I am overt about the fact that I have negative opinions about law enforcement in general and specifically regarding the War on Drugs, which is a very poorly disguised War on Dark People We Don't Want In Our Neighborhoods. Racial profiling, especially with respect to traffic stops and vehicle searches, is a politically contentious issue for a good reason. Like many Americans, I was raised to believe that there are lots of black people in jail because black people commit more crimes. That amounts to little more than a very convenient effort to explain away the staggering racial disparities at every step in the process from "License and registration, please" to incarceration.

The Missouri Attorney General has a statutory obligation (since 2000) to produce an annual report on potential racial profiling by the state's various law enforcement agencies. Missouri deserves some credit for being forthright enough to track, report, and publicly discuss this phenomenon, which is more than most states are willing to do. As a society we tend to look for any excuse to avoid confronting the 900-pound racial elephant in the room.

If Missouri is an indication, there is a very goddamn good reason that state and local governments prefer to avoid the subject. In these summary statistics, pay particular attention to the "Disparity Index" (% of total stops / % of total statewide population):

Hispanic drivers are stopped at approximately the "right" rate – that is, they are about 2.25% of the population and 2.25% of the stops. Black drivers, on the other hand, constitute about 11% of the population and nearly 17% of the stops, whereas white drivers are 84% of the population and just over 79% of the stops. While it is not logical to expect perfect correlation (i.e. the occurence of violations meriting a stop are distributed equally among all racial groups) other statistics do more to illustrate the problem.

White drivers are subject to vehicle searches in less than 8% of stops while black drivers are searched 12% of the time (hispanic drivers, at 15%, are almost twice as likely to be searched). That could make sense if the contraband hit rates were consistent, i.e. police search black drivers more but find contraband as often as other drivers. Unfortunately, the numbers show the "hit" rate is highest for white people, meaning that if statistics were to be used to support an argument for racial profiling, it would be that white drivers should be searched more often. Cops are less likely to search whitey but more likely to find evidence of a crime when they do. Funny, right?

There are simply too many factors involved to expect perfect correlation between law enforcement and population demographics. That blacks are 11% of the population does not mean that exactly 11% of traffic offenses will be committed by black drivers. There is a big difference, though, between expecting perfect correlation and finding lopsided statistical inequality. Much like Illinois was unable to explain why whites are significantly more likely to get written warnings while minorities get citations, Missouri's Attorney General concludes by offering no explanation for the disparities. The report is a very diplomatic effort to point out the obvious facts – Missouri cops pull over, search, and arrest black drivers at rates far in excess of white drivers – while simultaneously being pressured to avoid the obvious conclusion. Sure, I suppose it's possible that black and hispanic drivers just commit more crimes (suspend comprehension of the silly contraband hit rate for a second) but, just as it is "possible" that the moon landing was filmed on a sound stage, the available evidence favors much more plausible explanations.

(h/t Matthew)


  • David Recine says:

    I was actually pleasantly surprised that the disparity between races was so small. Am I too cynical?

  • David Recine says:

    BK— I worked at the Menards DC in college as well. Were you at the main one in Wisconsin perchance.

    You're right; that job was awful.

  • I think you must be confused. Racial inequality was banned a long time ago. Everyone is equal now. :) haha
    The ugly stream of racism has gone underground – I suspect we'll continue seeing the effects of ignorant people for as long as we're willing to dig deep enough.

  • David –
    Yeah, I was in Building 21 in Eau Claire… the cross-dock. Seemed like every other day a large metal crate of paint or cleaning colvents was being dropped between 12-25 feet onto the floor… fun times. That was after I worked with a small crew outside painting plywood and recycled conveyor track for the new DC in Plano – my choice was to take a transfer or lose my job (and money for college)…

    As for this post – it's right on. I know a few police officers here in south east Wisconsin who are unabashed racists. When I've challenged them on it they say they're just doing their jobs and that there's a reason for the high arrest and harrasment rates. Basically their arguments boil down people of color commit more crimes.

    As a society, what do we expect? As far as I am aware, most police officers do not have a college education (not that this automatically precludes you from being an unabashed racist) and are required to attend few, if any, seminars or trainings on racial sensitivity. Additionally, there are limited, once agian if any, resources for psychological screenings of recruits and new officers.

    The pay is low. The hours are horrible. It's dangerous.

    Add to this local, state and federal government officials and a beuracracy that doesn't really see any problems regardless of any number of statistics, reports or anecdotal evidence regarding racism in the justice and law enforcement systems and – voila…

  • Good analysis of some useful, sobering statistics. I am suspecting, though, these would look different in the Los Angeles area, particularly with Hispanics.

