The shooting of Michael Brown, like so many similar incidents between police and unarmed black men, renewed conversations about racism in the American justice system and, more specifically to Ferguson, deep-rooted racial disparities in local government and law enforcement.
To the majority-black community in Ferguson, Brown’s death was seen as something that could happen to them or their own sons. Darnell Hunt, an expert on race relations and civil unrest, compared the situation to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012: “Not only was this something that affected people across the country, but other people realized that the fate of Trayvon was possibly the fate of their own sons.”
The statistics bear out the racial disparities in law enforcement. Police were 21 times more likely to shoot and kill black teens than white teens between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the available, limited FBI data.
These racial disparities remain even in situations in which a shooting victim wasn’t attacking anyone else. Some of these victims were instead killed while fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest, according to reports collected by the FBI.
In 2014, there have been several high-profile cases in which black boys and men were killed by police even when they posed no clear threat to anyone else. In Ohio, police shot and killed 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in two separate incidents after police mistook toy guns they were carrying for actual weapons. In New York City, a police officer killed 43-year-old Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold; police claimed Garner was resisting arrest after allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
Police officers in these cases appeared to overestimate the threats posed by their victims, which may be a result of subconscious racial biases. Studies show officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police officer who shot and killed Brown, claimed to view Brown as a major threat to his life. In testimony to the grand jury, Wilson invoked — perhaps inadvertently — racial stereotypes by characterizing Brown as an unstoppable, violent brute who could kill him in one punch, even though Wilson’s injuries weren’t severe.
The racial disparities in the criminal justice system go beyond police use of force. Black people are much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they’re not more likely to use drugs or sell them. And black inmates make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population.
The perceived overreactions by police against predominantly black men and other disparities have driven many in minority communities to distrust and fear law enforcement — out of concern that they or their sons could be the next victims.