Matt Hunn was keeping an eye on the rolling flood from his Corps of Engineers office in downtown St. Louis.

At the time, this page was urging changes to river policy in the United States, and specifically in the Great Plains and the Midwest. In the second part of our One River, One Problem series, Mr. Hunn shared his thoughts on the prospect for serious policy change as another big flood caused billions of dollars in damage to developed areas in flood plains.

“From my perspective, you’ve got a two- to four-year window,” Mr. Hunn said. “People forget.”

Yes, they do. And have.

Over the past couple of weeks, the St. Louis region has been inundated with an unusually high amount of rainfall, creating localized flash floods, mostly along tributaries of the Missouri River. The water has to go somewhere, so it has flowed over roads and highways in Lincoln and St. Charles counties, and backed up basements and flooded businesses throughout the region.

For those folks in river towns, or south St. Louis city, or numerous Illinois cities on the east side of the Mississippi River, the floods of 2015 will be memorable. They’ll want to know whom they can blame for their damage, and they will want somebody to tell them it won’t happen again.

But it will happen again. And if history repeats itself, not much will be done to mitigate future damage.

The 2011 flood, for instance, was massive in the northern parts of the Missouri River basin, but it never quite had an impact in St. Louis. Politicians talked briefly of the need for new river policy, but then urgency receded along with the floodwaters.

That four-year window Mr. Hunn talked about is just about closed.

For the most part, doing nothing - except for the wrong thing - is the norm, even after the biggest flood in the region’s modern history, in 1993.

After that flood, a national group of experts produced the Galloway Report, calling for massive change at a local, state and federal level. Among other suggestions, it called for changes to federal flood and crop insurance programs to discourage development in flood plains. It called for taxpayers to stop bailing out areas that regularly flood. It suggested the basins of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers be managed as one large watershed.

Almost none of that happened. To some degree or another, the flooding this nation is experiencing this summer, particularly in Texas but also right here in St. Louis, is a result of our nation’s inability to pay attention to science.

In a bit of serendipitous timing, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report this week outlining the potential future economic damages in the U.S. related to climate change. The report looked at two scenarios - one, where states do what many are doing now, and ignore climate change mitigation, and another, where states make smart regulatory decisions to avoid future disaster expenses.

Not surprisingly, Texas, which experienced massive flooding over the past month leading to numerous deaths, is predicted to see the highest costs in the nation related to climate change mitigation, or the lack thereof.

Nicholas Pinter, a professor in the geology and environmental resources department at Southern Illinois University, and a nationally recognized river policy expert, says the costs in Texas are directly related to the state’s failure to follow good river policies.

“Texas has until now done a poor job of keeping construction off its flood plains, leading many nationwide lists of flood losses and federal payouts,” Mr. Pinter said. “Experts agree that the next big flood like last week is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ How Texas fares next time depends on whether it can balance rational flood plain planning against its leanings towards uncontrolled private property rights.”

Sadly, St. Louis isn’t much better.

In the years since the Galloway Report called for reduced flood plain development, the region instead spent more than $2 billion on commercial and residential building in places like the Chesterfield Valley that in 1993 had been under water.

The point of the EPA report is to recognize that which many of the nation’s largest corporations have already determined: Putting money aside to plan for the realities of climate change is simply good business.

The report, titled “Climate Change in the U.S. - Benefits of Global Action,” predicts a savings of nearly $3 billion just in flood damages in 2100 if states and the federal government start implementing mitigation policies, such as reducing flood plain development.

Ultimately flood policy is about risk and cost. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, has been trying for years to implement more realistic flood maps that will raise costs for some homeowners and businesses. Higher, more realistic costs change the market so that perhaps it doesn’t pay as much to develop in a flood plain.

The long-term savings are worth it. Sadly, Congress is delaying new maps because nobody ever wants to pay the flood bill when it comes due.

Until the homeowner with the flooded basement realizes that his predicament is connected to the new levee protecting two Chesterfield outlet malls, and the coal-ash landfill planned in the Missouri River flood plain, and his congressman’s denial of man-made climate change, the nation is destined to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past 100 years.

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