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Are The Racial Disparities In Ferguson’s Traffic Stops Unusual?

For years, black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, have been disproportionately targeted by the city’s police officers for traffic stops, according to a damning Justice Department report released Wednesday detailing how the city police department violated civil rights laws. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) suggests that police behavior in Ferguson may not be that unusual.

In September 2013, the BJS published a report that found that overall, 10.2 percent of all U.S. drivers were stopped by police in 2011. However, the percentages varied depending on the race and ethnicity of the driver — 12.8 percent of all black or African-American drivers were stopped that year, compared with 10.4 percent of Hispanic or Latino drivers and 9.8 percent of white drivers.

There appears to be a similar disparity in Ferguson. According to the DOJ report, 85 percent of traffic stops in the city over the past two years involved African-Americans; 67 percent of residents are black. (It’s hard to make a direct comparison with the national data because we don’t know the racial demographics of the city’s driving population and because some of those traffic stops may have involved drivers from outside the city.)

Data on what happens to drivers in Ferguson once they’ve been stopped also points to racially biased police behavior. Figures released in 2014 by the Missouri state attorney general’s office show that Ferguson police searched 12.1 percent of black drivers they stopped, compared with 6.9 percent of white drivers.

Ferguson has come under fire for having only four nonwhite officers among the 54 officers on its police force. But nationally, it’s not only white officers who are stopping drivers of color: According to the BJS statistics, 14 percent of black drivers were stopped by black officers in 2011 — while only 4 percent of white drivers and 3 percent of Hispanic drivers were stopped by black officers. Similarly, Hispanics were far more likely to be stopped by Hispanic police officers than drivers of other races were.

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The BJS report also includes information on how drivers who were stopped felt about their interaction with police. Racial groups that are more likely to be pulled over are less likely to have positive views about that interaction: 82.7 percent of black drivers said police had behaved appropriately when making the stop, compared with 86.5 percent of Hispanic or Latino and 89.4 percent of white drivers.

But the biggest differences appear when looking at perceptions of police legitimacy by race. Only 67.5 percent of black drivers believed the reason for the traffic stop was legitimate, compared with 73.6 percent of Hispanic drivers and 83.6 percent of white drivers. Unsurprisingly, drivers were more likely to say police had behaved appropriately during the traffic stop if they felt the reason for the stop was legitimate.

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The race of the officer also appears to affect perceptions of police legitimacy. Drivers were more likely to feel the reason for the stop was legitimate if the officer was of the same race or ethnic group: In intraracial stops, 83 percent of drivers felt the stop was legitimate, compared with 74 percent of drivers in interracial traffic stops.

These national findings could prove relevant to the situation in Ferguson. Federal investigators began reviewing evidence of racial bias in the city’s police department after Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in August. The city quickly became the focus of a national debate about allegedly discriminatory practices in police departments across the country.

The Ferguson mayor has said that he hopes to recruit more minority officers to the police department in an effort to ease tensions, and Wednesday’s report from the Justice Department makes the same recommendation. City officials must now negotiate a settlement with the government or risk being sued. As the DOJ points out, recruiting minorities to police forces may not affect traffic stops or even use of force, but it can boost community relations by improving perceptions about the legitimacy and appropriateness of police behavior.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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