The new report abounds with examples of this disparity. Here's one: The Justice Department found that when officers use radar detectors to check for speeding drivers on the road, they are less likely to stop African-Americans than when they rely on "other or unspecified methods," like an officer's visual evaluation of the circumstances. African-Americans are given 72 percent of citations based on laser or radar use by officers, but they are issued 80 percent of citations based on other methods.
According to the report—when outside factors are controlled—the difference between the number of speeding tickets issued to African-Americans and to those of other races is 48 percent greater "when citations are issued not on the basis of radar or laser, but by some other method, such as the officer's own visual assessment." So speed detectors aren't biased—humans are.
The report also shows how officers disproportionately target African-Americans for infractions like "manner of walking in roadway" (i.e., jaywalking) and "peace disturbance"—vague offenses that hinge on officer discretion. Between 2011 and 2013, for example, African-Americans made up 92 percent of "peace disturbance" charges, 94 percent of "failure to comply" charges, and 95 percent of "manner of walking in roadway" charges, among others. Consider again that 67 percent of the population is black.
It's these small encounters that add up to a big problem, with African-Americans bearing the "overwhelming" brunt of the police department's "unlawful stops, searches, and arrests" when it comes to officer discretion-based ordinances, the report concluded.
The DOJ investigation is the result of events last August, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson stopped 18-year-old Michael Brown and his friend for walking in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk in the St. Louis suburb, and later shot and killed Brown. The report does not explain whether this specific interaction was racially motivated (the department also on Wednesday found inconclusive evidence to charge Wilson with civil-rights violations). But the police department Wilson worked for has certainly been found to exhibit a pattern of racial bias.
"It's not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg," Holder said Wednesday.
In the case of law enforcement in Ferguson, it's the system, not the individual, that's culpable.