As Ferguson, Mo., braces for the decision by a grand jury that is considering whether to indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager — which sparked protests over alleged police bias — there is evidence the St. Louis suburb isn't alone when it comes to racial disparity.
According to USA Today — which compared arrests reported by local police departments to the FBI in 2011 and 2012 with data from the 2010 U.S. census — at least 1,581 police departments arrest black people at a higher rate than Ferguson, where blacks are arrested nearly three times more than people of other races. (The FBI does not track arrests of Hispanics.)
That includes police departments in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and St. Louis. The St. Louis County Police Department arrested black people (113.7 per 1,000 residents) at more than three times the rate of nonblacks (32.4).
"Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain," USA Today's Brad Heath wrote. "They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates."
[Interactive: Compare arrest rates across America]
"That does not mean police are discriminating," David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told the paper. "But it does mean it's worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention."
The paper's review did not include thousands of smaller departments that serve areas with a small black population, or most police departments in Alabama, Florida and Illinois, because those states had not reported complete arrest data to the FBI.
But just 173 of the 3,538 police departments included in USA Today's study arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups.
"Something needs to be done about that," Ezekiel Edwards, head of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, told the paper. "In 2014, we shouldn't continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look."
The paper found one stunning example of racial disparity in Dearborn, Mich.:
More than half of the people Dearborn police arrested in 2011 and 2012 were black, according to reports they submitted to the FBI. By comparison, about 4% of the city's residents are black, as are about a quarter of the people who live in Metropolitan Detroit. Over those two years, the department reported arresting 4,500 black people — 500 more than lived in the city. As a result, the arrest rate for blacks, compared with the city's population, was 26 times higher than for people of other races.
But Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad disputed the notion that his officers were targeting people based on race.
"We treat everyone the same," he said.