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Though it has scarcely garnered the attention it deserves, the U.S. Department of Justice has released a report exonerating Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri. As I note in my new column for Defining Ideas, the Justice Department should, in the interest of civic harmony, be doing everything it can to call attention to the report’s findings:
What the DOJ now has to do is to acknowledge that the killing of Michael Brown was a justifiable homicide. It must abandon its contrived legalisms and defend Wilson, by condemning unequivocally the entire misguided campaign against him, which resulted in threats against his life and forced his resignation from the police force. Eric Holder owes Wilson an apology for the unnecessary anguish that Wilson has suffered. As the Attorney General for all Americans, he must tell the protestors once and for all that their campaign has been thoroughly misguided from start to finish, and that their continued protests should stop in the interests of civic peace and racial harmony. In light of the past vilification of Wilson, it is not enough for the DOJ to publish the report, and not trumpet its conclusions. It is necessary to put that report front and center in the public debate so that everyone now understands that Wilson behaved properly throughout the entire incident.
At the same time, however, the DOJ has issued a report claiming systemic prejudice in the Ferguson Police Department, an odd conclusion given that the investigation was surely undertaken to identify the “root causes” of Wilson’s misbehavior — misbehavior that they now admit did not occur. As I write:
The evidence is no better when the DOJ resorts to statistical evidence to show that the police force has behaved in an improper way because “African Americans experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system. Despite making up 67% of the population, African Americans accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of FPD’s citations, and 93% of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to 2014.”
The point here represents a gross abuse of statistical evidence for two reasons. First, the disparity in arrests for various offenses ignores one question that matters: did African Americans commit these various offenses at a higher rate than the rest of the population? If they did, then the evidence is perfectly consistent with even-handed enforcement. Second, the report gives no information about the arrest rates in other communities. As John Lott has noted, “The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey indicates that, nationwide, blacks were 31 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over for a traffic stop.” If so, then the Ferguson numbers are consistent with national norms, and thus do not show any distinctive form of racial bias.
The evidence here points to a Justice Department more concerned with advancing a political agenda than accurately representing the reality of the situation in Ferguson. At a time when tensions in the city are running high, that is a grave mistake.