The breaking point for Ferguson


People look out the windows of a house as police wearing riot gear confront a crowd on Monday. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

The protests that have followed the death of Michael Brown are about this teenager, gunned down by a police officer on a suburban St. Louis street. But there is more to the anger that has taken shape in the form of days-long rallies and confrontations, with many residents in the area describing the episode as a breaking point:

This tension can be seen and felt in many ways. Ferguson is a small city with a little more than 21,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. A little more than two-thirds of its residents are black, giving the city nearly inverted demographics compared with surrounding St. Louis County (where just under a quarter of the residents are black).

Residents have said that the encounter between 18-year-old Michael Brown and an unidentified police officer began when the officer ordered Brown not to walk in the street. That sounds like an unimaginably small thing considering what was to follow, yet that small thing hints at an issue facing black residents of Ferguson and other cities.

While black residents accounted for 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, black drivers accounted for more than 86 percent of the traffic stops made last year by the Ferguson Police Department, according to a report produced by the office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.

And the majority of the traffic stops (92 percent) that ended with arrests involved black drivers.

Statewide, black drivers “were 66 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped” last year, Koster said in a statement in May.

The percentage of black drivers getting pulled over by the Ferguson police is actually higher than it has been in recent years. As recently as 2008, black drivers accounted for 79 percent of traffic stops — still nearly four out of five stops, but not as high as the percentage seen last year.

These numbers were not much better for the St. Louis County Police Department, which is investigating the shooting at the request of the Ferguson police. Last year, 32 percent of the traffic stops made by the county police involved black drivers. Nearly half of the stops ending in arrests (47.9 percent) involved black drivers, while 50 percent involved white drivers, despite white residents making up 70 percent of the county’s population.

There has also been a troubling history at play in the county. A former lieutenant with the county police was fired last year after an investigation found that the lieutenant, who was accused of ordering officers to target black people around stores in the county, had made “inappropriate racial references.”

In the wake of the allegations against the lieutenant, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley asked the county police board to produce documents and statistics regarding racial profiling.

The county police are participating in a study of the department’s protocols conducted by researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles. “We want to make sure we’re not stopping people based solely on their race,” police chief Jon Belmar told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when researchers visited the department in May.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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