Traffic enforcement, the use of school resource officers, and efforts to recruit minority police officers were among topics discussed during the Webster Groves Police Community Engagement Board’s first-ever meeting on May 13.
The city council created the board in September to offer advice and make recommendations on issues concerning public safety and police services. Members were appointed by the council in March.
Mayor Gerry Welch is city council liaison to the group.
“A primary purpose (of the board) is to build a closer relationship between the police and the community. Another main purpose is to find more ways to promote public awareness of the city’s police services and programs,” she told board members.
In addition to Police Chief Dale Curtis, board members are: Jean Scholtes, owner of Kind Soap Company; Rev. Eric Hayes, pastor of Community Baptist Church; John Thomas, with the Webster Groves School District; Karen Alexander; Dr. Scott Groesch; Kevin Sombart; Katy Friedman Miller; and Nakailah Shields-Robinson, a student at Webster Groves High School.
Curtis provided members with information on police policies and procedures, department staffing, and calls for police service, which average about 26,000 a year.
Concerning Interstate 44 traffic enforcement, Curtis said less than one percent of drivers stopped by officers are residents of Webster Groves, though about half of the city’s traffic stops are made on I-44.
Curtis said that significant enforcement efforts on I-44 are the result of Missouri Department of Transportation highway safety grants, which pay for all cost of officers assigned to those details.
Curtis added that the city plans to add a full-time traffic officer to its staff to help increase traffic enforcement in neighborhoods.
In response to a question about racial disparity in traffic stops, Curtis said the formula is based solely on Webster Groves’ driving population of 18,000, but that only 12 percent of officers’ total stops were of Webster Groves residents.
“Therefore, the data is seriously flawed and doesn’t reflect a true disparity rate,” he said.
Curtis added the department makes serious efforts to train against and prevent racial profiling.
He added that officers often aren’t able to determine race or gender of a driver when conducting radar details for speeding on I-44.
“Traffic stops and (racial) disparity are a bigger issue to parts of our community, and that’s among reasons this board was instituted,” Curtis said.
Board Member Rev. Eric Hayes, who is African American, said he had only been stopped by police once in 16 years. But he added he has heard from some in his congregation and elsewhere who feel they have been profiled.
“There is distrust of the police department, based on lack of communication,” Hayes said.
Curtis said African Americans make up five percent of his officers. He said it’s a constant challenge to recruit minority officers given competition with St. Louis County Police and the Missouri Highway Patrol.
“I think the key to this board is being open and honest, so that every opinion and perception matters,” said Board Member Kevin Sombart.
The board’s next meeting, which is open to the public, is Monday, June 10, 6 p.m., at Webster Groves City Hall. The police department’s community engagement officer likely will attend.