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It’s Not Just Ferguson – It’s All Of America

Memo Pad National News

It’s Not Just Ferguson – It’s All Of America


There’s a very good chance that your local police arrest black Americans at a rate more disproportional than in Ferguson, MO, where the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown unleashed decades of anger over police abuse.

The awful truth is that Ferguson Police Department’s nearly 3-to-1 disparity in arresting blacks is well below the norm in many cities and towns, including those far north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

With a grand jury poised to decide any day now whether the white officer who shot Brown six times will be indicted — which seems unlikely — new protests will focus attention on Ferguson. But what we really need is a debate about the role of police, their training and their discretion.

We need to restore the idea of police as guardians. We must bring an end to the changes that libertarian journalist Radley Balko details in his important book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Reporters for USA Today brought to light the disproportionate arrest rates. They analyzed Uniform Crime Report data that local police departments sent to the FBI for 2011 and 2012.

Only 173 of 3,538 police departments arrested blacks at disproportionately low rates, while Ferguson PD and 1,581 other departments arrested blacks at rates significantly higher than their share of the local population.

In big cities like tolerant and cosmopolitan San Francisco and small ones like Duluth, the data reveal arrest rates by race far more troubling than those in Ferguson. In 70 cities from coast to coast, police arrest black people at 10 times the rate of people who are not black.

These numbers help explain the palpable resentment of young black men and the fears of parents.

Disparate arrest rates tell us that the legacy of slavery is far from over, no matter how blind our Supreme Court is with its decisions on voting, procedural rights and executions.

Ferguson is part of a subtle new racist phenomenon, a modern variation on “sundown towns,” which literally posted crude signs telling blacks not to be around after dark.

Back when Ferguson was mostly a white working-class town, the police chained a street leading to a neighboring black community to make a point about who belonged and who was unwelcome. Now Ferguson is mostly black, but its elected leaders and its police force are almost all white.

Today’s tactics of oppression and racial profiling defile our Constitution and waste taxpayer money.

Ezekiel Edwards, who runs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told USA Today, “We shouldn’t continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look.”

The question to ask ourselves is whether we look at all.

This disparity in arrests occurs even in Rochester, New York, which before the Civil War was among the few places that gave runaway slaves refuge and became the adopted home of the most famous among them, Frederick Douglass, and his abolitionist newspaper The North Star.

Blacks in Rochester were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than whites in 2011 and 2012, the official data show. The Rochester city rates may reflect an ongoing gang war fueled by drug dealing in the fifth poorest city in America. But what about the surrounding suburbs, where arrest rates were vastly out of proportion?

I live five blocks south of the Rochester city line in the town of Brighton, a community of highly educated people from around the world and known for social consciousness. Brighton arrests black people at 6.4 times their share of the population, more than twice the rate of Ferguson, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported.

One could excuse that by saying, who knew? But that is just an excuse.

The right questions: Why didn’t we know? What public purpose is being served by these arrests? Do the arrests have a solid basis or do they serve to harass? Who was arrested and what for? Are these arrests for serious crimes or petty reasons? How many of these arrests result in convictions? Do these arrests help justify the current size — and expense — of our police force? Do people of color believe the police want them to feel unwelcome?

After that comes the most important question, the one that is needed to move us from thought to action: What will we do about this?

Arrest rates are an indicator, not a diagnosis, of social ills. Reading the comments in several Gannett newspapers (which include USA Today as a separate section), it is clear many people assume a direct correlation between arrests and criminal activity. However, the problem may be not with those arrested, but with the police.

We imbue police officers with enormous discretion, as exhaustively detailed in six years of litigation over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration believed it was reducing crime by detaining young non-white males, though it would never put it quite that way. If such strategies worked, then why didn’t NYPD harass the Wall Street bankers whose white-collar crimes sank the economy six years ago?


Curiously missing from the stop-and-frisk debate was whether it was nothing more than featherbedding; creating needless work to justify the size of the NYPD and its outsized overtime costs.

Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, issued a report examining 150,000 NYPD arrests from 2009 through 2012. Just one in 33 arrests resulted in a conviction of any kind, and just 1 in 1,000 in a conviction for a violent crime. But processing all those arrests created statistics that the NYPD used to assert that officers were being productive — not to mention earning overtime for end-of-shift collars.

You can examine the NYPD’s own data on stop-and-frisk from 2003 through 2013. In that last year police stopped, questioned, and frisked about 2,200 people per day – more than seven times as many as in 2002.

To get an idea of why so many white Americans see police differently from so many black Americans, read this very interesting and simple matrix showing differences in arrest rates between an area near New York University and a poor neighborhood near Yankee Stadium.

Current New York City mayor Bill de Blasio settled the case in January 2014 with a promise to stop the excessive use of stop-and-frisk.

Favoritism by police is not always racial. It can by favoritism for celebrities, as we’ve seen in the recent New York Times exposés of apparently criminal conduct by college and National Football League players who assaulted women, mistreated children and fled traffic accidents they caused. The victims discovered that the police were indeed guardians – of the offenders.

Abundant signs exist that police across America tend to treat those not privileged with white skin – and affluence – with greater suspicion.

