Columbia community responds to data on racial profiling

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COLUMBIA - Residents expressed concerns about racial profiling in their community at a town hall-style meeting in Columbia Monday night.

City Manager Mike Matthes and Police Chief Ken Burton led the meeting, which focused on conversation with community members.

The discussion centered a lot around probable cause and why a police officer would pull someone over. Burton says his officers can not take action on someone based on their race.

Previously, for a police officer in Columbia to search a car, he or she must either have probable cause or get verbal consent from the person in question.

Starting in October of 2016, Burton and the Columbia Police Department changed the rules for searching a vehicle to be written rather than verbal consent. This was in an attempt to streamline searches and make them less arbitrary.

"Somewhere along the line, we thought [probable cause] was good, aggressive police work," Burton said.

Many people at the meeting shared their personal experiences of being stopped by an officer.

David Smith, a defense attorney in Columbia, says his clients have claimed officers will say they smell marijuana just to gain probable cause to search the car.

"There's no way to verify whether they can smell it or not," Smith said. "There's almost no way on earth unless the officer was a canine."

Other community members, like Michael Thornton, have felt the personal effects of being stopped by an officer.

"I was asked to be searched, and I said no but [the officer] searched me anyways," Thornton said. "I didn't have anything on me but open candy."

Thornton said the experience left an impression on him.

"I felt like I had been stripped, in my chest, inside, of something. And it wouldn't go away," Thornton said. "I felt like I was stripped of my dignity, of my rights, everything."

The meeting comes in response to a 2015 report by the Missouri Attorney General.

In the report, data showed the Boone County Sheriff's Department and Columbia Police Department were three times more likely to pull over black motorists than white motorists. 

The data is interpreted through a disparity index. When the index is at 1.0, that means motorists are pulled over in proportion to their population size.

Though the 2015 statewide disparity index average was 1.61 for black motorists, both Columbia and Boone County pulled over black people at a higher rate: 2.97 and 3.04 respectively. 

Burton said the Columbia Police Department still does not have a stance on whether there is racial profiling among his officers.

"I believe that if the public believes that, it's my job to figure out why that is," Burton said. "I'm not convinced yet. We need to drill into this data and get the real meaning of it."

When the data was released both agencies denied profiling based on race, and Burton said the report was incomplete. The 2016 Attorney General's report has not yet been released.

Matthes says the city plans to have at least one more meeting on racial profiling.