Police Abuse

Ferguson Police Have a Long, Troubling Record of Racial Profiling


The Washington Post dove deep into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department's record on racial matters and the results are not pretty. As the Post notes, "the department's problems stretch back years [before the Michael Brown shooting] and include questions about its officers' training and racial sensitivity." For example, "the office of Missouri's attorney general concluded in an annual report last year that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans during traffic stops as they were whites."

Not surprisingly, that sort of policing has infuriated black residents. As one man told the Post, "If you can find a single person in this community who trusts the police, that is like finding a four-leafed clover."

Here's a portion of that state report which shows the racial disparities in terms of both vehicle stops and arrests.

Office of Missouri Attorney General

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  1. “Contraband” is such a pointlessly vague descriptor.

    1. Here I was thinking they were carrying a band of Contra Guerillas.

      1. No no no. It’s a quartet of Contra Basses and Contrabassoons.

    2. OK, so, math.

      Black people to White people, in the town: 1.8722 : 1

      Black people to White people, number of stops: 6.7521 : 1.

      Population corrected: 3.6065 : 1

      Black people to White people, number of searches: 11.9574 : 1.

      Population corrected: 6.3868 : 1

      Likelihood of being searched if stopped:
      Blacks — 1 in 8.2419
      Whites — 1 in 14.5957


      OK, so, ignoring other potential factors, such as income level and current location (i.e.: “part of town”), it looks like there is a significantly better chance of being stopped by the police in Ferguson if a person is Black, and a higher chance of being searched by the police if you are stopped, if you are Black. (Which, as I can attest from irritatingly frequent experience, is in and of itself an infuriating experience.)

      Without knowing more about what sorts of “contraband” were found, and acknowledging that there are other reasons besides the presence of “contraband” for making an arrest (outstanding warrants, FYTW, etc) it is difficult to conclude anything specific about the arrest rates, but I think it is safe to conclude that there is something to be demonstrated by the stop and search rates. Presuming my math is correct.

    3. I imagine it pretty much means drugs. What other kind of contraband are you likely to find in street stops? Maybe occasional untaxed smokes or underage alcohol possession.

      1. Illegal firearms, I should think. Knives that are outside whatever proscriptions the state places on them. Etc.

  2. Cue the climate change racism deniers in 3…2…1…

  3. Stats are incomplete- what is the ethnic demographic breakdown by age, for example? If one ethnic group skews younger, it would be disproportionately represented.

    My first suspicion is still blue versus the rest of us. I call that the Balko Syndrome. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that disparate outcome is necessarily an indicator of racism. Perhaps that’s colored (NPI) by my interactions with cops when I was younger versus now.

    1. what is the ethnic demographic breakdown by age

      Pretty sure that data is in there…

      1. Don’t get distracted by the facts.

        We already know what the answer is. If the data doesn’t support that, it’s the data that’s wrong.

        Or the interpretation of it. …or something.

        And if the black people, there, feel like they’re being discriminated against by law enforcement, what’s the government supposed to do about that?

        It’s a democracy! It can’t just go about responding to the way the people feel.

        Or something. Right?

      2. Ethnic breakdown by age is not disclosed, only ethnic breakdown.

        People who get stopped, detained, searched, or investigated generally tend to skew in the 18-24 year old male demographic, and that is partly a function of that demographic being responsible for greater amounts of crime (disregarding for argument’s sake whether some of those crimes should even exist).

        If the population of an area shows a 50%/50% split between black and white residents, but the demographic showed that 75% of the residents in the critical 18-24 year old male subsect were white, you would expect white stops/detentions/investigations/arrests to be higher than their percentage of the total population.

        1. They do have the ethnic breakdown by age for total vehicle stops. See the last section of the last chart.

          1. They have an ethnic breakdown by age OF THE PEOPLE BEING STOPPED.

            What the table lacks is an ethnic breakdown of the broader community by age. 46% of those stopped are in the 18-29 demographic (and yet no one is crying about ageism because it’s accepted as a reality, as it is, that youth are generally more inclined towards criminality than people over 40). But if we found out that 75% of the total population of 18-29 year olds in Ferguson was black, it would stand to reason that there would be a greater skew towards blacks being stopped as a consequence of the skew towards youth stops. Alternatively, if we discover that whites are overrepresented in the 18-29 demo, it would make racism appear an even more transparent cause.

            1. First, there is some disturbing disparity in data. The census says a population of 21,000 and the AG says it’s 16,000. It may be ‘incorporated” versus ‘unincorporated’, but the census figures should be heeded.

