DOJ Report Condemns Ferguson Police Department's Practices
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For more reaction to the Justice Department's findings in Ferguson, we're going to hear now from Phillip Atiba Goff. He's president of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor at UCLA. He's been working with police departments to create a national database of racial profiling incidents.
Welcome to the program Professor Goff.
PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: What did you think when you saw the details of the report about policing and race in Ferguson?
GOFF: Well, it was an incredibly thorough report. I was impressed with the depth that they went to, especially given the amount of time that they had to do it. I'd say that some of the most striking things for me though, are the ways in which they connected the dots between the economic component of what was happening and the public safety component. They literally said in one of their recommendations that stops needed to be reflective of a public safety interest and not a revenue-generating interest. And that is unprecedented. I have never seen a document like this in my time working on these issues that so roundly condemns a department's patterns and practices of behavior.
SIEGEL: Well, let's review some of the specific numbers. Although African-Americans make up only 67 percent of Ferguson's population, they accounted for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police within a two-year period. Also 90 percent of documented force by police was against African-Americans. Is there any way to document whether profiling and discriminatory practices are worse in Ferguson than in other places in the country?
GOFF: Well, first let me push back just on the framing of the question a little bit. What you've got there is evidence of broad disparities. And we should, of course, be very concerned about that. I've been black my whole life and I don't like those numbers, but what you've got there is just disparities. So, Ferguson is a very small place and you have to drive through it from the airport in St. Louis to the city of St. Louis. So the motorist population doesn't necessarily look like the resident population.
SIEGEL: What you're saying is if someone were inclined to say that gap isn't so big, you would say the basis for comparison shouldn't just be the resident population of Ferguson, but the resident motorist population going through Ferguson at any time?
GOFF: So, that's one argument I would make. The second thing - and actually for me, more important than that - we imagine that engagement with the criminal justice system starts with the police. And that's, I think, an irresponsibly small myopic way to think about it. If we imagine there's racism within law enforcement - and I don't imagine it, I know to be true - we also have to imagine that there's racism in employment, in housing, in education. And all those things happen upstream of contact with criminal justice. And so what happens is, if you've had all those negative experiences, those unfair experiences that shape your life, then the numbers that show up, some of that has got to be police doing their job right, and it's the education system and the employment systems that have disadvantaged certain communities. It's not to say there's no racial bias in law enforcement and it's not to say there's not evidence of it in Ferguson. I just want to make sure that we don't use those statistics just as a sort of shock and awe to say wow, it's really terrible here.
We don't know what those statistics mean just from the reading of them that way. And to your initial point, we sure as heck have no idea how they compare to other statistics nationally. Now, as someone who works with these numbers, I'm not shocked by them. They're not massively larger than some other jurisdictions where I've seen.
And that in and of itself is a problem. But what I do resist is the idea that when we see shockingly disparate numbers that the police are the only place where we need to bring responsibility and accountability. We have a racial problem in this country. It's not just a race in policing problem.
SIEGEL: Would you venture a socio-economic argument that a broken tail light is more likely to be on the car of a low-income individual who's more likely to be African-American than on a middle-class white person's car?
GOFF: I would. Because if you've ever been in those communities, you understand those folks are working, frequently, multiple jobs at odd hours. It's very difficult to get free to do something minor like fix a tail light. That said, I don't think that the broken tail light is the best example because I don't think that people are getting pulled over for broken tail lights in majority-white neighborhoods.
SIEGEL: We've heard a lawyer for the family of Michael Brown react to the other report from the Justice Department, which was the justification for not bringing a civil rights prosecution against Officer Darren Wilson. The lawyer said the family disagrees in their proceeding with the civil suit.
I just wonder what you make of the findings of the Justice Department which seem to corroborate the findings of the local grand jury. And on the other hand, the very vocal eyewitness accounts of Michael Brown's death that at least seem to contradict what has since been concluded about what happened. What do you make of that disparity?
GOFF: Well, I have to say it is - it's personally troubling. What the report essentially concludes is that Michael Brown, Jr.'s hands were not up. And hands up don't shoot has become a rallying cry. I think that's a difficult thing for people who have been laboring under the belief that that's the story, that is the reality, to swallow. But the demands of the communities that have felt that are no less valid as a result of the conclusions of this report.
SIEGEL: Professor Goff, thanks for talking with us.
GOFF: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Phillip Atiba Goff is president of the Center for Policing Equity. He's a professor at UCLA visiting this year at the Kennedy School at Harvard.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.