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House committee holds marathon hearing on policing: ‘It’s getting embarrassing to be a Missourian’

   

Barry Jenkins owns a convenience store in Wellston, Missouri, where he makes an effort to give back to law enforcement officers in his community with discounts and food. But even still, Jenkins, a black man, is “petrified” of driving anywhere in the state he doesn’t consider to be within his “comfort zone.” 

Jenkins was one of more than a dozen Missourians who testified before the Special Committee on Criminal Justice during a nearly five hour hearing in Clayton Wednesday. Chaired by Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan, the committee has planned two hearings during the interim on civil asset forfeiture and racial profiling, with a particular emphasis on the most recent Vehicle Stops Report from the Missouri attorney general. 

“It’s a no-win situation when you have been raised your entire life to respect the police, and when you get older, you find out the police don’t have [any] respect for you,” Jenkins said, adding he was “nervous” about driving to the hearing. “We’re going to be harassed. We’re going to be treated bad. I have been treated bad my entire life.” 

Rep. Wiley Price, a Democratic member of the special committee, assured Jenkins he’s not alone in his fear. The 2018 report showed black motorists in Missouri were 91 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers. 

“It’s getting embarrassing to be a Missourian on many different levels,” Price said. 

Racial profiling

When Missourians don’t feel safe being able to drive in the state — including to Jefferson City to talk to elected leaders — their rights are being infringed upon, said Sara Baker, the legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri. 

“The idea that someone in our state doesn’t feel comfortable traveling even here to testify before you today because they fear being racially profiled should challenge us all,” Baker said. “That isn’t liberty. That isn’t the freedom we enjoy as Missourians.” 

The annual attorney general’s report, released in May, showed the disparity level between black and white motorists who are pulled over in Missouri has increased to the highest level yet. Dogan said it was a “disturbing problem that has only gotten worse.” 

“Police departments are not going to change without legislation, without elected officials to come in forcing that change to come about.”

And without legislative action, nothing will change, Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police (E.S.O.P) said. 

“There has to be something that comes in from a legislative point of view that forces us to act,” she said. “Police departments are not going to change without legislation, without elected officials to come in forcing that change to come about.” 

No one testified on behalf of Missouri’s police officers — although Dogan did note representatives of the Missouri Highway Patrol were in attendance. However, the Missouri Sheriff’s Association has pushed back against the report, saying the use of census data is “inappropriate” and doesn’t “serve as an effective data analysis benchmark or baseline.” 

“It is not difficult to measure whether there is a disparity between racial/ethnic groups in terms of stops made by police; census benchmarking does that well,” Kevin Merritt, executive director of the association, previously said. “The difficulty comes in identifying the causes for disparity. Race alone is not dispositive of why the stop was made; neither is a disparity index.” 

Civil asset forfeiture 

A report from Missouri’s state auditor earlier this year showed a “substantial” amount of property, including cash, seized from individuals in the state, Dogan said at the start of the hearing. 

Justin Gelfand, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at the Margulis Gelfand firm in Clayton, said the “single biggest area of abuse” is a federal partnership program that can allow seized property go back to police departments. 

Missouri requires a criminal conviction or guilty plea for property to be civilly forfeited, and assets seized are then earmarked for education. But law enforcement agencies can circumvent state law by participating in the federal equitable sharing program. In these instances, local agencies will request a case be transferred to federal investigators and will be able to share the seized assets with the federal government. 

“There are genuine abuses going on with civil asset forfeiture in Missouri.”

At the federal level, investigators must simply establish a preponderance of the evidence to tie property to an alleged crime. 

Gelfand said “virtually every” instance that begins at the state level ultimately becomes a federal civil forfeiture case. Gelfand said civil forfeiture cases can be particularly egregious when larger amounts of money is found — but no drugs or other contraband is — and the individual doesn’t know his or her rights. 

“Unless and until there’s some sort of legislative fix to basically state and local law enforcement within the state of Missouri circumventing Missouri’s attempt to take out those incentives by transferring everything under the sun to the feds … not only will the possibility for abuse, but the obvious incentives for abuse will continue to occur,” Gelfand said. 

Dan Alban with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based non-profit, argued racial minorities are also being unfairly targeted in forfeiture cases. 

“There are genuine abuses going on with civil asset forfeiture in Missouri. They almost always the federal equitable sharing because Missouri’s laws are quite strong,” Alban said. 

The legalization of medical marijuana in Missouri could lead to increases in asset forfeiture “abuse,” experts testified, pointing to issues in other states such as California or Colorado. 

What’s next? 

Additional suggestions raised during the hearing: 

  • Increased psychological exams: Taylor proposed instituting annual psychological examinations for law enforcement officers, especially as they are subjected to horrific crimes, just like they undergo a yearly physical.  
  • Stronger whistleblower laws: Elad Gross, who is running for attorney general, suggested implementing stronger whistleblower laws for police officers who want to shed light on bad practices from others. 
  • Changing policy of traffic stops: Dave Roland, director of litigation and co-founder of the Freedom Center of Missouri, piggybacked off another constituent’s concern and suggested changing how police departments conduct traffic stops to alleviate concerns some motorists have of “driving while black.”

“I don’t think the state benefits significantly from all of the stops it’s making. It’s one thing if an officer observes a person who is putting another person in danger … It is entirely different if we’re talking about somebody who, when there’s no one else on the road, they happen to roll through a stop sign,” Roland said, suggesting a pilot program. 

Another hearing is scheduled for August 1 in Kansas City. Aside from Dogan and Price, Reps. Steve Roberts, Phil Christofanelli, Tony Lovasco, and Tom Hannegan attended the marathon hearing Wednesday.