Racial Profiling in Ferguson

The Washington Post has numbers on the much higher rate at which blacks are stopped and/or searched in Ferguson vs. whites.  By itself, while that is a useful pointer to a discrimination issue, someone might argue that blacks in the area commit more crimes per capita and thus warrant more stops.

There is one bit of data in the Post's numbers that can be used to partially address this.  The data says that blacks have their cars searched much more frequently than whites.   Blacks have their cars searched 12.13% of stops while whites have their cars searched only 6.85% of stops.  But this understates the disparity, since blacks are stopped at a higher rates than whites.    Taking the disparity in stops in to account, blacks are searched at a rate 6 times higher than for whites.

The interesting part is in the data on contraband hit rate, ie the rate that searches uncover something illicit.  The contraband hit rate for white car searches is 57% higher than for black car searches.  In other words, it is more likely searches of white cars will yield something illegal.  Which tends to undercut the argument that the greater rate of black car searches is somehow justified.

By the way, I want to highlight one other figure.  Black cars are stopped at about a 6x higher rate for "equipment" deficiencies than whites.  Nitpicky regulations on car conditions (in Arizona your licence plate frame cannot cover any part of the word "Arizona" on the licence plate) are the great bugaboo of the poor and a nearly unlimited warrant for the police to stop minorities.  Mexicans here in Phoenix will tell me "woe to the Mexican who drives around here with a broken tail light -- he will be pulled over 3 times a day to have his immigration status checked".  In Phoenix, at least, stops for equipment issues are roughly the equivalent of pulling someone over for "driving while brown."  Even beyond the open-ended warrant these silly violations give the police, the fines and court costs create meaningful indebtedness problems for the poor which are hard to overcome.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, I worked essentially in one corner of Ferguson in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years.  Like many of the inner ring of suburbs in St Louis, this is not a wildly prosperous area but it also is not Somalia.  Driving at night I was much more nervous in the neighborhoods both due south and due East of Ferguson).

Update:  Via Zero Hedge

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  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    "the fines and court costs create meaningful indebtedness problems for the poor which are hard to overcome."

    Were you under the impression that the powers that be are actually interested in raising the poor out of poverty? As far as they are concerned, exacerbating the indebtedness problems for the poor is a feature, not a bug or an unintended consequence.

  2. donald:

    DWB is worse than DWI in most cases. people can fake being sober while driving past a cop.

  3. marque2:

    You know what - I have been stopped and given a phoney ticket with a car search because I was driving while white in an area of Los Angeles. They do this because they figure the only reason white people would be in the area is to buy drugs.

    And they were right - not knowing any better I was trying to get to a Rite-Aid to buy drugs - but it happened to be closed when I got there.

  4. herdgadfly:

    Figures don't lie but liars figure. Blacks occupy the housing units in Ferguson, but they don't live there. 67% of the city's population is black which includes 15,000 of voting age, but they turned out only 1,350 to the polls in the most recent election, and therre were no black candidates. I am sure that this same aversion toward civic duty extends to all public facilities including interaction with schools (for the sake of the children) and cooperating with public safety agencies, - where, btw, jobs available for blacks go away for lack of applications.

    Funny but when it hits the fan, the poor minorities are victims and there is always plenty of anger to break the law by rioting and looting. At a time when rule of law is absolutely required, we do not need to revisit the effectiveness of stopping only DWB autos when crime and incarceration statistics dictate that those are the vehicles where the perps likely are likely holed up. There simply is neither the time nor the money to enforce laws for the sake of soothing the possible racial bent prevalent among minorities. Selective enforcement is what police can easily manage and it represents smart policing, not racism.

  5. 3rdMoment:

    It's true that the figures show a higher "hit rate" for finding contraband in searches of whites vs blacks.

    But they ALSO show a much higher "arrest rate" for blacks who are stopped vs whites.

    This is consistent with the police being quicker to arrest black people for minor offenses where they would have let a white person go. But it is also consistent with them honestly finding more crimes among the blacks that they stopped.

