​How Much Racial Profiling Happens in Ferguson?

In the past, it's been difficult to definitively answer a question like this. A new, nation-wide database might help.
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In 2013, the Ferguson Police Department made 5,384 stops and 611 searches. 86 percent of the stops and 92 percent of the searches were of black people. Only 67 percent of the town's population is black. 

The racial disparity captured by these numbers is unacceptable, but it is not as easy to make sense of the injustice as it might seem. Are they solely a reflection of racist law enforcement actions?

UCLA's Center of Policing Equity has been called into dozens of police departments across the country to help them understand problems like this. And each situation is different.

"If you imagine that there is racism in law enforcement—and I don’t have to imagine, I’ve seen it, it definitely exists—there must also be racism in housing, employment, and education," said Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of UCLA's Center for Policing Equity. "We don’t know when the disparities we see in law enforcement are from the actions of law enforcement or if the disparities are picking up on bad things before contact with law enforcement."

When staffers from the Center of Policing Equity go into a police department, they talk with community advocates, police officers, and the people of the city—all of whom provide important information about law enforcement behaviors. What they find is communities who have for generations felt like they're not being policed but occupied. And yet, at the same time, they find the "vast majority" of police officers and executives trying to do the right thing. 

The problem of racism both includes and goes beyond what a police department does. Sometimes, a police department has bad numbers because the police engage in racist actions, and other times, the number of stops and arrests the police make are a symptom of "America’s inability to make better our history of racism and oppression," as Goff put it.

In Ferguson, there is one clear sign in the data that the police might be at fault for Ferguson's racially skewed stop-and-search statistics. Despite the racial disparity in stops, the Ferguson police department was more likely to find "contraband" on the white people they stopped and searched than on the black ones. "If your stops of black folks are less efficient than your stops of white folks," Goff said, "then you want to look at that and make it stop."

But to go beyond these simple measures takes careful analysis. "In St. Louis County and St. Louis City, those chiefs brought us in and said we have these data, and we’ve talked to a bunch of groups, and we want the experts to figure it out," Goff said. "Well, the experts are in the process of figuring it out. It’s not like it’s cut-and-dried, we got the data and therefore we know it’s profiling. That’s just not true."

One thing hampering the efforts to tease apart the general legacies of racism and the specific actions of police departments is the lack of national data for comparing one department to another. 

So, the Center for Policing Equity is creating The Justice Database, a national catalog of police behavior—including stops and the use of force. They've received more than $1 million from the National Science Foundation, Department of Justice, and several private foundations to create the aggregated national data.

The Center is pioneering what they call "evidence-based social justice," applying quantitative methods to difficult, seemingly intractable social problems. "The only way we’re only going to take a look at [a police department's] numbers and know how big a problem there is and the best way to go fix it, is to be able to compare departments against each other," Goff said.

Fascinatingly, it is police chiefs themselves who have helped push for the creation of the database. "The chiefs want the database. They want to know the answers because many of them say they are tired of doing the same thing over and over again and not figuring out a better way to solve the problem," Goff said.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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