Demonstrators chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” in protest of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Ferguson, Missouri, was the site of riots five years ago after Police Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Sparked ostensibly by one fatal abuse of power, the unrest was fueled, it became clear in subsequent reporting, by more-routine iniquities — from excessive traffic stops targeting black residents to a municipal-court system that treated them like an ATM for bankrolling its daily operations. Some things have changed in the time since. The Ferguson Police Department, then almost entirely white, has quintupled its number of black officers and is now headed by a black chief. A state senate bill passed in 2015 capped the revenue percentage that municipalities are allowed to draw from courts at 20 percent, nearly halving 2013’s statewide court haul by 2018, according to the New York Times. But one problem has proved resilient: racial disparities in traffic stops. The Times’ John Eligon reports that black motorists in Missouri were even more likely to be pulled over by police in 2018, relative to their white counterparts, than they were in 2013. The gap was wider in Ferguson. Despite the aim of recent reforms in this arena, the outcome in practice has been a white populace reaping the benefits of laws meant to disincentivize racist traffic stops for revenue, while black people continue to suffer.
The failure to remedy this problem speaks to the entrenchment of structural inequality, according to observers. “I understand the status quo to be one of structural racism, poverty, overinvestment in the carceral system, and policing and prosecution,” Blake Strode, executive director of the St. Louis–based legal-advocacy organization ArchCity Defenders, told the Times. “That is as real today in 2019 as it was five years ago in 2014.” The fallout is both irritating and costly. Black motorists say they’re still pulled over often without being given a reason. Those who get cited sometimes can’t afford the resulting fines and fees, leading to more fines and fees and potentially warrants. The latter prospect has led at least one black woman in neighboring Florissant to voluntarily give up driving altogether. Data affirms her risk assessment. The office of Missouri’s attorney general issues a report each year comparing the rate at which motorists of different racial backgrounds are expected to be stopped, given their share of the driving-age population, over the course of a year. Alignment between expectation and reality is expressed by the number 1.0. Statewide, black motorists were pulled over at a disparity index value of 1.65 in 2018, meaning higher than expected, while white motorists were pulled over at a value of 0.94, or lower than expected. The gap between the two is 0.71 — which, although wide, pales compared to that in Ferguson: 1.42 for black motorists versus 0.27 for white motorists, for a difference of 1.15.
There are limitations to this methodology, including that people who get pulled over don’t necessarily live in the neighborhoods they’re driving through, creating a disconnect between the resident population and the motorists on the road. Eligon’s reporting shows nonetheless that local traffic courts were packed with black people, who composed the vast majority of those facing citations both in majority-black systems, like Ferguson’s, and majority-white ones, like neighboring St. Ann’s. Even with more black officers patrolling the streets in the last five years, the resilience of this disparity is consistent with how research suggests race factors into other negative manifestations of law enforcement, like police shootings: White officers do not kill black people at higher rates than black officers do. Put simply, the racism that produces disproportionate black death at the hands of police is institutional. The evidence suggests the same is true of traffic stops in Ferguson.