Police Abuse

What Racially Biased Policing Looks Like

The Ferguson police search blacks more often even though they are far less likely to be found with contraband than whites.


Black anger that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not charged for killing Michael Brown stems partly from the fact that blacks in America often face much worse treatment from cops than whites do. Only rarely do whites get an unpleasant taste of what minorities have to swallow.

Police car
Public Domain

A few years ago, when my middle child was in college, he had a summer job in New Mexico. Returning home to Illinois, he drove into Oklahoma, where he was pulled over by a highway patrolman.

He said my son was going 57 mph in a 55 zone, asked him to get into his cruiser and questioned him about where he was coming from and where he was going. Then the trooper said he'd like to search the car.

My son was reluctant, but eventually decided he had no choice but to agree. The officer thoroughly inspected the vehicle, which he damaged in the process, and found nothing.

With that, young Chapman was allowed to go—without a speeding ticket. But 20 minutes later, another trooper followed him for several miles and pulled him over for an "improper lane change."

My son recounted his previous encounter to the officer, who made a call to confirm it and then explained why he was worthy of so much law enforcement attention: He was a young adult male in a car with an out-of-state license plate and a college decal, driving solo on a major drug trafficking route (an interstate highway)—as if those factors proved anything.

What the trooper didn't mention is that from a distance, because of his dark hair and complexion, my son might be taken for Hispanic. In any event, he let him leave—again, with no citation.

If you want to know why many black residents of Ferguson, Mo., distrusted cops even before Brown's shooting, you can assume that practices like this play a role. In 2013, 86 percent of all the traffic stops there involved African-Americans, and they were twice as likely to be subjected to vehicle searches as whites who were stopped.

The Ferguson police search blacks more often even though they are far less likely to be found with contraband than whites. These disparities are typical of vehicle "consent searches" in other jurisdictions.

The searches are known by that term because they may not be conducted without the agreement of the motorist. (If the cop has "probable cause" that he'll find evidence of a crime, he can search without asking.) But it's a joke. Few drivers are willing to say no.

Why would anyone—particularly someone with illegal cargo—cheerfully agree to have his car ransacked? Because he figures it would be worse to antagonize an armed cop, who might ticket him, arrest him, plant incriminating evidence or even shoot him. In Illinois, about 90 percent of search requests are granted.

Some states and cities have recognized that these requests are inherently coercive and unfairly target minorities. So they have restricted such searches, requiring "reasonable suspicion" of a crime and written consent from the driver. But those limits may be a false comfort.

The Illinois State Police says its officers request permission only when they have reasonable suspicion. But Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, says what the term encompasses is so elastic that "it's no impediment at all."

It's also a lousy guide. Consent searches in Illinois yield contraband in 18 percent of searches. In Missouri, the hit rate is just 24 percent.

A lot of innocent people are delayed, inconvenienced and even humiliated because a cop had some flimsy and usually mistaken basis—or because the officer's racial biases, conscious or unconscious, set off false alarms. What looks to cops like aggressive law enforcement often looks to victims like harassment and vandalism.

Police are not very good at overcoming those prejudices even when they're revealed. Illinois has been collecting and publishing racial data on traffic stops and searches since 2004, and disparities persist.

It's clear that the only way to protect motorists from being pressured into unwanted, racially skewed searches is to forbid the misnamed consent searches entirely. If cops have clear grounds to think a crime has been committed, they can search anyway. If they don't, they should mind their own business.

Why do so many blacks and Hispanics see the cops as enemies? Because in situations like these, that's how they come across. Even if you're white.


NEXT: Private property and the Pilgrims

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  1. How confident is Chapman that his son was mistaken for a Latino?

    Whiteys have their problems with cops. Just ask…oh, wait, we can’t ask that homeless guy in Calif. any more.

    1. Yeah, when I was a young long haired dude driving the kind of cars young dudes drive I got all kinds of attention. As a middle age man driving family sedans I get almost none.

      1. What are you trying to say? Are you saying that cops focus on people they think are more likely to commit crimes?

        Thats just crazy talk, man.

        1. Naw – they focus on people most likely to not have the social power to get out of paying a ticket or fine.

      2. When I had long hair and wore jeans with concert t’s I took it for granted that if I saw a cop I was going to be stopped, threatened, questioned, ran for warrants, and then reluctantly let go when they couldn’t find an excuse to bust me.

