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EXPERT AVAILABLE: MU economics professor offers views on vehicle stops reports in mid-Missouri

August 15th, 2018

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346, sossamonj@missouri.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – For several years, annual Vehicle Stops Reports (VSRs) from the Missouri Attorney General’s office have prompted discussions at Columbia, Missouri, city council meetings and community forums. A new report using advanced statistical methods from Jeffrey Milyo, a University of Missouri economics professor, finds there is no statistically significant evidence of systemic racial profiling in recent traffic stops and searches by the Columbia Police Department.

“As an educator, it’s a particularly apt example of data which is easily misunderstood, but with appropriate statistical tools, you can learn more from the data,” Milyo said. “The VSR is pretty clear in that it says this report is just a measure of disparities and it’s meant to start conversations, so it’s not an attempt to test for discrimination, but people tend to read a lot more into what the report says about disparities.”

The report states, “there is no evidence of racial bias against black drivers in 2016-17 based on an extensive examination of vehicle stops and post-stop outcomes. In contrast, there is evidence consistent with racial profiling in vehicle stops for 2014-15.”

Milyo has been interested in this topic for a number of years and has used annual VSRs in the classroom setting to talk about what citizens can and cannot learn from this kind of data. He hopes the data presented in his report will foster thoughtful conversations and discussions about disparities and discrimination in the region.

Milyo says that the terms “racial disparity” and racial discrimination have caused the most confusion. He says there are many reasons why disparities exist socially and economically, and minority populations tend to score worse on most of these indicators. He questions using these types of social indicators as a way to evaluate local police.

In addition to analyzing the data from the annual VSR, Milyo also reviewed a wealth of incident-level data on vehicle stops from the Columbia Police Department, which he calls “particularly detailed and useful for analyzing the existence and extent of racial bias in policing.”

Milyo’s report includes a number of recommendations for policymakers, including that researchers use statistical tools to test for bias and monitor police behavior from data in the VSR.

Jeffrey Milyo is a professor of economics and director of the Political Economics Research Laboratory at MU. Milyo teaches courses in political economics, law and economics, health economics and the economics of discrimination. Milyo has published his research findings in several leading academic journals, including the American Economic Review, the American Journal of Public Health, Election Law Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, the Journal of Politics, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics. His research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

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