The Ferguson Probe Reveals Entrenched Racial Bias in Policing

March 9, 2015

The Justice Department’s probe of Ferguson has revealed a troubling pattern of discrimination in traffic stops, but the problem doesn’t begin or end there.

The initial findings from the Justice Department’s probe of the Ferguson, Missouri police department reveal a pattern of racial discrimination that is both broader than Ferguson and deeply rooted. Among the most shocking statistics disclosed last week is that African Americans accounted for 93 percent of all arrests in Ferguson in the 2012–14 period, although they accounted for only 67 percent of the city’s population.

Vehicle or traffic stops, a routine feature of citizen-police confrontations, appear to be a prime example of racial police bias in action. The initial findings reveal that 85 percent of all people stopped and 90 percent of citations in the area were conducted against African Americans. During the 2012–14 period, Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, although they remained 26 percent less likely to be in possession of contraband.

In spite of former Missouri state representative Jeff Roorda’s statements, it’s difficult to deny the startlingly obvious racial bias such evidence suggests. However, this initial set of 2012-14 findings has focused on Ferguson from 2012-14, ignoring longer-term trends in racial policing of traffic stops across the State of Missouri.

The Missouri Attorney General’s analysis of vehicle stop rates from 2000–13 in Missouri and in the St. Louis County area reveals this long-term pattern. The stop rate in St. Louis County increased more than 300 percent during this period across all ethnicities, with a disproportionate increase in Black communities. There was a 522 percent increase in stop rates for Blacks, while the corresponding figure for white motorists in St. Louis County was 284 percent. Similarly, the ratio of stops that led to arrests has also shown a racially disproportionate increase, moving from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 7.5 percent in 2013 for African Americans, while corresponding figures for Whites were 1.1 percent and 4 percent. Clearly, not only have the police in St. Louis County been pursuing an increased number of stops, but an ever greater portion of these have targeted the African American community.

The disparity index compares a racial group’s proportion of traffic stops to its proportion of the population aged 18 or older. A value of 1 indicates that a group is neither over- nor underrepresented in traffic stops. In other words, the higher the disparity index, the greater the racial profiling at traffic stops. An examination of the disparity index for vehicle stops in St. Louis County provides an even clearer picture.

During the entire 13-year period of examination, the disparity index for Blacks in the region has remained between 1.34 and 1.50, peaking at 1.50 in the year 2013. Meanwhile, for whites the disparity index has remained between 0.88 and 0.96 in the same period, falling from 0.94 in 2000 to 0.88 in 2013. In fact, no other single ethnicity has ever risen above the disparity index of 1 in the entire period, demonstrating that African Americans were the only ethnicity to be the victims of disproportionate traffic stops in the 2000–13 period.

The Department of Justice’s findings and a slew of media coverage have focused on the Ferguson region and the county of St. Louis. Yet the trend of increasingly punitive and racially biased traffic stops demonstrated at the St. Louis County level is just as demonstrable for the state of Missouri as a whole.

At the state level, the Attorney General’s report reveals that stop rates have climbed 270 percent, rising 385 percent for African Americans and 252 percent for whites during the 2000–2013 period. The rate of arrest from such stops in 2013 also remains racially tinged: 7.7 percent and 4.2 percent for African Americans and whites respectively. Finally, while the statewide disparity index has remained between 0.98 and 0.95 for whites, it has steadily increased for African Americans, rising from 1.27 in 2000 to 1.59 in 2013 and reaching a peak of 1.63 in 2011. In fact, the disparity index for African Americans in Missouri was even higher than St. Louis County. Clearly, the county’s racially discriminatory vehicle stop practices are not an outlier in the state. Equally though, in a nation where both the regularity and nature of traffic stops bear marked racial disparities, the state of Missouri itself is far from an outlier in national police practices.

These findings represent the entrenched nature of racially biased police stops. The case for stronger and more regular federal oversight of St. Louis’s policing practices could not be stronger. This local effort, however, must be complemented by a broader state-level response. Strengthening police-community relationsbuilding police departments that more closely match the ethnic demographics of their constituents, and developing a more holistic set of safety measures beyond policing are all vital steps toward charting a less punitive and biased form of policing in St. Louis, Missouri, and beyond.