O'FALLON, Mo. — Traffic stops and arrests resulting from those stops declined sharply in Missouri last year due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Black motorists were still far more likely to be pulled over and arrested, according to a report released Tuesday.
Since 2000, the Missouri Attorney General's Office has been tasked with compiling annual reports on traffic stops. The law requiring the report was prompted by concerns about racial bias in traffic stops, and Black motorists over the years have been far more likely to be stopped than whites.
The report for calendar 2020 was no exception. Black motorists were 71% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, and 25% more likely to be arrested. The report found that an average of 22.64 out of every 100 white motorists were stopped, compared to 38.77 out of every 100 Black motorists. For arrests, 3.7% of white motorists who were pulled over were arrested, compared to 4.61% of Black drivers who were pulled over.
Those percentages were actually an improvement. In 2019, Black drivers were 95% more likely to be pulled over by police in Missouri, and 36% more likely to be arrested. The stop disparity in 2019 was the worst since reporting began.
Still, the numbers remain troubling, said Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP.
"The NAACP is deeply concerned that even in a pandemic where large portions of the minority community were providing essential services, we were still pulled over at an incredibly high and disproportionate rate," Chapel said.
Missouri isn't alone. A study published in 2019 by Stanford University's Open Policing Project looked at 93 million traffic stops across the U.S. from 2001 through 2017. It found that Black drivers were about 20% more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers. The study examined data from 21 state patrol agencies and 29 municipal police departments.
Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in the summary of the Missouri report that the COVID-19 pandemic was the likely factor in a sharp decline overall in traffic stops, which dropped by nearly 24% compared to 2019. The report said arrests dropped by more than 40%. The pandemic resulted in fewer stops because officers sought to minimize in-person contact, and because police agencies were seeking to keep jail populations low, the report stated.
"In addition, with stay at home orders in place in many areas of the state, there were simply fewer drivers on the road," the report stated.
The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson was the site of months of unrest in 2014 after a Black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white police officer. Brown's death also led to scrutiny of how Missouri's criminal justice system treats Blacks.
But the new report shows that just like in 2019, Black drivers in Ferguson were six times more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Nearly two-thirds of Ferguson's 15,633 residents are Black.
The Missouri NAACP in 2017 issued a travel advisory warning people against travel in Missouri because of a danger that civil rights won't be respected. That report was based in large part on the attorney general's annual traffic stop report. Chapel said the latest version of the report is evidence why the advisory has not been lifted, four years later.
"We can see that that pattern is still continuing," Chapel said. "There's been no meaningful effort at the state level to change it in any way."