        I haven’t been harassed once since I cut my hair and changed my wardrobe.

        1. I cut my hair and got a nicer car (I always dresses relatively conservatively) but still got fucked with a couple of times. Then I moved out of Arkansas to Louisiana and it all stopped. Except for a couple times in DC when cops just decided to be dicks that day.

          1. I haven’t had much trouble since moving to Maine.

            I think a lot of it has to do with what happens to loot. When cops hand out tickets and steal property, the proceeds go into the state’s general fund. This means the cops don’t have a monetary incentive to be dicks.

      3. Yep. I had like 13 speeding tickets when I drove my Mustang. When I started driving a truck, they stopped.

        1. I only ever got 2 tickets in my ’93 Mustang I had for 13 years. Sold it to my son in law and started getting new ones in ’12. Never been stopped in one of those….weird.

          And got stopped two days in a row on my Ninja. As soon as the helmet came off and they saw my license balding 52 year old was let go with no comment 🙂

      4. Contraband is found if the officers want it to be found. Yes, I’m saying they will plant you.

    2. White people who are annoying and helpless don’t count. They’re just too tempting.

    3. I have read a lot of posts from long time bikers that once motorcycle riding went mainstream, they were getting hassled a lot less even though they still looked the part of an outlaw biker.

    4. I am quite white and I was harassed by cops routinely while I was living in Little Rock. I was searched multiple times over the few years that I lived there. It was ridiculous. And it’s all because of the location (culture) and the cops from that location. OK and AR are going to be pretty much the same. If you don’t look like a redneck good old boy or a helmet head evangelical type, you are not trusted. You will be targeted for a pullover for some bullshit reason and searched. The redneck cops are just assholes like that.

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  3. Ethnic bias is a fundamental feature of humanity. as long as cops are human, there will always be ethnic biases in law enforcement.

    1. This is true, which is exactly why they shouldn’t get power that they are likely to abuse.

    2. I know, huh. ROBO COP would be so cool! No racial bias! No dead dogs!

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    1. Wait til the turkey cools, dude!

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  5. Works the other way too. As a white guy, the only times I’ve ever been pulled over for legally questionable reasons was when I was driving through a black neighborhood at night.

    1. So…you’re saying you’re a drug dealer?


    2. I used to help out with some mobile soup kitchens in NYC. One time in Brooklyn, this cop car followed us around all four sides of a city block until we got back to the soup kitchen.

      One of the cops comes up to us and said, “Oh, you’re with these guys. We saw you get out of a car with Jersey tags and we figured you were buying drugs ’cause that’s the only reason white people from Jersey come here.”

    3. Back when I was in high school I got pulled over leaving my girlfriend’s house. I had a shitty beater car and I was driving through a relatively nice neighborhood. They just pulled me over for no reason. Once they saw I was white they went easy on me (I suspect).

  6. Incidentally, you may recall how dunphy told me that cops shouldn’t be interrogating suspect officers even though they interrogate other suspects? Dunphy thought the situation of being a cop and having your bosses interrogate you was sufficiently coercive as to pressure you to incriminate yourself despite your constitutional privilege.

    Well, what about the poor civilian being pressured to accept a search contrary to his constitutional privilege? I wonder if our dunphy has a position on that?

    1. I wonder if our dunphy has a position on that?

      The only position our dunphy has is on Morgan Fairchild. In his dreams.

      1. He also held the position of lead guitarist for Van Halen.

  7. I went and looked around on my bookshelves, but they are a mess and I can’t find the book I am looking for. The title is something like ‘How not to be arrested’, ‘How to be invisible to the cops’, or something to that effect. The author is a defense lawyer and and an ex-cop.

    In a nutshell he says 1) Don’t wear weird clothes or have a weird haircut 2) Don’t put any contraband in your car, ever 3) Don’t ever talk to the cops about anything, ever, under any circumstances 4) Never consent to a search.

    He even goes so far to say you should put only the necessary papers in your car, nothing else, then adjust the seats and used expanding foam to fill under the seats and all compartments where anything could be hidden.

    Basically, do what you can to not draw attention to yourself; be invisible to them. Don’t give them any excuses.