How else to explain the story a worried Rochester executive tells? Several times a month his adult son, who works into the night, gets pulled over on the way home. As best the family can tell, some cops see reasonable cause for a stop in these facts: young black male in expensive new car driving alone after midnight.

How, other than racism, to explain a daytime traffic stop on Sunset Boulevard in which a middle-aged black man in a Rolls Royce, his daughters in the back seat, was ordered out at gunpoint? Without permission, officers ransacked his leather satchel until they found something that caused them fear and alarm – a badge identifying the driver as No. 3 in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Most white Americans have never had a cop pull them over for no reason except that they seemed out of place, as the late Johnny Cochran did in 1979. I have. In Beverly Hills and in Longport, NJ, officers whose initial demeanor was hostile pulled me over in broad daylight. The basis of their suspicions? My Toyota Corolla, its paint dulled by the years, looked out of place in towns whose residents drive luxury cars.

Police who instill fear are not police who catch bad guys, because it is citizens informing the police who solve crimes. Police who see “black skin” and “criminal” as synonymous need to be fired. And the burden for addressing these problems should fall squarely where it belongs – on the white majority whose values, and blindness, allow the drift towards police as warrior cops instead of guardians of the people.

Photo: Alison Klein, WEBN News  via Flickr

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David Cay Johnston

David Cay Johnston won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of taxes in The New York Times. The Washington Monthly calls him “one of America’s most important journalists” and the Portland Oregonian says is work is the equal of the great muckrakers Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair.

At 19 he became a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury and then reported for the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and from 1995 to 2008 The New York Times.

Johnston is in his eighth year teaching the tax, property and regulatory law at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management.

He also writes for USA Today, Newsweek and Tax Analysts.

Johnston is the immediate past president of the 5,700-member Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and is board president of the nonprofit Investigative Post in Buffalo.

His latest book Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality an anthology he edited. He also wrote a trilogy on hidden aspects of the American economy -- Perfectly Legal, Free Lunch, and The Fine Print – and a casino industry exposé, Temples of Chance.

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  1. Stuart November 20, 2014

    Yeah, I’m white, and I do believe in the racism. But I also see an extreme aggravating factor — asset forfeiture laws. These need to be repealed. I would also like to see a law limiting the percentage of a police budget funded by traffic stops.

    I would like to see an experiment. As a white officer, how often would I stop a black driver if there’s no money in it for me?

    1. JPHALL November 20, 2014

      Don’t forget the cachet attained for making an arrest. The mere fact of an arrest or ticket is used to show that the officer is doing the job.

      1. JRomulus November 22, 2014

        That is simply not true. Amazing what people believe.

        If you had an experience in policing or community governance, you’d know how expensive it is to try and prosecute people. How our jails are so over-crowded.

        Even issuing a ticket takes a cop off the street for hours…. far in excess of the cost of the pitiful $100 the city or village might get from the fine.

        Instead of blaming police or the fallacy that our society is “so racist”, people that REALLY want to help need to spend more time working to get at the root cause of the issue in minority communities that commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America.

        1. JPHALL November 22, 2014

          And you are self deluding. I have lived with, worked and partied with police personal for over 30 years. I have heard them state that often they do these actions because they were told by their bosses to do them. That racial profiling is required and that they are to lie when necessary. Subject: Re: New comment posted on It’s Not Just Ferguson – It’s All Of America

    2. adler56 November 21, 2014

      So you do it because you can? Not sure you meant to be honest but that’s hardly an excuse. Is that the same reason you beat your wife and kids?

    3. johninPCFL November 21, 2014

      This was a common occurrence in Volusia county FL during the 1990s when most of those laws were first passed. The sheriff’s office made no arrests and didn’t press charges in over 80% of the stops resulting in seizures. They pulled over expensive cars driving north with out-of-state and out-of-county tags and black drivers, took whatever money the drivers were carrying, and then told the drivers that they’d get their money back as soon as a court told the sheriff to return it. So, to get your $500 back from the sheriff, you’d go hire an attorney and sue the sheriff’s office. Oh, yeah. The cost to file the suit was $250, and then the attorney got paid, and the sheriff doesn’t pay for any of those costs.
      It was quite a scam, and ran for several years until newspaper accounts called the sheriff’s office out for what is was: a crime syndicate.

    4. Allan Richardson November 24, 2014

      I cannot understand why a Supreme Court which takes the First Amendment so LITERALLY in Citizens United, to the point of not even allowing limits on how much money you can spend to REPEAT YOUR SPEECH, even if your money makes it impossible for opposing views to reach a FRACTION as many people, can be so cavalier about the Fourth (search and seizure) and Fifth (the section about taking PROPERTY WITHOUT DUE PROCESS) being violated by these asset forfeiture laws, and i mean the very EXISTENCE of them, not just quibbling about how the seized assets should be used.

      The original “problem” asset forfeiture laws were intended to “solve” was that, when BIG drug dealers or gang leaders were arrested, the police could not take their assets until they were CONVICTED, which allowed them to spend that big money to defend themselves in court, which made it difficult to convict them.

