Op-Ed: Ferguson by the Numbers

March 20, 2015

by John Tatom, Ph.D.

Two separate reports dated March 4, 2015, by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) on the Michael Brown killing and on the Ferguson, Mo., police and courts set new, but mixed, benchmarks for what happened. While the DOJ could find no reason to question Officer Darren Wilson’s account of the shooting of Michael Brown, it launched a secondary investigation of the police and courts for potential civil-rights violations.

The DOJ points out that the popular version of the shooting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” was a gross misrepresentation. Attorney General Eric Holder in his public statement, however, did not comment on the equally supported evidence that Mr. Brown assaulted the officer and fought to take control of his gun.

Nor did Mr. Holder note that just before the fatal shot was fired, a wounded Michael Brown came at the officer bent over and reaching out to take the officer down. Mr. Brown gave every indication throughout the episode that he believed he could take the officer down, take possession of his weapon and use it on him.

Mr. Holder’s focus, again, was elsewhere: “It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” he said in declaring that there was a pattern of violation of minority civil rights.

The DOJ’s evidence is largely based on data routinely required by the Missouri Attorney General’s office. The office has been collecting this data and publishing a report on it for 14 years. These reports are careful to indicate that the data do not provide evidence of racial discrimination; they only provide a starting point for a dialogue on the subject. Nonetheless, the DOJ used this data to assert a conclusion.

The reports do not control for a number of critical factors that influence stops, arrests or citations, such as income, age, sex or presence of outstanding warrants. Nevertheless, many protesters and other critics argue that the Ferguson Police Department should be shut down, allowing the St. Louis County Police Department to take over.

But St. Louis County’s performance on the metrics used by the Missouri Attorney General’s office is much worse. For example, the share of blacks stopped by the county police in 2013 was 1.5 times larger than the share of their local black population, well above the 1.37 ratio registered in Ferguson. The average performance of all departments in Missouri is even worse (1.59 times the share of the state’s black population) as is that in numerous municipalities in the St. Louis area.

The DOJ report documents seven race-based jokes written by members of the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal court. These are seven too many, but the number comprises a minuscule fraction of the tens of thousands of emails over the four-year period examined.

In summary, Ferguson deserves a break. Small groups of protesters looted and burned more than 25 of the city’s businesses and burned more than 12 automobiles. There now is established a relatively permanent group of protesters who have moved to the St. Louis area to protest in Ferguson on an almost daily basis.

The DOJ indicates the prime motivation for excessive stops by the Ferguson police is to raise revenue, but it provides no evidence of racial animus in stops or in the pursuit of revenue. Indeed, there is no inherent reason to believe that revenue-based policing should be related to racial bias or racial outcomes.

Revenue-based policing has been a serious concern in some municipalities in the St. Louis region for many years, though not in Ferguson. In 1995, Missouri capped the share of city revenue from fines at 30 percent. Missouri recently filed suit against 11 St. Louis-area municipalities for violating this limit.

In the meantime, the legislature is considering proposed reductions of the limit to 10 or 20 percent of city income. Ferguson, unlike many of its neighbors, has not exceeded the limit. A recent St. Louis Post Dispatch article found that, in 2014, Ferguson ranked 33 of 78 local municipalities for per-capita municipal court collections and 40 for per-capita traffic cases.

The Missouri Supreme Court transferred control of the Ferguson municipal court to the circuit court within days of the report, and within a week the municipal court judge, city manager and police chief resigned, removing the management leadership behind revenue-based policing. But the problem, again, is not inherently racist, and Ferguson is not among the more blatant offenders in the St. Louis region.

Despite the DOJ’s rebutting the false narrative of “Arms Up, Don’t Shoot,” its subsequent actions and statements have led many observers to mistakenly conclude that there is evidence of racist policing. Political and community leaders will have to work harder to demonstrate that this is a continuing false narrative if they want to defuse the divisive and destructive protests.

John A. Tatom, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a fellow at the Institute for Applied Economics at Johns Hopkins University and a former research official at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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