Editorial: Columbia police chief needs to acknowledge and address racial profiling

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton discusses racial profiling by officers and a racial disparity in car searches in Columbia at the town hall meeting held on Jan. 30 in City Hall.

Black drivers in Columbia are three times more likely to be pulled over by Columbia Police Department officers than white drivers, according to a report from the Missouri Attorney General’s office. The search rate for black drivers, 17.71 percent, is more than twice the search race of white drivers, 8.27 percent, even though contraband items were found with white drivers almost 7 percent more than with black drivers.

The numbers show that CPD has a serious problem with racially profiling drivers. The report prompted a town hall meeting on Jan. 30., and residents looked to how CPD Chief Ken Burton would react.

“I’ve got a stubborn streak in me, and when I looked at the data I said, ‘That’s not enough data for me.’ I still believe that, and I think we need to look into it more,” Burton said.

The problem with Burton’s denial is that the data is not a sampling or an independent investigation. The conclusions were made based on the data of all stops and searches of 2015, which was provided to the attorney general by CPD. These are raw numbers coming straight from the department itself. The data provided was literally all of the numbers that exist relating to racial profiling in 2015. It is not possible to get more data.

To not recognize a problem with this data is to turn a blind eye to an obvious issue affecting community members. It is reasonable to think that a police chief may not recognize an internal problem to protect his own officers, but to deny the problem is to put the reputation of the police department over the well-being of the community that the department is serving. When black people are 10 percent of the population of the city but make up almost 30 percent of traffic stops, it shows that a change of practice is needed.

To its credit, CPD is making some changes. To reduce debate about whether verbal consent to search a vehicle was given, a new policy requires police to fill out a consent-to-search form. Officers will ask the driver to sign it to consent to a vehicle search if the officer does not have a warrant or probable cause. Other new initiatives include increased training and an apprenticeship program to recruit more minorities to the police force. But studies show that a police officer’s race does not have a strong correlation with how officers treat members of the public.

The numbers speak, and the Columbia police — and the department’s chief — need to listen. Racial profiling is a real problem in Columbia that needs to be recognized and addressed so the department can work with the community towards a solution.

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