Still pushing dubious charges: Attorney General Eric Holder's "proof" of racism in the Ferguson, Mo., police department doesn't hold up.Photo: Getty Images
Addressing the nation from Selma, Ala., on Saturday, President Obama said that while racism may be “no longer endemic,” as it was 50 years ago, his Justice Department’s report on Ferguson shows that the “nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Sorry: The Justice report doesn’t prove disparate treatment, let alone discrimination.
In fact, it looks more like something ginned up to distract from the embarrassing fact that Justice (in another report released the same day) wound up fully validating the findings of the Ferguson grand jury.
Racism is serious, and those engaging in it should be shamed — but we should have real evidence before accusing others of it. And every one of the Justice report’s main claims of evidence of discrimination falls short.
Starting with the primary numerical claim. The report notes on Page 4: “Ferguson’s law-enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African-Americans.
“Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African-Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.”
Those statistics don’t prove racism, because blacks don’t commit traffic offenses at the same rate as other population groups.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey indicates that, nationwide, blacks were 31 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over for a traffic stop.
Ferguson is a black-majority town. If its blacks were pulled over at the same rate as blacks nationally, they’d account for 87.5 percent of traffic stops.
In other words, the numbers actually suggest that Ferguson police may be slightly less likely to pull over black drivers than are their national counterparts. They certainly don’t show that Ferguson is a hotbed of racism.
Critics may assert that that “31 percent more likely” figure simply shows that racism is endemic to police forces nationwide.
Hmm: The survey also reveals that men are 42 percent more likely than women to be pulled over for traffic stops. Should we conclude that police are biased against men, or that men drive more recklessly?
In fact, blacks die in car accidents at a rate about twice their share of car owners.
A 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that black drivers who were killed in accidents have the highest rate of past convictions for speeding and for other moving violations. This suggests that there are a lot of unsafe black drivers, not racism.
The Justice report on Ferguson continues, “African-Americans are at least 50 percent more likely to have their cases lead to an arrest warrant, and accounted for 92 percent of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued by the Ferguson Municipal Court in 2013.”
Again, this pretends that a mere difference is evidence of discrimination.
But the report’s statistic doesn’t even look at the seriousness of a charge — something that makes a big difference in whether to issue a warrant.
Could it be that blacks are more likely to face particularly serious charges?
Since Justice has gone through the case files, it could easily have answered the questions. Perhaps it didn’t like the answers. (Unfortunately, no national data are available for comparison.)
Another major complaint in the Justice report: “Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public-safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments.”
If you think that this is unique to Ferguson, try not paying your next speeding ticket.
As for the anecdotal evidence Justice offers to bring home this complaint, well, here’s an anecdote from Washington, DC — a town with a black mayor and black-majority city council.
Megan Johnson, a black DC woman, recently failed to pay 10 parking tickets within the allotted 30 days. The city doubled her fines from $500 to $1,000, then booted, towed and sold her car — and charged her $700 for towing and impounding it.
DC sold the car at auction for $500 and won’t even credit that amount to what she owes. It’s now attaching her tax refunds.
Justice’s Ferguson anecdotes no more prove racism than Megan Johnson’s experience proves the DC government is racist.
Finally, for “direct evidence of racial bias,” the report describes seven emails from Ferguson police officers from 2008 to 2011 that Justice describes as offensive to blacks, women, Muslims, President Obama and his wife, and possibly people of mixed race.
But this begs some big questions: Did only one or two of the 53 officers send the emails? Did the objectionable emails end in 2011 because those officers no longer worked for the department, were told to stop?
The Justice Department’s report reads as a prosecutor’s brief, not an unbiased attempt to get at the truth, with evidence carefully selected and portrayed in the strongest possible light.
Differences don’t necessarily imply racism, but the Obama Justice Department doesn’t seem to care.
John R. Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and a former chief economist for the United States Sentencing Commission.