SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams plans to investigate 28 officers who may be pulling over black drivers more often than white drivers in the southwest Missouri city.
Using data that included such factors as the reason for a stop and whether an arrest was made, Williams compiled a list of officers out of more than 300 on the Springfield police force whose patterns of traffic stops raised concerns. The investigation fulfills a pledge Williams made to the city's minority population after becoming chief last summer.
Some of the traffic stop patterns might look like profiling but could be explained by the parts of town officers patrol or their specific duties, Williams said.
The chief plans to meet with the supervisors of the 28 officers soon, The Springfield News-Leader reported Thursday. It's unclear what would happen if an officer was found to be profiling, but Williams said criminal charges were possible.
Officer Mike Evans, president of the Springfield Police Officers Association, said the organization is comfortable with William's investigation because “law enforcement needs to be transparent and held accountable.''
Speaking generally, Evans said pulling over black drivers at a higher rate doesn't necessarily constitute racial profiling. The reason for the stop and where the officer was assigned can easily inflate the traffic stop numbers, he said.
The Missouri Attorney General's office said that in 2009, blacks were stopped in Springfield at more than twice the rate of their proportion of the population. The data showed three out of 10 black drivers who were stopped had their vehicles' searched, while white drivers were searched about 12 percent of the time. The statistics reported to the attorney general's office have not changed much in the last five years.
However, one expert on racial profiling said the data doesn't prove profiling is occurring.
David Harris, law professor at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, said because the numbers compare traffic statistics against residential populations, the traffic stop numbers cannot confirm that racial profiling is occurring or if it is occurring at higher rates.
But the perception that profiling can occur could be as damaging as the reality, he said, because the public might not cooperate with police if they believe officers are treating them differently.
Francine Pratt, president of the Springfield NAACP, said many blacks in the community believe racial profiling occurs and her office has received several complaints about Springfield police officers. She acknowledged the statistics don't tell the whole story, noting a task force targeting gang members may be more likely to confront minorities.
But she said she would be happy to help the police department train officers who appear to be profiling.
“We want to change behaviors,'' she said, “that's what it boils down to.''