November 13, 2019

Local Activist, Journalist Sues City and Other Municipalities After Being Denied Police Traffic Stop Data

MISSOURI – Phillip Weeks, a local activist who runs the non-profit news site The Gram, has filed suit against the City of St. Louis for violating the state’s Sunshine Law by refusing to give him information about vehicle stops conducted by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD).

“We know there are racial disparities in traffic stops and searches of black motorists by SLMPD. Gaining a better understanding of the department’s practice and pattern of stops and searches is necessary if we want changes to occur. Unfortunately, it appears that the City, the SLMPD and other agencies across the state are trying to cover up these policing practices by hiding records that should be made public by state law,” Weeks said. “If there wasn’t something to hide, why would they go through all the trouble to hide it?”

In denying Weeks’ request, SLMPD has claimed that the records requested have been digitized and are now under the control of the Regional Justice Information Services Commission (REJIS), which provides IT support for the City and a number of law enforcement agencies across the state. REJIS argues that the information cannot be released without SLMPD approval and that the data is not a “record” because it is maintained electronically.

“Both SLMPD and REJIS are arguing that they don’t have to turn this information over because of how it is stored,” said Amy Breihan, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents Mr. Weeks. “That is blatantly false and, quite frankly, a ridiculous position to take in this modern era where so many public records are maintained electronically. SLMPD’s refusal to turn the data over is just an evasion tactic to sidestep public accountability.”

There is no question that the SLMPD collects the information Weeks has requested. Under state law, every police department in Missouri is required to provide the state Attorney General’s Office with specific information, including the driver’s race, for each vehicle stop made within the state. The Attorney General’s office publishes an annual report summarizing the traffic stop data. These annual reports consistently show racial disparities in traffic stops. In 2018, black drivers were 91% more likely than white drivers to be stopped by law enforcement.

Weeks has requested detailed information about the traffic stops made by SLMPD officers, to find out whether individual officers show a pattern of racial profiling in their traffic stops. He also is seeking information about whether officers are unfairly targeting motorists in minority neighborhoods.

“It’s not enough to simply look at the overall percentages of traffic stops that affect people of color,” Weeks said. “The people of Missouri have a right to know whether law enforcement officers are using traffic stops as a means to harass or target minority drivers. By illegally withholding this information, SLMPD and other agencies are showing disrespect for the law and for the people they are supposed to serve.”

After receiving Weeks’ official request for data on traffic stops, SLMPD employees initially feigned confusion, as shown in emails sent to Weeks. Later, SLMPD claimed the records had been digitized and sent to REJIS, so they were technically no longer Department records. When Weeks contacted REJIS, the Commission claimed it did not have authority to release SLMPD data and in fact that the data did not constitute “records” under Missouri Sunshine Law. SLMPD also claims that officers’ DSNs are personnel records, despite the fact that the identification numbers have no relation to an officer’s performance rating, and appear in multiple publicly-filed documents, including incident reports and charging information for criminal or municipal charges.

“If this is allowed to stand, it will set a dangerous precedent,” said Breihan. “Police departments could simply digitize all police records, send them off-site to REJIS, and refuse to produce any future information requested under the Missouri Sunshine Law. We cannot allow public officials to use technology as a way to avoid public accountability and thwart efforts for meaningful criminal justice reform.”

Weeks requested similar information from other municipalities, and received similar pushback from those police departments and REJIS. In addition to his suit against the City of St. Louis, Weeks today filed a second lawsuit against St. Louis County, University City, and Webster Groves for similar Sunshine violations. Weeks is represented by attorney Laurence Mass in that suit.