There’s a very good chance that your local police arrest black Americans at a rate more disproportional than in Ferguson, MO, where the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown unleashed decades of anger over police abuse.
The awful truth is that Ferguson Police Department’s nearly 3-to-1 disparity in arresting blacks is well below the norm in many cities and towns, including those far north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
With a grand jury poised to decide any day now whether the white officer who shot Brown six times will be indicted — which seems unlikely — new protests will focus attention on Ferguson. But what we really need is a debate about the role of police, their training and their discretion.
We need to restore the idea of police as guardians. We must bring an end to the changes that libertarian journalist Radley Balko details in his important book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.
Reporters for USA Today brought to light the disproportionate arrest rates. They analyzed Uniform Crime Report data that local police departments sent to the FBI for 2011 and 2012.
Only 173 of 3,538 police departments arrested blacks at disproportionately low rates, while Ferguson PD and 1,581 other departments arrested blacks at rates significantly higher than their share of the local population.
In big cities like tolerant and cosmopolitan San Francisco and small ones like Duluth, the data reveal arrest rates by race far more troubling than those in Ferguson. In 70 cities from coast to coast, police arrest black people at 10 times the rate of people who are not black.
These numbers help explain the palpable resentment of young black men and the fears of parents.
Disparate arrest rates tell us that the legacy of slavery is far from over, no matter how blind our Supreme Court is with its decisions on voting, procedural rights and executions.
Back when Ferguson was mostly a white working-class town, the police chained a street leading to a neighboring black community to make a point about who belonged and who was unwelcome. Now Ferguson is mostly black, but its elected leaders and its police force are almost all white.
Today’s tactics of oppression and racial profiling defile our Constitution and waste taxpayer money.
Ezekiel Edwards, who runs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told USA Today, “We shouldn’t continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look.”
The question to ask ourselves is whether we look at all.
This disparity in arrests occurs even in Rochester, New York, which before the Civil War was among the few places that gave runaway slaves refuge and became the adopted home of the most famous among them, Frederick Douglass, and his abolitionist newspaper The North Star.
Blacks in Rochester were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than whites in 2011 and 2012, the official data show. The Rochester city rates may reflect an ongoing gang war fueled by drug dealing in the fifth poorest city in America. But what about the surrounding suburbs, where arrest rates were vastly out of proportion?
I live five blocks south of the Rochester city line in the town of Brighton, a community of highly educated people from around the world and known for social consciousness. Brighton arrests black people at 6.4 times their share of the population, more than twice the rate of Ferguson, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported.
One could excuse that by saying, who knew? But that is just an excuse.
The right questions: Why didn’t we know? What public purpose is being served by these arrests? Do the arrests have a solid basis or do they serve to harass? Who was arrested and what for? Are these arrests for serious crimes or petty reasons? How many of these arrests result in convictions? Do these arrests help justify the current size — and expense — of our police force? Do people of color believe the police want them to feel unwelcome?
After that comes the most important question, the one that is needed to move us from thought to action: What will we do about this?
Arrest rates are an indicator, not a diagnosis, of social ills. Reading the comments in several Gannett newspapers (which include USA Today as a separate section), it is clear many people assume a direct correlation between arrests and criminal activity. However, the problem may be not with those arrested, but with the police.
We imbue police officers with enormous discretion, as exhaustively detailed in six years of litigation over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration believed it was reducing crime by detaining young non-white males, though it would never put it quite that way. If such strategies worked, then why didn’t NYPD harass the Wall Street bankers whose white-collar crimes sank the economy six years ago?
Curiously missing from the stop-and-frisk debate was whether it was nothing more than featherbedding; creating needless work to justify the size of the NYPD and its outsized overtime costs.
Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, issued a report examining 150,000 NYPD arrests from 2009 through 2012. Just one in 33 arrests resulted in a conviction of any kind, and just 1 in 1,000 in a conviction for a violent crime. But processing all those arrests created statistics that the NYPD used to assert that officers were being productive — not to mention earning overtime for end-of-shift collars.
You can examine the NYPD’s own data on stop-and-frisk from 2003 through 2013. In that last year police stopped, questioned, and frisked about 2,200 people per day – more than seven times as many as in 2002.
To get an idea of why so many white Americans see police differently from so many black Americans, read this very interesting and simple matrix showing differences in arrest rates between an area near New York University and a poor neighborhood near Yankee Stadium.
Current New York City mayor Bill de Blasio settled the case in January 2014 with a promise to stop the excessive use of stop-and-frisk.
Favoritism by police is not always racial. It can by favoritism for celebrities, as we’ve seen in the recent New York Times exposés of apparently criminal conduct by college and National Football League players who assaulted women, mistreated children and fled traffic accidents they caused. The victims discovered that the police were indeed guardians – of the offenders.
Abundant signs exist that police across America tend to treat those not privileged with white skin – and affluence – with greater suspicion.
How else to explain the story a worried Rochester executive tells? Several times a month his adult son, who works into the night, gets pulled over on the way home. As best the family can tell, some cops see reasonable cause for a stop in these facts: young black male in expensive new car driving alone after midnight.
How, other than racism, to explain a daytime traffic stop on Sunset Boulevard in which a middle-aged black man in a Rolls Royce, his daughters in the back seat, was ordered out at gunpoint? Without permission, officers ransacked his leather satchel until they found something that caused them fear and alarm – a badge identifying the driver as No. 3 in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Most white Americans have never had a cop pull them over for no reason except that they seemed out of place, as the late Johnny Cochran did in 1979. I have. In Beverly Hills and in Longport, NJ, officers whose initial demeanor was hostile pulled me over in broad daylight. The basis of their suspicions? My Toyota Corolla, its paint dulled by the years, looked out of place in towns whose residents drive luxury cars.
Police who instill fear are not police who catch bad guys, because it is citizens informing the police who solve crimes. Police who see “black skin” and “criminal” as synonymous need to be fired. And the burden for addressing these problems should fall squarely where it belongs – on the white majority whose values, and blindness, allow the drift towards police as warrior cops instead of guardians of the people.
Photo: Alison Klein, WEBN News via Flickr
Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!
Copyright 2014 The National Memo