              The census also shows a rapid reversal in racial proportions from W:B of 3:1 in 1990 to 1:2 in 2010. Forecasting shows 1:3 this year, 2014. First thoughts are that so rapid a shift indicates (points to, is caused by, whatever…) a community breakdown. It is improbable that community values can hold up under so much change in so little time.

              Overall population stability also indicates a younger (in this case black) population moving in and an older (white) population moving out. The super-growth areas are usually a younger population moving into a less-urban area. Without more, it’s hard to do more than speculate

    2. Even in the 18-29 age group, stops are heavily weighted toward black people. It does get closer to what you would expect if it were completely race neutral with over 40 people.

      1. His point is that if the 18-29 age group is largely black (for example, as a neighborhood becomes more and more black, often elderly whites will remain in the area for lack of resources to move, this happens frequently in areas like Palmdale and South L.A./Harbor Gateway here in SoCal), then one would expect a bias in the number of traffic stops of younger people (a logical result of criminality trends) to result in the appearance of racial disparity.

        1. Exactly so. This breakdown is NOT given in the charts. It may be that there’s still a disparity, but maybe not, or maybe there is but there are other factors involved. Reporters and statistics are a bad mix- you don’t see many Journalism or English majors in stat classes.

        2. OK, I see what you are saying. There are a lot more ways you could analyze the data than are presented here.

          I think that targeting young people for more scrutiny without any actual cause is just as bad as targeting black people.

          1. You do realize police receive APBs describing specific physical features of suspects in this, that, or the other crime, right? Ferguson is a majority black neighborhood with crime rates above the national average. It stands to reason that there would be a number of APBs out for black perps in specific, and that if you’re attempting to find said perp, that logically you would look for those that fit the basics of the perps physical description.

            Look, I’m with all of you guys on the militarization of police, the cops penchant to abuse force and get away with it, and the perverse impact of the war on drugs on majority black communities, but I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand here and pretend like there isn’t a sad reality that blacks are disproportionately represented in the commission of crimes, particularly violent and property crimes. That police detention stats reflect this disparity is unsurprising in light of that.

          2. I sympathize with your POV but disagree. Since violent crime is disproportionately associated with young males, one would expect more law enforcement attention toward that demographic.

            We make fun of TSA for searching 85-year old Swedish grandmas- there’s an analogy here.

            1. Sudden is correct. True, violent crime is disproportionately associated with young males, but the stats show it’s especially associated with young black males.

            2. We make fun of TSA for searching 85-year old Swedish grandmas- there’s an analogy here.

              This. So. Much. This.

              It seems like everyone here, who ordinarily is unafraid to confront uncomfortable and ugly truths, is trying to shy away from it and adopt the progressive call-everything-racist strategy.

              Although it does stand to reason that that very same analogy would also explain the breakdown in ethnic composition of those being stopped. Yes, I think the war on drugs disproportionately impacts blacks. I also know that the rates of violent crimes are significantly higher for blacks. There is no shortage of empirical data to back up this claim in an American context. Pretending it doesn’t exist or it’s entirely a result of racism is a fool’s errand.

              1. Well, we wouldn’t want to commit the modern sin of “profiling,” so we must pretend that 85-year old Swedish grandmas are just as likely to hijack a plane as swarthy 20-year old males.

            3. That’s fine when there is a specific crime that they are trying to investigate and there is some reason to . But a person shouldn’t be subject to police harassment because he happens to belong to the wrong demographic.

              I agree that more police attention to neighborhoods and demographics associated with more crime is probably appropriate. But stopping people on the street or in their cars simply because of things like race or age is not.

              1. “I agree that more police attention to neighborhoods and demographics associated with more crime is probably appropriate.”

                And if the neighborhood in question is even more overwhelmingly black than Ferguson as a whole, won’t the end result inevitably be what looks, in a chart like this, “stopping people … because of … race”?


                Problem is, then, how do we tell affirmative racism (“bother black people because they’re bad/it’s easy”) on the part of the PD from effective, basically colorblind policing (“we arrest more black people because sadly, due to historical reasons, more of them are committing crimes here”)?

                The former should be stamped out on sight.

                The latter is exactly what cops are supposed to be doing.

                But charts like this are almost designed to conflate the two, sadly – precisely because they filter out the locality and age:race (and even better, I’d love to see both of those compiled against criminal record and warrants) information that would let us tell if it was “cops having in for young black men” or actual crime-fighting.

