In Ferguson, Washington Fans the Flames

Instead of helping to the heal wounds in Ferguson, the Justice Department made things worse.

The New York Times website carried a photo from the protest that occurred outside the police station at Ferguson, Missouri, on Wednesday night. It showed a police officer in riot gear being confronted by a female protester, her demeanor contorted in anger, vitriol spewing from her face as she shouted into the night air. The photo captured a significant element of the situation in Ferguson—the anger that is directed indiscriminately at the police force, viewed by significant numbers of people there as the enemy, as an institution run amok to the detriment and danger of minority citizens.

It isn’t surprising, given this anger and vitriol, that in the midst of the demonstration two police officers would be shot as they sought to help prevent the protest from devolving into street chaos. Both were in serious condition, though their wounds were not adjudged to be life-threatening. One of the officers, a thirty-two-year-old man with seven years of service in the nearby town of Webster Grove, had a bullet smash into his cheekbone, just below the right eye, and lodge behind his right ear. Perhaps he will recover fully; perhaps not.

This latest development no doubt will intensify the racial tensions that have been welling up in Ferguson since last summer, when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager who had resisted arrest and may have sought to grab the officer’s weapon. It seems that the cycle of animosity and tension generates further episodes that in turn intensify the cycle of animosity and tension.

And one has to ask: How much did the U.S. Justice Department contribute to this vicious cycle when it issued its report—described in the media as ``scathing’’ and ``damning’’—that said the Ferguson Police Department and court authorities routinely violated the rights of African-Americans in pursuing aggressive policies, particularly in traffic enforcement, aimed at maximizing revenue. The report painted a picture of favoritism given to friends of the power elite while citizens in black neighborhoods bore the brunt of the aggressive traffic enforcement. It also revealed instances of egregious racist expressions in email exchanges that clearly should result in personnel terminations anywhere.

But why did the Justice Department have to issue such a report while the embers of Ferguson’s previous racial tensions were still hot? And why did President Obama have to enflame the matter further by saying the report showed that the ``nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us?’’ Put another way, does the federal government have any obligation to attempt to sooth these racial tensions when they emerge in local areas as a result of local incidents?

That the report was incendiary is beyond dispute. Whether it was justified in its conclusions is another matter. Perhaps the Justice investigators did indeed find in Ferguson a law enforcement cesspool of rampant racism and a collective mentality that needed to be rooted out. But the methodology seems just a bit suspect on the surface.

An interesting analysis of the report was produced by John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and a former chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Writing in the New York Post, Lott quotes the report as saying, ``Ferguson’s law-enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African-Americans.’’ Between 2012 and 2014, says the report, Ferguson’s African-Americans, which constitute 67 percent of the city population, were subjected to 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by Ferguson police officers.

But, writes Lott, routine Justice Department statistics show that in 2011, nationwide, blacks were 31 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over for a traffic stop. If we applied this percentage statistic to Ferguson, the Ferguson differential would be almost precisely what the Justice report showed was the national differential. Indeed, these numbers reveal that Ferguson police officers are actually slightly less likely to pull over black drivers than police officers across the nation. Hence, the Justice statistics are meaningless in proving endemic racism among Ferguson police officers.

It’s possible, of course, as Lott notes, that the 31-percentage-point differential shows a racial bias among cops nationwide. But that hardly justifies singling out Ferguson. Besides, as Lott points out, the national survey also shows 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?’’ asks Lott.  He cites a 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that found that black drivers killed in accidents had the highest rate of past convictions for speeding and for other moving violations. Hence, it’s possible that there is a differential in how people of different races handle themselves behind the wheel. In any event, it should give pause to those quick to draw conclusions about racism from statistics.

The Justice report also said, ``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.’’ This statistic tells us nothing unless it is backed up with information on any racial differential in terms of people paying their fines and appearing in court. As Lott points out, Justice easily could have gone through the case files and provided such contextual information, but its report neglects those crucial questions.