As he prepares to succeed Josh Hawley as Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt is considering changes to a report his agency produces aimed at tracking racial profiling in vehicle stops.
The report, which is issued annually, tracks whether local police departments disproportionately pull over minority motorists. One of the issues is that there’s no way to prove, for example, if lots of African-American motorists drive through a predominantly white town — which could impact how a law-enforcement agency is viewed in the report.
Speaking with reporters earlier this month, Schmitt said he’s considering adding the ZIP code of drivers into the report’s data.
“Where people live and where they’re at when they’re being pulled over or arrested — I think that’s important,” Schmitt said. “Again, it doesn’t give the fullest picture in the world. But it certainly can inform the numbers a little bit better than they are right now. Which is sort of just raw data of where people are being pulled over on a stop.”
Hawley added a requirement for an agency to list the residency of stopped drivers.
“I think that can inform that data a little bit better,” Schmitt said. “And then work with the number of municipal law-enforcement agencies in the St. Louis region and beyond to see what we can do to treat people as fairly as we can under the law. I think that’s important, and I think the men and women of law enforcement understand that and appreciate that.”
Don Love, who has worked with advocacy organizations and police departments regarding issues of racial profiling, said the report is good for “raising the flag on something that could well be a problem, but it doesn’t prove anything.”
“And the next step is to look at the internal data,” Love said. “And when agencies or some outside person looks at the inside data, then they can see much more — like if they really want to, they can track it down to the detail of where the driver resides. I mean, they have the street address, after all. So they can tell exactly where somebody is coming from. So if it is an issue to get that far in the data, the data is already available.”
After hearing Schmitt’s comments, Love said the GOP official is “thinking around the right lines.”
“If there is a large disproportion, then the agency owes it to us to tell us where that disproportion is coming from. Because we can’t tell,” Love said. “And there are some valid reasons for disproportion that officers shouldn’t be accused of discrimination for. For instance, if the problem is the benchmarks are off, then it really is the agency’s responsibility to defend itself by presenting a convincing demonstration that the group proportion of drivers really are different than what the benchmarks for what the vehicle stop report says.”
Before he was elected treasurer, Schmitt was the sponsor of municipal overhaul legislation that lowered the percentage of fine revenue cities could keep in their budgets. While some of the provisions in that bill, known as Senate Bill 5, were thrown out in court, the legislation is considered one of the most substantive policy responses to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
“I’ve had a good relationship with law enforcement over the years. And being from the St. Louis area, I certainly have those relationships. I do understand. I grew up in North County. I represented this area in the state Senate,” Schmitt said. “And so now coming into this role, there is some history and a good working relationship I have with the men and women of law enforcement. So I want to utilize that. I want to listen and find out how I can be helpful in this new role as the state’s chief law-enforcement officer.”
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