Elyshya Miller’s son was 13 when she gave him the talk: racial profiling and what to do if the police approach him.
It was a common occurrence, Miller said, because for about 15 years, her family was the only black family in her Blue Springs subdivision.
“That’s not a conversation I should be having in 2019 but, unfortunately, I have to have that conversation,” Miller said.
Miller shared her experience with Missouri state lawmakers Thursday at a Special Committee on Criminal Justice hearing in Kansas City. Ballwin Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan chairs the committee and said the goal is to hear directly from black residents about their experiences while the legislature is on break.
The committee, which includes Kansas City Democrat Rep. Barbara Washington, will release a report at the end of the year with suggestions for legislative action.
The hearing was spurred, in part, by the Missouri attorney’s general’s office report showing police across the state are 91 percent more likely to stop black drivers compared to white drivers. In 2017, the Missouri NAACP issued a travel advisory, urging “extreme caution” when traveling to Missouri, citing dispropriate traffic stops and a law passed that year that made discrimination lawsuits harder to win.
“I want to say to this panel today: fix it,” Miller said Thursday. “Because there shouldn’t be a reason that I, as an African-American woman, get a memo from the NAACP telling me not to travel in my state of Missouri where I pay my tax dollars.”
Kevin Merritt, the executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, told the panel he’d like a better analysis of the traffic stop data.
“There are so many individuals and groups that say since there is a disparity that high, it’s got to be based on racially biased policing, and the data can’t say that,” Merritt said. “It can say that it exists but it can’t say why.”
Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of Empower Missouri, called Merritt’s testimony “agitating.”
“I feel like what we’ve just been told is we’ve had data for 20 years that tell us that there’s bias in policing but we can’t believe that,” Oxford said. “...I feel like we have to invent a magic mirror where we can go, ‘I see racism is you. I see racism in you. No, there’s no racism in you. And that magic mirror doesn’t exist so, ‘hey none of this works.”
Justice Gatson said she wants to see police officers held accountable for stopping a disproportionate number of black drivers. She's a Kansas City organizer for the ACLU.
"This vehicle stops report data has been going on for 20 years and every year the numbers go up, and we still have the same issue," Gatson said. "And I think people in my community have lost faith, quite frankly."
Dogan said the committee is considering holding another special hearing in Columbia.
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.