    1. Because compartments sealed with expanding foam isn’t at all suspicious.

    2. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about during an illegal traffic stop and search.”

      1. Sounds suspiciously like how people justify the NSA.

  8. Way too much “policing” going on in ethnic neighborhoods and not enough “keeping the peace”. Most of the policing is done under the guise of crime prevention and a little of it is justified, however most of it is revenue generation and downright harassment. Me thinks this sort of behavior by police departments in middle class white neighborhoods would not be tolerated.

    1. Cops go where the crime is. Except banks and government.

      1. Crime is wherever the cops go.

  9. POOR civilian. Poor people commit more crimes. Or should I say “underprivileged”.

  10. Breaking footage of Darren Wilson’s grand jury deliberations. Footage starts at 45 seconds


  11. The problem with this argument is that it’s possible they go after people who they deem to look ‘poor’ or ‘shady.’ Since black people are more likely to be low income if you go after people who have the signifiers of being poor, it would look to the naked eye like racial profile when it’s actually a class issue.

    Of course, cops mistreating the poor isn’t any better than cops mistreating African Americans, but you can’t assume it’s racial profiling when there are other potential causes.

    1. Officers of the court are predators who prey on people who can’t afford representation.

      1. Who, in many neighborhoods, are more likely to be black. Exactly.

        If they’re simply going after soft-targets who don’t have the means or money to fight back, then that would look like racial profiling when it’s actually predatory class profiling.

        The way of dealing with these problems is different, so we should avoid just assuming it’s racial when there’s another potential explanation.

    2. “… it’s actually a class issue.”


    3. I think most “racism” is “classism” in disguise. This is not to say that there isn’t racism, but you could be as black as the ace of spades and if you’re wearing a tailored three-piece suit in Georgetown (money part of DC for the unfamiliar) nobody’s stopping you for shit. On the other hand, you could be the prince of WASPS, but if you’re walking around a nice residential neighborhood wearing a white t-shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers, it’s a lock that you’re going to have an encounter with authorities before the day is over. It has to do with social identity. If you look like you belong to the same group as the people around you, you don’t look suspicious.

      1. Are you saying Trayvon Martin would have been shot even if he was white dressed the way he was in a state with Stand Your Ground laws?

  12. Has Mr. Chapman ever heard the one about “conflation is not the same as causation?” At least he has the courage to admit the causes of his own bias before claiming bias in others.

  13. Incidentally, there was an article in the Nation about how terrible it is that so many black people in Ferguson get hit with fines and things of that nature.

    Can someone please explain to me how the people writing for that shitty left-wing rag don’t realize that it’s partially their fault that this happens? Progressives argue in favor of all sorts of rules and regulations ‘for our own good’ and then complain when those rules and regulations are enforced.

    For example, most progressives would argue in favor of laws that ticket people for jaywalking and not wearing a seat belt since it helps keep people ‘safe’ (even though there’s no evidence that ticketing people actually does this). They then complain that people get ticketed for the laws they advocated in the first place.

    It’s sort of like how progressives hate cops but then argue in favor of more laws without ever considering that the cops will be the ones who have to enforce them. If you think cops are racial profiling monsters who hate and abuse black people, maybe you shouldn’t create more laws which will have to be enforced by these horrible people.

    1. Intentions trump results.

      1. And feelings trump intentions. It’s the progressive death spiral.

    2. You can enforce the law without using the hamhanded, anti-poor tactics that the current “justice system” likes to use.

      Also, few of the laws and regulations that leftists push for are enforced by cops on patrol. When I think of leftist regulation, jaywalking is nowhere near the first thing that comes to mind.

      1. No, actually. You can’t. Government is force, and nothing more. Force is hamhanded by nature.

        All enforcement will be hamhanded. The only way to limit the hamhanded use of force by government is to have fewer laws to enforce.

      2. Also, few of the laws and regulations that leftists push for are enforced by cops on patrol. When I think of leftist regulation, jaywalking is nowhere near the first thing that comes to mind.

        In the end, all regulations are enforced by the police. Otherwise you could just ignore the regulators. It’s the threat that the regulators will involve the police which gives regulations their teeth.

        Also, jaywalking may not be the ‘first thing’ that comes to your mind, but there are a host of such regulations that impact every part of our lives. I was watching a documentary about Detroit where they interviewed a man who runs a business. The regulators in Detroit essentially act like the mafia. They would come in and basically shake him down to such a degree that he’d end up giving them free things to get them off his back.

