Ferguson still struggling with racial bias


The following op-ed was co-authored by Daniela Velázquez, a strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

This month marks three years since an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. In 2015 and 2016 — the two years following his death — 548 more black men nationwide were killed at the hands of police, according to The Guardian.

Brown’s death forced the country to take an uncomfortable look at its system of law and order. And in the three years since that shooting, Black Lives Matter has become an international movement.

Despite the worldwide attention, many of Missouri’s politicians refuse to prioritize community-minded police reform or to modernize the state’s racial-profiling laws.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ recently announced crime-fighting initiative in St. Louis relies heavily on outdated strategies and threatens to make the city’s challenges worse, not better. The plan overwhelmingly relies on predictive policing — a strategy that would concentrate law enforcement activities primarily in communities that are already overpoliced. It includes assigning a special operations team from the Missouri State Highway Patrol to “saturate specified locations” informed by crime data, target violent felons, “collect better intel” and “predict and respond to criminal threats.”

Of the 189 calls to action recommended by the Ferguson Commission — a panel tasked with studying the social and economic conditions that fueled unrest after Brown’s death — none involved re-targeting communities that have been historically overpatrolled by law enforcement and arresting and jailing more people for low-level offenses.

Missouri already ranked eighth in the nation in incarceration in 2015, according to the National Institute of Corrections. In fiscal year 2016, the state spent $710 million on incarceration despite being in the middle of a budget crisis. While the governor’s tough-on-crime plan includes social services, the focus on punishment ultimately will hurt communities.

At a time when we should be providing our officers the tools to engage in best practices such as police-diversion efforts, the governor’s “predictive policing” strategy does exactly the opposite. Predictive policing algorithms use data from locations of prior police activity to predict where officers will need to take action. Absent concrete safeguards, this approach could reinforce racial bias.

Data show that black motorists in Missouri are stopped at rates 75% higher than whites. Predictive policing will give residents more of the same. These flawed algorithms mean black citizens will continue to be wrongfully stopped, searched, jailed and incarcerated at higher rates than white citizens. This fails to make folks safer and contributes to an erosion of trust between police and black communities.

Instead of relying on a form of predictive police that doesn’t work, we must address racial biases head on. If we’re going to use predictive policing, we must develop new, fair and transparent algorithms.

The St. Louis courts are beginning to change slowly, but not without pressure.

In 2015, the Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 5, a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue from traffic fines. The Ferguson Commission called for consolidation among St. Louis County’s 81 municipal courts and 60 municipal police departments, including Ferguson’s. The county reduced the number of courts to 77. 

After it was hit with a class-action lawsuit, Jennings — a small municipality in the northern part of St. Louis County — agreed to pay nearly $5 million to about 2,000 people who served time in jail for unpaid court debts. Most of them were poor and black.

While this certainly marks progress, Missouri needs to continue to build broad support for change in the criminal justice system, particularly in the policing profession. The state should look to the bipartisan approach taken by the Coalition for Public Safety, the nation’s largest criminal justice reform coalition. The coalition is filled with unlikely bedfellows — including the NAACP, Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for American Progress — which all work toward the goal of making the criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost- effective.

Missouri has an opportunity to become a leader in smarter policing. Falling back on practices that don’t work comes at the price of thriving communities and a vibrant economy.

Image by Gino Santa Maria


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