The events taking place in Ferguson, Mo., stemmed heavily from the scrutinized police shooting of a young African-American man by a white officer. This issue has once again strained relationships between police officers and people of color. Now that same relationship is leading to increasing tensions on both sides. There is a significant social experiment being played out for the entire country to watch on every news network. Despite claims made by the town’s mayor, there is a racial issue in Ferguson.
I chose to say people of color — not minorities — because the marginalization of the African-American people in their town, a town where they are the majority of the population, is one of the most infuriating issues for protesters. Ferguson, having an African-American population standing at nearly 70 percent, is overseen by a police force which only employs three African-Americans.
For an extended discussion on this column, listen to Snyder in his podcast here.
This disparity alone is certainly not the reason that young Michael Brown was shot and killed, but to say it did not play a role is preposterous. We cannot simply look away from the sun so that we can claim it does not exist.
I am not calling Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the shots that killed Brown, a racist. I do not know him nor do I know about his previous interactions with the community that he served during the six years leading up to the shooting Aug. 9. To judge him by one action alone would be irresponsible. However, that single action will speak louder than any other he could ever make, and it paints a picture of race relations when it comes to law enforcement.
I do not have access — just as no one truly has access — to all of the facts involved with the situation. Each witness report varies from the last on both sides. No matter what the circumstances were leading up to the shooting, I believe any actions taken by either individual occurred as a result of a lack of trust.
That same lack of trust is being witnessed on an even larger scale between demonstrators marching on the streets and the police who stand watch with tear gas and rubber bullets. They stand waiting for the relative few in the crowd who dilute the protester's message by looting and causing further damage to an already wounded community.
The widely held opinion within the African-American community that its members are unfairly profiled against is no secret, and many outside of that community make no argument against their claims because statistics often support them.
In 2013, the Ferguson Police Department made 5,384 traffic stops. Of those stops, 4,632 were vehicles with African-American drivers, according to the public records of the Missouri attorney general. This number alone can perhaps be justified since African-Americans make up the majority of the population, but the contraband hit rate — meaning the percentage of searches performed where contraband was found — was nearly 13 percent higher for searches performed on white suspects. These searches were also performed 6 percent more frequently on African-Americans.
Given this information, it would not be unreasonable to expect the arrest rate — meaning the percentage of stops and searches that resulted in arrests — to be higher among the white population, but that would be incorrect. The arrest rate for white suspects was more than 5 percent lower for white suspects in 2013.
These figures point to the conclusion that African-Americans, who were stopped more frequently, were found to be in possession of any illegal item less frequently, yet they were arrested more often.
This problem of race and policing the populous may seem ridiculous to some. Many Iowans may believe that the police are overstepping their bounds. They may believe that such things could never happen in a forward-thinking state such as Iowa, but the issue strikes closer to home than any of us should be comfortable with.
A study performed and released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013, based on statistics gathered by federal agencies in 2010, found that Iowa has the highest racial disparity when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession.
The study found that if you are an African-American Iowan — though your race makes up barely 3 percent of the state population, according to the United States Census Bureau, you are more than 8 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This statistic more than doubles the national average for African-American arrest rates due to possession, which stands to make African-Americans just under four times as likely to be arrested.
In Story County, African-Americans make up even less of the population than the state average — yet the marijuana arrest rate per 100,000 for white offenders was 195 while the same statistic for African-American offenders was 807.
The study also found that percentages for use of marijuana among white and black Iowans are nearly the same. This study suggests that the problem comes from the way that the law is enforced based on the race of the offender.
To say that racial profiling is not used in law enforcement is absurd. These types of statistics and figures can be found all over the nation, and I can see two main beliefs stemming from them. Either you believe that the African-American community is more inclined to commit crime or you believe that they are more inclined to become suspects in crimes.
To find the answer, put yourself in the shoes of a young African-American man. Nothing is different about you — you are the same person, just in a different skin. You feel abused and victimized by the very people who have sworn to protect you. Now imagine that you are young Michael Brown’s mother, father or friend. What would you demand from the people that took him from you?
Allow yourself to assume that the criminal allegations that Michael Brown may or may not have been responsible for — the theft and physical confrontation with the officer — are true. Was his life worth a $50 box of cigars? Can six shots still qualify as self defense against an unarmed man? A young man is dead. He will not be starting college this week like most of us. He will never become what he could have been. That alone makes his death and any death of a young person, a tragedy.
The most probable solution to the problem will be increased enrollment of African-Americans as law enforcement officials, a role that Ferguson police say many African-American men do not want due to a "disconnect with law enforcement." There is no timetable for fixing these issues, but the life of even one more young man is too high a cost for the system not to change.
This problem will only be solved when we stop pretending it does not exist. To assume that all police officers are reactionary, aggressive or racist is just the same as a person assuming that all African-Americans are dangerous criminals. However, just as the looters distract from the true intentions of the public gatherings, the small number of police officers that gun down unarmed civilians end up speaking on behalf of the whole.
So just as the organizers of the demonstrations have attempted to remove the individuals causing problems during their peaceful protests, so too should the police department — all police departments — correct the racist methods it seems to employ and remove individuals who are clearly not fit to serve.