  • Like you said, there is a lot of factors going on here. As an example, look at the Asian statistics: they are as under-harassed by the police as the blacks are over-harassed by the police, but no one is alleging that they are getting a free ride. (Two asians from MO have certainly told me the state is not very asian-friendly. Big surprise.) I would guess that the biggest factor that causes variability is the local demographics.

    It would be great if the state could compile all the statistics by individual precincts and individual officers, and then they could just fire all the worst-offending officers. That would go a long way to promoting equal protection under the law, but maybe there is a better way.

  • David Recine says:

    BK— I also worked in the Eau Claire DC. Quite frankly, I don't even remember which building I worked in. None of them had ventilation fans or truly approached OSHA level safety.

    I'm anti-cop for a lot of the same reasons Ed it. There's only two kinds of people who'd want that job— authoritarian bullies and saints. And let's face it, the world simply has a lot more bullies than saints.

    I think the real reason cops pick on minorities so much isn't necessarily a conscious act of racism, but more a desire to screw with the people who are easiest to push around. Racial minorities are more likely to be poor and completely unconnected to the important or powerful. When a cop sees a racial minority, he sees a citation that won't be contested, an easy conviction, a person who can't sue and who will see filing a complaint as futile.

    I lived in Eau Claire Wisconsin most of my life. The worst cop there, the one that ALWAYS pulled over black people, even regularly stopped black people who were ON FOOT and demanded that he run their ID card "for outstanding warrants" also happened to be the only black officer on the force. He did what he did because he knew he cold get away with it with impunity, moreso than any white cop. Similarly, anytime I heard about the cops in my town absolutely beating the shit out of someone, they beat up someone who was low income and had no relatives in town, usually someone who had just moved to town or was just passing through. It was all about targeting people who couldn't fight back, black or white.

    I think another reason for a rise in police bigotry and brutality cna be found here: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=qqvijdxnHxI

    It's an expose on a Connecticut police department that administers an intelligence test to potential hires. Applicants may be rejected for test scores that are too high— or two low. The rationale, fed to them by a private HR consulting firm— is that people of too high intelligence will get bored with the job and quit, thus casing the PD to have to pay more for recruitment and training.

    When I think of my own hometown— a very SMALL town where everyone knows everyone else— most of the older cops, nearing retirement are unbelievably standup guys. The new guys, however are increasingly dumb, bigoted, violent, and corrupt. Even the older cops I'm friends with see this and complain to me. I theorize that many police departments— not just the one trashed in film n the link above— are turning to the "dumber is better" philosophy.

  • Really appreciated your analysis, Ed. It's excessively difficult to make a statistical cases for racial profiling, and you did a great job of reigning in your conclusions. That being said, it's pretty clear that all is not well in Missouri or anywhere else for that matter.

    BK: I think you're right on about the selection process for new cops. I have personally come up against tests that would have denied me employment because of my IQ. What's really twisted is that I was applying for a job as a grocery boy! I took the test and the woman from HR told me they'd never had someone score so poorly on their "psych evaluation," but that I shouldn't feel bad. She said the smarter you are, the worse you'll usually score! I didn't know whether to feel proud of my brains or ashamed that I would be working for a company that would prefer that I was dumber!

    This issue was actually raised in regard to the test that a lot of teams in the NFL administer to prospective recruits. If you score to well, they're apt not to recruit you since you'll probably tire of being pounded to hamburger when you have brains enough to work as a consultant, commentator, or commercial spokesman.

    Somewhere along the line, corporate America has decided that intellect is a bad investment. I'm pretty sure it's because their's a good correlation between intellect and independent thinking, rather than a fear that prospective employees will become "bored" with their work. Businesses want people who'll take orders and they want those orders to go largely unexamined. It's a way of breeding things like accountability, integrity, and intellectual honesty out of corporate culture. And, since government leaders are culled from corporate leaders…and since government leaders want to be just as free to act with impunity as the business world, they encourage the same bullshit culling of the police force.

    Business is government and government is business, they act as one to protect and expand their interests, and dumbing everything and everyone down is a pretty effective method. It may sound paranoid to some, but I think it's true. Your government wants dumb citizens, dumb soldiers, dumb employees, dumb voters, and especially dumb civil servants to carry out its will uncritically. Kinda sheds new light on our public school system when you think in those terms, huh?

  • any truth to the rumor that Obama must declare he's a White Sox fan to secure the vaunted Missouri/St. Louis Cardinals fan vote? If he's truly a Sox fan, that's cool! However, I shudder to think that declaring your a Cubs fan would alienate voters in any region. As insipid as this may sound, would you dismiss this "logic" out of hand? I sure as hell wouldn't. I truly think some people ARE this stupid.

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