Traffic stops at heart of Ferguson Police Department's racial bias

Justice Department: City Filled Coffers On Backs Of Black Motorists

The Ferguson Police Department used traffic enforcement as a means to systemically discriminate against minorities, a new report from the Department of Justice found.

Police officers in the St. Louis suburb, where Michael Brown was shot and killed last summer, showed a consistent pattern of racial bias that was often displayed through traffic stops that disproportionately targeted minority motorists. The DOJ's Civil Rights Division also found the Ferguson Police Department used these stops as a way to raise revenue for city coffers and not for traffic safety purposes.

"Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violated the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them," Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Black residents comprise 63 percent of Ferguson's population of about 21,000 citizens, but they account for 85 percent of motorists stopped by the town's police force, the Justice Department found.

It can be difficult to derive much meaning from that particular comparison, simply because driving is transitory in nature; drivers stopped in Ferguson don't necessarily live there. But once drivers were stopped, black drivers faced disproportionately harsh treatment.

  • In a three-year period between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were more than twice as likely as white ones to be searched during traffic stops, even though black drivers were 26 percent less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
  • Black drivers received 90 percent of the traffic citations written by the town's police force, and black pedestrians received 95 percent of citations tickets written for jaywalking.
  • Black drivers were more likely to receive multiple citations during a single traffic stop. Black drivers received four or more citations 73 times during the three-year span. Non-black drivers only received four or more twice in the same timeframe.

"Particularly the pattern of searching African Americans who are stopped more than others, those kind of figures really do make you think something is seriously wrong here," said David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies police behavior. "The focus was on people who looked a certain way instead of how people were behaving."

The combination of Ferguson's focus on revenue generation, coupled with racial discrimination, often meant financial penalties associated with the traffic citations often had crippling repercussions for residents who were already cash-strapped.

"African Americans experience the harms of the disparities identified below as part of a comprehensive municipal justice system that, at each juncture, enforces the law more harshly against black people," the report said.

In September, The Washington Post examined how municipalities in greater St. Louis profited from harsh sentences against poor area motorists. Traffic citations for offenses like failing to wear a seat belt often had a compounding effect: Residents who couldn't afford to pay were hit with more fines, more court appearances, and in many cases, arrest. Ninety-six percent of outstanding municipal warrants in Ferguson were served against minorities, according to Wednesday's report.

Raising revenue from motorists

Ferguson's reliance on revenue collected from these fines has substantially increased in recent years. The city collected $1.3 million in fines and fees from traffic offenses in fiscal year 2010. That money comprised 12.4 percent of the city's overall revenue. In fiscal year 2015, the city's budget anticipated $3.09 million in revenue from the same fines and fees, which represented 23.3 percent of the city's overall budgeted revenue.

"What Ferguson and other towns and cities have done is allow these practices to become alternative sources of funding as other funding is cut," Harris said. "All you're doing is shifting the cost of the system onto the people who can least afford to pay it. You're making people miserable, and crimping their opportunities to make something of themselves, all in service of funding a system that should be funded by people as a whole."

Financial pressures were at the heart of a push by Ferguson officials to increase revenue from these fines. In March 2010, the city finance director wrote to Thomas Jackson, the city's police chief, that "unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to raise collections next year. ... Given that we are looking at substantial sales tax shortfall, it's not an insignificant issue."

Similarly, in March 2013, the city faced another potential shortfall. The city finance director wrote in another email that, "I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try."

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