FBI Data: Racial Profiling Is Real and Ferguson Is Just the Tipping Point

By Julissa Catalan


Photo by Shutterstock

The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., has brought racial-profiling and racial disparities in arrests to the forefront again. Racial profiling is rampant in FergusonBlacks account for 93 percent of traffic-stop arrestsbut the racial disparity in arrests is actually far worse in other parts of the country.

A USA Today analysis of FBI arrest data found that 1,581 other U.S. police departments arrest Blacks at rates even higher than Ferguson. These departments range from those in major cities, like Chicago and San Francisco, to suburban towns on the outskirts of cities like Detroit and New York. In St. Louis County alone, more than two dozen police departments had arrest rates more lopsided than Ferguson’s.

The studywhich gathered data voluntarily reported to the FBI from 20112012, tracked by race (excluding Latinos) found that 70 departments from Connecticut to California arrest Blacks at a rate 10 times more than people of other races.

The review showed:

  • Blacks are more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, Black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.
  • Arrest rates are particularly lopsided in some pockets of the country, including St. Louis’ Missouri suburbs near Ferguson. In nearby Clayton, Mo., for example, only about 8 percent of residents are Black, compared to about 57 percent of people the police arrested, according to the city’s FBI reports. Clayton’s police chief, Kevin Murphy, said in a prepared statement that “Ferguson has laid bare the fact that everyone in law enforcement needs to take a hard look at how we can better serve our communities and address any disparities that have existed in our departments for too long.”
  • Deep disparities show up even in progressive university towns. USA Today found police in Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., arrested Black people at a rate more than nine times higher than members of other racial groups. Madison Police Chief Michael Koval said most of the arrests happen in the poorest sections of the city, which are disproportionately Black, and where some residents have pleaded for even more police presence. Still, he said, “I think it would be remiss to suggest the police get out of this whole thing with a free pass. We have to constantly be doing the introspective look at who we are hiring and how we are training.”
  • Arrest rates are lopsided almost everywhere. Only 173 of the 3,538 police departments USA Today examined arrested Black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups.

Take Dearborn, Mich., the primarily whiteand Arabsuburban community that is believed to “target” Black people.

According to reports submitted to the FBI, more than half of the arrests in Dearborn in 2011 and 2012 were Blackyet Blacks only make up 4 percent of the town’s population. Within those two years, 4,500 Black arrests were reported500 more than the amount of Black people who actually reside in Dearborn. The arrest rate for Blacks compared to Dearborn’s population was 26 times higher than for non-Blacks.

Most of the arrested are out-of-town workers who pass through Dearborn on their way to and from Detroit.

In 1997, the local NAACP branch accused the Dearborn Police Department of racial profiling at traffic stops. Civil-rights lawsuitsalleging excessive force and officers using racial slurshave continued to pile up.

Up until 1978, the city was presided over by Mayor Orville Hubbard, who believed in segregation and had “Keep Dearborn Clean” emblazoned on the city’s police cars.

This seems to be a trend in suburban Detroit, which is one of the poorest and mostly Black cities in the nation. For example, police in Livonia, another Detroit suburb, arrested Blacks at a rate 16 times higher than any other race. In nearby Allen Park, the rate is 20 times higher.

The reporters analyzing the data point to multiple possible factors for the disparity, but a strong correlation that cannot be ignored is that Black arrest rates seem to be a derivative of the economic and educational gaps.

“There is no doubt a significant degree of law-enforcement bias that is the engine for this. But there’s also no controversy that educational quality and employment discrimination lead to this,” said Phillip Goff, President of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Policing Equity. “It’s not an indicator of how big a problem there is with a police department. It’s an aggregator of what’s going on in the community.”

Still, he said, “there’s some level of disparity that is a warning sign.”

“That does not mean police are discriminating. But it does mean it’s worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling.

Harris added that such obvious disparities have consequences. “Believe me, the people who are subject to this are noticing it and they’re noticing it not just individually but as a group. It gets talked about, handed down, and it sows distrust of the whole system.”

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