Race and Ferguson: A Numerical Breakdown

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Things in Ferguson are what they are because of uncertainty — at least in part. The events leading up to Michael Brown’s shooting by a local police officer are still officially unknown; the accounts are conflicting; the reactions on the street mixed and angry. Racial tensions have erupted around the issue, and police response has been militarized and heavily criticized both in America and internationally.

It has resulted in the admission from President Barack Obama that law enforcement equipment could probably benefit from an evaluation. He said it is “probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone — how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need.” Continuing, he said what some would classify as wishful thinking, “there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement,” adding that “we don’t want those lines blurred.”

But blurred lines seems to be the theme in Fergusson, Missouri at the moment, and conduct on both the part of law enforcement and angry civilians has been less than perfect. So for the sake of simplicity, it seems worthwhile to look at the numbers for a more quantitative examination of issues blowing up in St. Louis.

Community Demographics Versus Police

The population of Ferguson has changed a great deal over the last few decades. Brookings Research shows that in 1980, the population was largely made up of white suburbia, about 85 percent. By 2008-2012, the area had changed to about 67 percent black. The same report notes that across the United State’s 100 biggest urban areas, suburban neighborhoods with over 20 percent below the federal poverty line doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012. The recession and slow recovery have been far reaching and pervasive, and Ferguson has seen similar struggles, with the number of citizens living below the federal poverty line increasing to one in four. The unemployment rate also more than doubled, from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2010-2012.

The racial demographics can be put a bit differently; USA Today reports that in 1970, 99 percent of Ferguson was white. Now that number has decreased to 29 percent, but not when it comes to authorities. Three out of 53 police officers on the Ferguson police force are black. Thomas Jackson, chief of police, is white.

Ronald Weitzer has an interesting study in the Journal of Criminal Justice, examining “Race and citizen assessments of police officers” in which he discusses the merits of racial diversity on the police force and “that there is considerable support for a policy of deploying racially integrated teams of officers in black neighborhoods” based on the case studies and interviews. Perhaps Ferguson’s department could take a note.

Black Versus White View of Police

The perception of police authorities is half of the problem in Ferguson. There is little trust or mutual respect between police and the community; fear, anger, and frustration coupled with poor escalation prevention has led to major conflict. On a national level, Gallup examined a backlog of data for racial divide in views of police and the U.S. justice system. The percentage of Americans with “a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in the police showed black respondents 19 percentage points below the national average, and 22 percentage points below white respondents. The percentage having “very little/none” confidence in the police compared 25 percent for blacks to 12 percent for whites.

Looking specifically at police in Ferguson and how they’ve gone about handling the protests and riots there, 65 percent of black respondents said that the police had gone to0 far with rubber bullets, tear gas, weaponry, and SWAT teams. Only 20 percent said the police response was appropriate, and 15 percent said they didn’t know. White respondents were nearly split evenly between saying the police went too far (33 percent), the right amount (32 percent), and no knowing (35 percent).

Race and Perception of Brown’s Shooting

A poll from Pew Research showed enormous divergence in public opinion on the meaning and implications of the Ferguson shooting dependent on race. For example, 80 percent of black respondents said that the case brought up important racial issues, and only 18 percent said race was getting more attention than it should. White respondents on the other hand showed 37 percent saying it brought up important issues about race, while 47 percent said race was over focused on.

The polls stats on whether or not people had confidence in the shooting’s investigation was particularly telling, as it has implications about trust in the government, local law enforcement, and justice system in general. Fifty-two percent of white respondents said they had a great or fair amount of confidence in the investigation, while only 18 percent of black respondents said the same. In contrast, 76 percent of blacks said they had not too much, or no confidence, compared with 33 percent of whites.

This is also of particular import as a fair and just ruling on the shooting is being depended upon to settle violence and unrest in Ferguson. But answers will only bring peace if citizens can accept and trust them — likely why the president has been so vocal about outside efforts being brought in to aid on the case.

Racial Profiling

The Ferguson Police Department Racial Profiling Data sheet for 2013 shows an enormous racial disparity in the number of stops, arrests, searches, and arrest rates. But this information is a little bit complex to draw conclusions from, as the population is a much higher percentage black. Still, while there were 4,632 blacks stopped compared to 686 whites, 562 black individuals searched compared to 47 white individuals, and 483 black arrests to 36 white arrests, the contraband hit rate was actually higher in the white population of Ferguson; 34.04 to 21.71.

It’s also interesting that the percentage of the population that is black does not match up with the percentage of the population that is stopped, searched, or arrested. Sixty-three percent of the population is black. About 34 percent of the population is white. If there are a total of 5,384 stops made, 63 percent of those stops would be about 3,391 stops — a whole 1,241 less than the reality.

The same can be shown for all of the other categories. The search rate is about double for blacks compared to whites, as is the arrest rate, but again, with about double the population being made up of black individuals compared to white individuals, conjecture becomes a danger. Either way, the numbers are worth considering, as is the make-up of the police force.

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