Groups urge change after release of vehicle stops report

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JEFFERSON CITY - A group of religious and community organizers held a news conference Wednesday calling for a change in how police departments operate after Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office released its annual Vehicle Stops Report earlier in the week. 

The group, which includes representatives from organizations likes Empower Missouri's Human Rights Task Force and Missouri Faith Voices, said police need to improve training and community policing initiatives in order to reduce disparities in law enforcement. The groups called for a statewide policing summit in order to tackle these issues and planned to meet with staff from Koster's office on Wednesday to formally request a policing summit be convened. 

"We continue to hear the cries of people of color who feel victimized by a system that is built on implicit biases," Rev. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church in Jefferson City, said. "We are willing and asking police departments to be in dialogue with us."

Organizers said unconscious biases are likely a factor when it comes to racial disparities in traffic stops and arrests. The group said high racial disparities in resisting arrest charges show law enforcement needs training with regard to de-escalating tense situations. 

Some praised local law enforcement agencies during the news conference. Rev. Molly Housh Gordon of Columbia's Unitarian Universalist congregation, praised Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton for his commitment to community policing.

"We were very pleased that Chief Burton was open to that conversation and concerned about how we can make improvements," Housh Gordon said. 

However, Housh Gordon said local police departments need to go a step further and incorporate improved bias training for officers.

"Those good intentions are wonderful and a great place to start, but we really need them to translate into training throughout the department," Housh Gordon said. 

William Alexander, minister at Urban Empowerment in Columbia and a resident of Jefferson City, also offered praise to area police departments.

"The officers that I've come across in Jefferson City have been positive," Alexander said. "They are very friendly, very professional." 

Alexander said both law enforcement and the public need to educate each other. He said he has brought in Columbia police officers to work with youth to discuss how to respond to police.

"We as African-Americans need to be educated a little more on what we need to do, how we need to respond," Alexander said. "Officers need to be educated a little bit more on what they need to do and how they need to respond to us as a people."

Alexander said "once that education hits, everything will come together."

Boone County Sheriff's Department Det. Tom O'Sullivan told KOMU 8 News Monday law enforcement officers often aren't able to determine the race of a driver before making a traffic stop. He reiterated those comments Wednesday and said vehicle stop statistics lack necessary context, like whether stops were made with legitimate probable cause.

"It's a lot of apples and oranges," O'Sullivan said. "This department does not pull people over without probable cause."

The attorney general's report also noted Monday the numbers contained in the Vehicle Stops Report do not necessarily reflect bias on the part of law enforcement.

"While statistical disproportion does not prove that law enforcement officers are making vehicle stops based on the perceived race or ethnicity of the driver," Koster said, "this compilation and analysis of data provides law enforcement, legislators, and the public a starting point as they consider improvements to process and changes of policy to address these issues."

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