Freedomnomics

Article published Thursday, March 19, 2015, at Investor's Business Daily.

Ferguson Justice Department Report Misleads On Racism

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Most seem to accept the Obama administration's claim that the Ferguson police department is a hotbed of racism.

As President Obama asserted last Thursday:

"There was a whole structure (in Ferguson), according to the Justice Department report, that indicated both racism and just a disregard for what law enforcement's supposed to do. ... It is not unique, but it's also not the norm."

Even some conservatives condemned the Ferguson police department.

"It is disgusting," said Karl Rove, and Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard called it "deeply troubling. And I think everybody should be troubled, blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats."

Within days, Ferguson's police chief as well as the city manager resigned. And a recall campaign was launched against the mayor.

No doubt, racism can be a serious problem and should not be tolerated. But we should also be very careful when looking at the evidence before jumping to conclusions. People's lives can be destroyed by baseless accusations.

Mere differences in traffic stops or warrants being issued isn't evidence that people are being treated differently, let alone evidence of discrimination.

Misleading Data

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey, men are 42% more likely than women to be pulled over for traffic stops. We could argue that men are being discriminated against. Yet it seems generally accepted that men simply break the rules more often. The difference has nothing to do with treating people differently or discrimination.

Take the first claim in the report:

"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% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson's population."

But even these numbers are very misleading. The people who drive in Ferguson aren't all from Ferguson.

Indeed, the seven cities that border Ferguson have an average black population of 80.3%.

Some members of the local media, such as McGraw Milhaven, program director at KTRS-AM, claim that Ferguson isn't going after blacks for traffic violations but those who live in other cities. They want non-Ferguson citizens to pay its taxes, and it just so happens that over 80% of those people are black.

All the Obama administration's report had to do in its empirical work was account for where drivers live, but it doesn't do that.

Using just Ferguson's population is misleading for another reason. Nationwide, blacks were 31% more likely than whites to be pulled over for a traffic stop. If Ferguson's blacks were pulled over at the same rate as blacks nationally, they'd account for 87.5% of traffic stops, more than the 85% they do.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the recently released “At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?”

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