  4. Look at the ‘Reason for Stop: License’ numbers by race:

    White Black
    160 1914

    As a friend of mine used to say, sometimes circumstantial evidence is quite strong, as when you find a fish in the milk. Especially since finding irregularities in a license plate is often a bullshit reason for a traffic stop.

    1. And I suspect it’s even worse if parcelled out by age, but I don’t have time to run the stats. But look at the 18-29 age slice.

    2. ‘Reason for Stop: License’

      Cops call (or used to) this “rolling PC”.

    3. Everybody knows it’s harder for blacks to get a “photo ID”… That’s why voting laws are racist- and so are the cops for acting on this same “knowledge”.


  5. And the inference that this is due to profiling comes from that killer premise you didn’t state…could you state that?

    1. The premise that racial bias is an indication of racial bias?

      1. Remember the distinction between discrimination and bigotry. They are not the same thing.

  6. Not to negate the overall point, but Ferguson is 67% Black so that could also explain some of those numbers. Source.

    1. nvm was mentioned in first chart I am an idiot.

    2. 63% by the first table, and even corrected for that, the numbers are bad.

      1. yep, I am an idiot.

    3. Other demo question: what are the ethnic compositions of surrounding communities? The chart implicitly assumes that all police interactions are with residents.

      1. Oh, good god. I just looked at the map.

        “Ferguson” is a town in the same way “Hollywood” is, i.e.: Not at all. It’s just part of St. Louis, like Hollywood is just part of LA. These stats are basically meaningless.

        1. Imagine that!

          But, hey, we have a scary chart “proving” they’re Super Racist because, uh, hey, everything’s ALWAYS racism.

          I’m absolutely willing to believe Ferguson PD are a bunch of abusive jerks.

          I’m willing to believe, if given better evidence, that they’re racist jerks.

          But this chart doesn’t show it very well at all.

  7. The Washington Post dove deep into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department’s record on racial matters and the results are not pretty.

    Somebody had to do it, and all the crypto-Confederate libertarians are hiding under their desks with their fingers in their ears, going, “LALALALALALALALALA i CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

    1. By crypto-confederates, Brooksie presumably means the people who disagree invasion, conscription, and the murder of 800,000 Americans.

      Looking forward to his condemnation of the crypto-Japs who believe that stowing away Japanese-Americans in concentration camps was a Bad Thing. Those rascals, they.

      1. Don’t worry, Knarf. The South will rise again. It will!

  8. Who has a long and troubling history of spray painting “Snitches get stitches” on private property?

    Might be those same “communities” that keep committing crimes and thus, getting profiled, eh?

    1. Just skip the statistics and what they mean…

      You think this observation somehow justifies racism by the police?

  9. For example, “the office of Missouri’s attorney general concluded in an annual report last year that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans during traffic stops as they were whites.”

    Way back at the beginning of this we were told that the racial breakdown of ferguson was 2/3 black, 1/3 everyone else. Do we all remember that?


    So, if blacks and whites were committing crimes in Ferguson at exactly the same rates then BLACKS WOULD GET PICKED UP TWICE AS OFTEN AS EVERYONE ELSE.

    Please, excuse the caps, but jeezus fucking christ, does the need to perpetuate the collectivist POV eclipse the ability to do simple math so totally?

    There is clearly some racial bias–three black cops?–but this is not it, stop citing it as ‘proof’.

    1. The twice as likely figure already corrects for the racial distribution of the population. In absolute numbers I think that something over 90% of arrests were of black people.

  10. Even if the police department in Ferguson/St. Louis was overtly, demonstrably racist, it wouldn’t be the most important issue in this case, and it’s more than a little pathetic to see Reason hopping on the sjw bandwagon and focusing on that issue nearly exclusively as if it were. The far bigger issue here is that cops, emboldened by their seeming ability to get away with whatever they feel like, appear to have shot an unarmed person who wasn’t committing a crime. Would it really change anything about the nature of what happened if the police had killed one of the 686 white people they stopped instead of one of the 4632 black people they stopped? Was the demographic breakdown of the Euharlee police department’s stops and arrests important when one of their officers killed a 17 year old white guy holding a Wii controller? Was the demographic breakdown of the Fullerton police department’s stops and arrests important when three of their officers beat a schizophrenic homeless man to death?


    1. Scott Shackford recently lamented right here at Reason in the wake of the killing of Eric Garner for suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes that the media focus was on the appropriateness of police chokeholds rather than the arguably slightly more important issue of why a team of cops needed to pounce on a guy for suspicion of violating a petty, ridiculous law in the first place. It was a good point. Still is.

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