    The extra searches (those which yielded no contraband) might be justified on this basis. For example, if you have reason to arrest someone, it seems reasonable that you might also have reason to search their car for weapons or drugs, even if many of these searches come up empty. (The total percentage searched is only a little above the arrest rate for both whites blacks.)

    Thus it's not clear to me that the lower hit rate for blacks is strong evidence of profiling or bias (although I believe that such bias does exist).

  6. bigmaq1980:

    Another factor that may explain the disparate reactions - the rioters, the overuse of force to disperse even peaceful protestors - may be the huge demographic shift in the past 20 years in that county. Megan McArdle has a great post on this...

    It may be the result of "the Great Inversion" https://www.ida-downtown.org/eweb/Dynamicpage.aspx?webcode=GreatInversion . The sudden demographic change perhaps created a "culture shock", that has yet to be absorbed by the governing bodies and the civic services of that county. Megan mentions police unions as an impediment to this change. One can imagine that is true from schools to the municipal bureaucracy.

    This does not excuse either party of any wrong doing, but it helps the rest of us maybe understand why we are seeing what has transpired.

  7. joe-dallas:

    One factor that may be omitted from the statistics is the age of the driver. From my teenage years until my mid to late 20's, I was pulled over quite frequently 10-15 times per year. The fact that i am white did not seem to reduce the number of times i was pulled over. Now in my mid 50's, I am pulled over once every 3-4 years. A number of factors can account for some of the difference, better driving skills, living in more affluent neighborhoods where police presense is less needed, etc.

    While there is probably a large statistical difference, I would be curious if the disparities would drop if they compared the age and the race of the occupants.

  8. marque2:

    Was it racial profiling, or was it that the teen was the primary suspect in a strong arm robbery? Doh. I guess the police weren't really profiling after all, unless you consider any description of someone who committed a crime, a "profile"

    I think before we jump to conclusions we need to wait a bit longer to see just what happened. I think the locals just used the boy as an excuse to get some free goodies from Walmart.

  9. marque2:

    Very good point!

  10. marque2:

    Unfortunately this may be a reaction or overreaction to non-peaceful protests. In the 1980's and 1990's anarchists on the pretext of something other, would invade cities, break all the windows steal stuff, all in the name of World peace, or anti-globalization, and whatnot. And then anyone who was arrested would have the charges dropped. Because, well they were rioting for good cause you know. I think folks got sick of it and want the police to stop rioters, in the name of protest, from destroying their cities.

  11. marque2:

    It could be consistant with, black people being more likely to be involved in crime. I get pulled over it is for speeding. The cop will give me a ticket and let me go - unless I am in the wrong part of town.

    The reward (being able to arrest someone for a crime) is much higher on average with a black person than a white - that is just the way it is, and as long as there is a black culture that supports criminal activity, it will remain that way.

  12. marque2:

    The cops aren't nearly as racist as presented. This is one of those stat tricks, that make the situation look bad when the police are trying their best (though I do admit some of the swat team stuff of recent years is over top.)

    It works like this - the city is partitioned into say 10 areas where you monitor crime and various other activities - you might even have on police station in each area. The Mayor and the police chief look at figures from these 10 areas - blindly. Area 1 has the least crime and Area 7 has the most. So the Mayor and police chief decide to move more police officers to the "bad" areas and take them away from the "good" areas, because that makes sense, to stop crime.

    Of course the "bad" areas are mostly in minority neighborhoods, so then race hustlers and Libertarians start decrying that there are more arrests of minorities, and random streat searches of minorities than there are of the rich folk and make claims that it is racist and white folk wouldn't put up with it - which is totally not true. If there were more violent crime in the financial district (area 1), I would be all for more police presence. Of course the race hustlers and libertarians, never ask the average citizen in Harlem (area 7) how they feel - usually they are happier because they feel they can safely walk down the street. The minority shop owners are usually happy too, because people start feeling safer in the area, and purchase more goods from their shops. (There are some cool shops now in Harlem for instance).