        Democratic party officials and regulators basically looted Detroit, to give just that one example.

  14. Newsflash Chapman – almost any youth with out-of-state plates is harassed by troopers. Two of my sons (white, by the way), driving modest vehicles have experiences similar to the story you recount here (e.g. stopped by one trooper, profiled and then stopped again a few miles later via another speed trap).

    Police harassment, illegal search, and outright lawless behavior are serious issues. Making this about profiling will only serve to diminish and side-track the conversation.

    1. Yeah, you understand what it’s like to be harassed by police /sarcasm.

    2. If they can’t eat it, get high from it, or have sex with it they will break it or kill it.

      -Mark Twain

  15. The Ferguson police search blacks more often even though they are far less likely to be found with contraband than whites.

    Well, I’m sure all the rioting, looting and property damage has improved their image.
    Sorry, but this is the part I can’t reconcile. If their treatment by police is so disproportionate and statistically speaking they’re just as law abiding as any other group, why have looting and other crimes reached foregone conclusion status whenever an ‘injustice’ occurs. I’m not talking about protests, I’m talking the actual violent crime sprees that have now become expected outcome.

    1. Well, I’m sure all the rioting, looting and property damage has improved their image.

      Oh, without a doubt?

  16. You know, “minorities” include non blacks and browns. Mostly Asians and Muslims, who don’t shoot each other or the police as much. Their incarceration rate is pretty low.

    Ferguson is almost 70% black. That 83% of all police stops were on blacks is a bit fishy, but probably not that unusual. If you eliminated all racial bias, maybe the number goes down to 60-70%. Blacks commits the most crime out of all minority groups and they often exist in more situations that invite suspicion.

    I agree that the community had simmering tension against the police. But to be honest, did the black community care about the police a day before the shooting? Why were there little black presence in the Kelly Thomas outrage, in which the cops were totally culpable?

    This is really about racial politics. The left will be outraged first, or spot an epidemic first, and then find a reason later. The protesters were beat on the facts of the case, so they and the pundits clung onto a larger grievances in justifying their violent rage.

    That’s one thing I don’t like about some libertarians – they share the left’s tendency to find justifiable cause for acts of violence. I don’t John Brown a hero, even though he cut down slave owners. Al Qaida, much like the Ferguson protesters, do NOT operate based on one or two justifiable grievances. They were radical to begin with.

    1. Ferguson is almost 70% black. That 83% of all police stops were on blacks is a bit fishy, but probably not that unusual. If you eliminated all racial bias, maybe the number goes down to 60-70%. Blacks commits the most crime out of all minority groups and they often exist in more situations that invite suspicion.

      It isn’t actually fishy at all. If 70% of Ferguson is black and African Americans are more likely to commit crimes, then 83% of police stops being on African Americans is not a surprising number.

      1. You also need to consider demographics- is there a differential in age distribution between different ethnic groups?

    2. NPR/HuffPo and others ran the story linked below in August. One of the major Ferguson community grievances is the use of fines/court fees as a revenue source.

      What caught my attention was the exceedingly high level of arrest warrants (average THREE PER HOUSEHOLD) – so while I don’t care for excessive fining and piling-on of court fees/no-show fees, etc as revenue streams, it seems the Ferguson residents aren’t generally law-abiding.


      1. The aren’t supposed to be law-abiding. They are supposed to be arrested for minor things, then piled on with court costs and fines until those become separate charges, all to pay for the enforcement that generates the revenue.

        1. Except in reality trying to get fine money from poor people is next to impossible. They don’t have it and you have to give them endless delays and continuances to even get some of it. It costs money to put them in jail. The arrest warrants are because they agreed to pay a fine and never did.

          My drug addict brother once gave the police my name for a DUI. I didn’t turn him in but had to appear in downtown LA at the serious misdemeanor arraignment. All I did was show him my ID and that it didn’t match the booking papers and the judge dismissed the case without any attempt to find out what happened. Many of the fines were suspended because the people couldn’t pay them.

          In the SF valley and west LA the best you can get is more time to pay.

          In that arraignment the fine in downtown was 500 because that was all they could afford. In the valley it was 1000 because the suburbanites would just pay it and be glad it wasn’t more.