      Guess what, folks? That was EXACTLY the way the Founders INTENDED IT! The state was NOT to be allowed to take your property EXCEPT as a fine imposed AFTER conviction! If that made it harder to convict the “obviously” guilty kingpins, SO BE IT. As a much wiser Supreme Court Justice (I have forgotten who) once said, so many years ago that it has been repeated ad infinitum UNTIL the current police state mentality took over our establishment, it is BETTER to let a thousand GUILTY criminals go free than to punish ONE INNOCENT person. In this case, losing one’s property (or in some cases, being deprived TEMPORARILY of the ability to use it) is, in common sense, a PUNISHMENT. And there is NO CONSTITUTIONAL BASIS to impose such a punishment on an INNOCENT person. And even the biggest drug or gang kingpin is INNOCENT until PROVEN GUILTY.

      All “civil” forfeiture laws ought to be REPEALED, or better yet, taken to the Supreme Court and NULLIFIED. Assuming, of course, that we will ever again get an UNBOUGHT Court. And all of you libertarians upset about HEALTH insurance, this is a much BIGGER issue; why aren’t Cruz and Beck and Limbaugh and Paul talking about ASSET FORFEITURE, AKA THEFT BY THE STATE?

      Could it be because REPUBLICANS as well as Democrats afraid of being criticized as “soft on crime” are doing it? This is not a partisan matter, it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL regardless of which party is doing it. Liberals should be upset because the poor are targeted more than the wealthy (stealing a grandmother’s life savings which came from decades of hard work because having “large amounts of cash in the car” and being accompanied by her teenage son who is of the “right age” to possibly be in a gang; but NOT SEIZING A BANK from a felonious bank CEO), and the right should be upset because, rather than TAXING away a PORTION of the wealthy persons earnings, it is taking MORE than what is a legal tax bill.

      Asset forfeiture violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, PERIOD. And forced arbitration clauses in consumer contracts violate the Seventh Amendment as well.

  2. leadvillexp November 20, 2014

    It’s time to let justice run ‘s course. Yes the police officer needs to be indicated. The Grand Jury is a secret hearing and the people need to know. A trial is the only way. For justice to be served it has to be public. This is not to say there is guilt just to let the public know all the facts. People can not be allowed to be convicted by the media.

  3. 1olderbutwiser1 November 21, 2014

    We have high unemployment rates in all fields but lawyers. They all seem to be working overtime. We need a change in our system. The plaintiff must foot all legal fees in the civil cases, up front, before the trial. This mindless crap of no case ever being settled till a kazillion lawyers have been paid, often at taxpayers expense, has got to change. If no case is justified, riders are put in bills before legislatures to create new ways for even more lawyers to be paid. Totally ridiculous. This is why America came to be, to escape a large group of unscrupulous ;low life who do nothing but steal from productive society.. Even if not indicted, be sure the taxpayers will take a beating for some thug who racists want to support under the premise of “blacks are singled out” in some biased manner. Once in a while, maybe so. Some people are just racial by nature. BLACKS INCLUDED. If you think I am wrong, you are simply delusional.
    Loved the above cartoon.

    1. sleepvark November 21, 2014

      I can understand a bias against lawyers, but you are quite wrong about unemployment in that field. New law school graduates have been having a devil of a time finding paying jobs, while the expenses of setting up a solo office are almost insurmountable for most youngsters.
      McJobs in the legal field are proliferating. A law degree is no path to easy living.

  4. adler56 November 21, 2014

    I was surprised to read about how low Rochester has sunk since the year I lived there in the late 70’s. It was a nice clean town with Kodak and Zerox
    and a music school. Like the small Pa. town I grew up in they seemed to keep blacks on just a few streets but as the article says I didn’t check on the arrest rates and I had little reason to shop in any black stores – if there were any. I lived south of the city in Scottsville- worked at the airport and had no co-workers who were black and no neighbors that were black- out of sight out of mind I guess. Now that racism has been “out’ for the past six years it’s easy to see why more blacks are arrested – some just for being black. I worked in some Florida prisons and county jails (not as a cop) and most of the cops and “correctional officers” spent a lot of time working out- walking around in camouflage (which didn’t do a thing to hide them in the city ). I have a very negative attitude toward cops- they all seem to have that black-white way of thinking. I didn’t meet any that were above average intelligence. Even New York where they supposedly need at least an AA to be hired seem to have typical cops- That’s very sad for America.

  5. idamag November 21, 2014

    Recent shootings, of Black People, by police, seem to bear that out.

  6. Fargo Wells November 21, 2014

    Our forefathers didn’t shed their blood at Guadalcanal, Normandy, and Khe Sanh so that we might surrender our weapons for nothing more than Micheal Bloomberg’s 30 pieces of silver.

  7. JRomulus November 22, 2014

    What a crock. Criminals are arrested because they committed crimes. Their race is immaterial. Except to people who want to make excuses for law breakers.

  8. Iceman November 26, 2014

    I’ve always wondered – What is the source of liberals’ vitriolic hatred for our Constitution and Bill of Rights?

  9. RECO November 30, 2014

    Maybe…just maybe those people were committing what are called “crimes” and the Police found them. its what they do…arrest you for CRIME.


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