    It makes sense to put the police where the crime is. And it also makes sense that if the police are in high crime areas, and they area is mostly black, mostly black people will be pulled over. These are almost tautologies. And it also makes sense that it is not racist to patrol areas of high crime.

    An aside, I was eating at a Popeye's chicken in Harlem and got into a conversation with a black person at the next table. He was going on about how awful Giuliani was - and I said, well didn't he cut crime a lot in this area, and make it safer. And the black person told me how awful that was, because it made Harlem more desirable, and was causing housing and rent prices to go up, making it unaffordable for many people (they have rent control though). That was a big eye roller.

  13. marque2:

    And I should mention I have been profiled. I have been pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhood - what is a white doing in the hispanic part of town. And as youth I was pulled over all the time much like joe-dallas. Now I have been pulled over once in the last 10 years because I am older and don't drive as zany.

    That could be another reason for the DWB - black people do not respect law as much (as can be seen from crime statistics), and may be poorer drivers as a result.

  14. marque2:

    There should also be an evaluation of how good black drivers are. If blacks are much more likely to speed, to zig zag in between traffic, to not keep the car maintained, they will be much more likely to be pulled over. One great way to avoid dealing with law enforcement is to not push the law too far.

  15. Matthew Slyfield:

    "The cops aren't nearly as racist as presented."

    You are right, of course, but that doesn't mean that they aren't violent thugs.

  16. marque2:

    Some are and there are quite a few cases where police behave poorly. I am still willing to give the benefit of the doubt in the latest broughhah until we get some more facts.

    Bit the stat thing is true. More blacks get pulled over and are frisked because
    1 they ate in high crime neighborhoods
    2 they are more likely to commit crimes

    It certainly isn't racist to go to where the crime is to reduce crime.

  17. marque2:

    Hmm blacks are twice as likely to break the law as whites on the road and are pulled over about twice as often. So it seems like driving while black really isn't a racist police thing. Thanks for the post - proof of the obvious.

  18. HoratiusZappa:

    >The contraband hit rate for white car searches is 57% higher than for
    black car searches. In other words, it is more likely searches of white
    cars will yield something illegal.

    It doesn't necessarily indicate anything about the likelihood of finding something illegal in cars populated by white folks; it does indicate that the profile used for white folks is better or that the profile used for black folks is unnecessarily broad or unjust.

  19. dirk:

    Not even that. The 57% number is the likelihood of finding something illegal conditional on searchig the car of a white car. Hence it something like the difference in average (!) return of searching a white versus a black car conditional on the profiles used.

    Hence, if that number were 0, then the used profiles which is more sensitive to black cars (3 to 6 times more often) would be fully justified as they yield the same average return.

    However, even that is not hundred percent correct. Because what counts is not the average but the marginal return. And given the numbers in the text (Black cars x times more often involved in something illegal) it is quite rational to assume that if one increases the sensitivity of the profile, the marginal likelihood of searching a white car decreases faster than for a black car.

  20. gitarcarver:

    "(in Arizona your licence plate frame cannot cover any part of the word "Arizona" on the licence plate)"

    As I remember, Florida had a similar statute that allowed the police to pull people over when license plate frames obscured any of the word "Florida." That was eventually thrown out by a judge as it was being used as an excuse to pull people over. The basic reasoning was that Florida cops recognize the design and colors of the plate, and not the name of the state - especially in the state of Florida.

  21. John VI:

    Could this be accounted for with group bias? Its not that white officers are more biased against Blacks, but rather more sensitive to cues from white citizens that are performing illegal acts. White officers raised in white neighbourhoods thier whole lives are better at detecting criminal/deviant/other behaviour in thier same cohorts. It would be interesting to see if black officers have the same stop/contriband ratios between thier black and white car stops.

  22. Mark:

    It would be nice if Warren applied a little more critical thinking to the statistics in this case, rather than going with the most naive possible interpretation. I know he's strong with numbers.