  17. Using wikipedia census figures, there are about 14,300 blacks in Ferguson. How many rioted? I’m not talking peaceful demonstrations; I’m talking throwing bottles, looting, etc.

    This is a sincere questions. If less than 300 people were violent, then you’re talking less than 2%. This doesn’t seem like a high number to me. Is that number available?

  18. So apparently the majority black voters of Ferguson either support the policing policies of their cops, or heretofore didn’t give a damn enough to change them. Maybe they just need to elect officials who will change the policing policies and rules of engagement? Then they can demonstrate how good or ill Ferguson will become.

  19. Dammit, here seems like as good a place as any to say that my Thanksgiving was made very unpleasant because a person who I REALLY HOPED wouldn’t be as*hole enough to bring up Ferguson at dinner insisted on doing it. And even though I said repeatedly that I didn’t want to discuss it with him, that there was no point because we’d never come to any agreement on police brutality, and even though I said I have no opinion on Brown’s death because the facts are too difficult to decipher, he still wouldn’t let go. So finally, when he pushed and pushed and basically said I am too biased to think straight on the issue of police brutality, and that even in the case of Kelly Thomas he simply thinks I “only know a small piece” of what really happened. I said that I think he has an authoritarian personality. Which was very hurtful and caused him to leave the table and lock himself in his room and refuse to speak to me again. And his wife, who is my friend, is stuck with him the rest of the day. Happy holidays, y’all.

    1. If it makes you feel better, he opened that door when he condescendingly accused you of being “too biased to think straight”. Although I’ve lived in Maryland all my life, most of my family is from the South, and they’ve passed on a fine, fine tradition: never discuss religion or politics in mixed company.

      Also, anyone who would lock himself in his room because someone called him an authoritarian is a pussy and should die of shame. Seriously. That stopped being an effective negotiating tactic around 13. Dickface is giving you an early Christmas present by never speaking to you again, and your friend should get a divorce.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. It DOES make me feel better! Thank you wwhorton. It is pathetic, the locking himself away bit, after he pushed the conversation again and again. Sheesh.

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  21. So police are racists because they pulled over a white person, but this white person must be a racial target because you think he looks Hispanic?

  22. Blah. Blah. Blah. The fact is, the reason blacks are *stopped* more often is because *blacks commit disproportionately more crimes than people of other races.* Full stop.

    1. *blacks commit disproportionately are victims of more crimes than people of other races.* Full stop.


      1. Couldn’t both be true?

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  24. If they can’t eat it, get high from it, or have sex with it they will break it or kill it.

    -Mark Twain

  25. We really need to import some Mexican Federales (so Hispanics are not unfairly treated). I’ve heard they are much more reasonable and restrained when it come to searches like this. /sarc

  26. So, is it a requirement these days that in order to be a libertarian one has to badmouth the police at every opportunity, or to assert the police engage in onerous practices, especially against minorities — without the data to back it up. That, at least, is the impression one gets from reading the slew of articles in recent days on this website. Message to Reason and its readers: the individual responsible for the death of Michael Brown was . . . Michael Brown.

  27. Its kind of hard not to have ANY “racial bias” as a police officer when blacks commit most of the crimes in the United States but they only take up 14% of the population.

  28. I love it when Reason has articles like this. I can picture the heads of so many commenters ready to explode as they try to determine who they hate more: Cops or Poor Blacks.

    1. OMG this. These comments make me so sad as a black libertarian and almost make me want to renounce any affiliation with the movement. There sure is some vile racism on display in all these Ferguson threads.

  29. “The Ferguson police search blacks more often even though they are far less likely to be found with contraband than whites”

    This statement must be supported by a cited source, otherwise it is pure bullshit.

    I’m going to assume that it may be based off of results of the Ferguson PD’s searches that show a higher % of searches of white people turned up contraband than the % of searches of black people.
    This is a result that ought to be expected in a situation where black people are targeted for searches and white people are only searched when there is probable cause.

  30. The Ferguson police search blacks more often even though they are far less likely to be found with contraband than whites

    That kind of statistical cherry picking cannot form a basis of a rational analysis of racial bias. There are so many erroneous assumptions that go into this that one can only say: you are race baiting with the worst of them.

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