Clayton police officers keep a watchful eye during a peaceful protest in Clayton, Mo. The governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard ahead of a grand jury decision in the case of a black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas, AFP/Getty Images)
When it comes to racially lopsided arrests, the most remarkable thing about Ferguson, Mo. might be just how ordinary it is.
Police in Ferguson — which erupted into days of racially charged unrest after a white officer killed an unarmed black teen — arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races.
At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.
Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.
"That does not mean police are discriminating. But it does mean it's worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling.
Whatever the reasons, the results are the same: Blacks are far more likely to be arrested than any other racial group in the USA. In some places, dramatically so.
At least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black, USA TODAY found.
"Something needs to
be done about that," said Ezekiel Edwards, the head of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, which has raised concerns about such disparate arrest rates. "In 2014, we shouldn't continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look."
The unrest in Ferguson was stoked by mistrust among black residents who complained that the city's police department had singled them out for years. For example, every year, traffic stop data compiled by Missouri's attorney general showed Ferguson police stopped and searched black drivers at rates markedly higher than whites.
A grand jury is considering whether Officer Darren Wilson should face criminal charges for shooting a teen, Michael Brown. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Monday as authorities braced for more unrest after the grand jury's decision is announced.
Such tensions are not new. Nationwide, blacks are stopped, searched, arrested and imprisoned at rates higher than people of other races. USA TODAY's analysis, using arrests reported to the federal government in 2011 and 2012, found that those inequities are far wider in many cities across the country, from St. Louis to Atlanta to suburban Dearborn, Mich.
SUSPICION IN DEARBORN
A dozen people stood or slumped on benches before sunrise in Dearborn on a recent morning, waiting for officers to unlock the doors of the 19th District Court, where they had been summoned to answer traffic citations and petty criminal charges. Almost everyone who lives in Dearborn is white (including a large population of Arabs). Almost everyone waiting in the morning dim was black.
"You can see who's going in there. I guarantee they don't live here," Lawrence Wynn, who is black, said, looking at the line outside the courthouse door. Most days, Wynn said, he detours around Dearborn on his way home from his job at a suburban auto plant. It makes the journey half again as long, "but I'd rather do that than have to come through Dearborn at night."
He leaned in close. "I think they're targeting people."