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Why are US police departments still race-biased?

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Without better data, we won’t be able to learn why racially biased policing persists, and what we can do about it. Español, Français


Alba Morales
16 March 2015

“They’ll stop them just for being black,” a 39-year-old African American woman named Holly told me last August, describing how police in and around her home town of Ferguson, Missouri, treated young black men. “I’ve actually stood there and watched cousins of mine get pulled over. [The police] would sit them down, pat them down, even after they knew they had the wrong person. I have so many of those stories.”

I met Holly across the street from the Ferguson police precinct, where protesters had gathered following the killing of 19-year-old Michael Brown last August. Like many of the protesters I met in Ferguson, she had come out to protest police abuses — including traffic stops, citations, and arrests disproportionately targeted at African Americans — that long predated the Brown shooting.

Whether in Ferguson or elsewhere in the country, communities of color fully recognize that there is a problem with race in policing in the United States. A recent Gallup poll showed that blacks have much less confidence in police than whites. Given this divide, it is not surprising that building consensus on this issue is sometimes difficult. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that no one has systematically collected reliable data on race and policing on a national level. A number of recent reports highlight that gap as the first step in understanding why problems with race in policing tenaciously persist.

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Demotix/Pablo Medina Uribe & Julián Camilo García (All rights reserved)

Over 1 million protesters march against police brutality and structural racism in New York City. The problem of race-based policing in the US extends far beyond the city limits of Ferguson, Missouri.


The U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department and the interim report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, both released this month, make clear that the US needs comprehensive reform of its policing systems, beginning with more robust data collection.

The first report found that African Americans are disproportionately impacted at all levels of Ferguson’s justice system. From 2012 to 2014, they made up 67% of Ferguson’s population, but 85% of traffic stops. Notably, whites searched by the police were more likely to have contraband than blacks undergoing the same treatment. African Americans received 90% of citations issued by the police department; made up 93% of arrests; and were the target of 88% of the police’s use-of-force incidents. And, according to the report, the municipal court system was little more than a revenue-generating machine targeting African Americans, with the Ferguson police as its “collection agency.”

It’s hard to say what lies at the heart of the discrimination in police practices, but it seems clear that the history of racial discrimination in Ferguson is inseparable from that of the US as a whole. As US Attorney General Eric Holder explained, the Department of Justice had “found no alternative explanation for the disproportionate impact on African American residents other than implicit and explicit racial bias.” Indeed, some of the more shocking tidbits from the investigation were the virulently racist emails sent between police officers and court employees, which, rather than giving rise to complaints, were usually forwarded by their recipients.

In response, Ferguson’s mayor, James Knowles, pointed out that “few communities in this country have undergone this level of scrutiny.” He is correct. There are over 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the US. The Justice Department has had the authority to investigate those agencies’ patterns and practices since 1994 (and has increasingly used that authority during Eric Holder’s tenure), but can’t be everywhere. 

At the same time, the US federal government does not even maintain an accurate count of how many civilians are killed by police each year. A report from the Bureau of Justice statistics, also released last week, revealed that it tracks only about 50% of police-involved deaths on an annual basis.

Without better data on police violence and racial profiling, it will prove difficult to find solutions. Both the Ferguson report and the President’s Task Force report contained recommendations for law enforcement agencies nationwide, including suggestions that police collect much more data, such as demographic data for use-of-force incidents, and more information on police-involved deaths.

It’s hard to say what lies at the heart of the discrimination in police practices, but it seems clear that the history of racial discrimination in Ferguson is inseparable from that of the US as a whole. Neither can be well understood without better information like that collected in Ferguson by the Department of Justice and called for by the President’s Task Force. Data collection alone will solve nothing, but the continuing failure to collect such vital information all but ensures that the problem will not be solved.

As Holly told me that day in Ferguson, “maybe Mike Brown will wake some folks up.”

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