In Ferguson, Racial Bias Makes Police Officers Worse Than Machines

African-Americans bear a “disproportionate burden” of citations and arrests that can’t be explained by differences in crime rates among races, according to a Justice Department report released Wednesday.

National Journal
March 4, 2015, 10:40 a.m.

Just about every sentence in a new Justice Department report on civil-rights violations within the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department is damning. The statistics that the report uncovered all point to the deliberate targeting of African-Americans, ushering them into a local justice system motivated by maintaining high revenues from the tickets and fines collected.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder called the report “searing.” He said the disproportionate targeting of African-Americans stems from “overriding pressure from the city to use law enforcement not as a public service but as a tool for raising revenue.”

African-Americans in Ferguson comprise 67 percent of the population, but they receive 90 percent of all police citations and make up 93 percent of all arrests. The Justice Department’s investigation found that these high rates are not explained by differences in actual criminal activity between blacks and whites. Instead, the report concludes, it’s bias. “Our review of the evidence found no alternative explanation for the disproportionate impact on African-American residents other than implicit and explicit racial bias,” Holder said.

The new report abounds with examples of this disparity. Here’s one: The Justice Department found that when officers use radar detectors to check for speeding drivers on the road, they are less likely to stop African-Americans than when they rely on “other or unspecified methods,” like an officer’s visual evaluation of the circumstances. African-Americans are given 72 percent of citations based on laser or radar use by officers, but they are issued 80 percent of citations based on other methods.

According to the report — when outside factors are controlled — the difference between the number of speeding tickets issued to African-Americans and to those of other races is 48 percent greater “when citations are issued not on the basis of radar or laser, but by some other method, such as the officer’s own visual assessment.” So speed detectors aren’t biased — humans are.

The report also shows how officers disproportionately target African-Americans for infractions like “manner of walking in roadway” (i.e., jaywalking) and “peace disturbance” — vague offenses that hinge on officer discretion. Between 2011 and 2013, for example, African-Americans made up 92 percent of “peace disturbance” charges, 94 percent of “failure to comply” charges, and 95 percent of “manner of walking in roadway” charges, among others. Consider again that 67 percent of the population is black.

It’s these small encounters that add up to a big problem, with African-Americans bearing the “overwhelming” brunt of the police department’s “unlawful stops, searches, and arrests” when it comes to officer discretion-based ordinances, the report concluded.

The DOJ investigation is the result of events last August, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson stopped 18-year-old Michael Brown and his friend for walking in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk in the St. Louis suburb, and later shot and killed Brown. The report does not explain whether this specific interaction was racially motivated (the department also on Wednesday found inconclusive evidence to charge Wilson with civil-rights violations). But the police department Wilson worked for has certainly been found to exhibit a pattern of racial bias.

“It’s not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said Wednesday.

In the case of law enforcement in Ferguson, it’s the system, not the individual, that’s culpable.

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