by Brendan Kennedy
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” -Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the debate about the Black Lives Matter movement, one narrative has become commonplace amongst the movement’s opponents. This narrative seems to be born from “conscientious stupidity”, given how eager people are to twist or misrepresent facts to fit their preconceived beliefs. It leans on the idea of “black crime”, and asserts that the problems people of color have with police would disappear if they just obeyed the law. Some act as though “black crime” is a well-guarded secret that disproves the existence of police bias. In this article, I will explain the statistical strategies that consistently prove them wrong.
In recent Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations of various cities’ policing, the DOJ has often concluded that police conduct racially discriminatory policing. Their analysis is usually preceded by one particular statistic: the racial discrepancy between stops, searches, and arrests of minorities compared to their population in a city. Opponents of police reform will focus on this single statistic, and respond that these discrepancies are explained by the higher rates at which minority groups tend to commit crime.
This argument is popular amongst those who feel that black people deserve police brutality: it reinforces an idea of black criminality, places responsibility on minorities rather than police and blames “PC culture” for being unwilling to acknowledge “black crime”. The population comparison is a flawed statistic, and opponents of police reform focus on it in order to dismiss the entire methodology of thorough investigations. This is a stunning misrepresentation of the truth.
In reality, these investigations go to great lengths to prove that racial discrepancies in policing go beyond what can be explained by crime gaps.
To break down how police investigations can conclude that racial discrimination occurs, I will look at recent DOJ investigations of police in Ferguson, Baltimore, Newark, and New Orleans. These reports show discrimination by examining direct comparisons with crime rates, hit rates, dropped charges in cases of police discretion, white or low-crime neighborhoods, and anecdotal evidence.
Comparisons with Crime Rates
Reports on police discrimination make an effort to compare stop and arrest rates with rates of actual crime. Even when taking crime rates into account, discrepancies persist. For example, in Baltimore, the DOJ compared drug possession arrests with measured rates of drug use in the city. African Americans were arrested five times as often as others, a rate that the report found “cannot be explained by differences in drug usage” (pages 59-60). And in New Orleans, black youth under the age of 17 were arrested at a rate of around 16 to 1 when adjusted for population, a rate that the report called “so divergent from nationally reported data that it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes” (39).
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When more data is available, criminologists often rely on regression analysis (a statistical method to nullify the effects of predicting variables) to control the effects of crime, area, and other factors on stop rates. To cite just one example, a study of stop rates during New York City’s stop-and-frisk program developed algorithms to control for various factors when analyzing bias, and found that NYPD was “stopping blacks and Hispanics more often than white, in comparison to both the populations of these groups and the best estimates of the rates of crime committed by each group.”
This analysis alone is enough to refute the argument that racial discrepancies in stops can be explained by different crime rates. But, when such a comparison is not possible, investigations of police discrimination employ a number of other methods to show that racial discrimination really does occur.
It is usually difficult to accurately measure how often certain groups commit crime, due to a number of factors relating to policing and treatment under the law. As a result, looking at “hit rates” is a “generally accepted practice in the field of criminology to ‘operationalize the concept of ‘intent to discriminate’’” (pg. 65 of the Ferguson report). To put it simply: this analysis compares the rate of stops with the rate of success for each stop.
If racial discrepancies in stops and searches were based in crime-fighting objectives, then we would predict that a higher rate of minority stops also yielded an appropriately high rate of citation or contraband seizure. The statistics show the exact opposite. In Ferguson (pg. 62), Baltimore (28), and Newark (20), African Americans were stopped at searched at vastly higher rates than whites, even though the rate of contraband seizure or citation was lower than or equal to that for whites.
When combined with the other forms of analysis, hit rates reinforce the idea that police discrimination is unrelated to effective crime fighting.
The sorts of stops that hit rates analyze often result in frivolous arrests. By analyzing these arrests and the rates at which charges are dropped, investigators have found more evidence of discrimination.
Officer Discretion and Dropped Charges
Crime policies of the past few decades have driven police to aggressively pursue minor or even nonexistent infractions. Because these infractions give police discretion to make arrests, they are referred to as “discretionary charges”, and include charges like failure to obey, trespassing, or “manner of walking”. Investigations found that these charges were
frequently used to arrest people behaving lawfully. Furthermore, these charges weren’t
used to fight crime: in Baltimore they simply padded monthly stats (42) while in Ferguson they were a revenue stream for the city (9). Despite being unrelated to crime, “discretionary offenses” disproportionately targeted African Americans, as shown to the right in Figure 4 from Baltimore’s DOJ report.
But the real kicker comes when analyzing the rates at which such charges are dropped. In Baltimore, for every misdemeanor offense, African Americans saw a higher rate of dismissed charges. On the right, figure 5 shows the disparities. And this discrepancy is only the case for discretionary misdemeanors- no such disparity exists for felony arrests. This indicates that there is nothing underlying causing this discrepancy, aside from the conclusion that, “where officers have wider discretion to make arrests, they exercise it in a discriminatory manner.” (57)
White or Low-Crime Neighborhoods
Despite these numerous abuses, some people believe that discrimination is isolated to certain areas of the city where crime is worst, and where police must sometimes take extreme action to protect citizens. Due to the remnants of segregation, many of these high-crime areas are heavily minority. This argument insists that officers profile based on neighborhood, not based on race.
According to this train of thought, racial disparities exist at a citywide level, but disappear in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis. However, many reports show that racial disparities still exist in mostly white or low-crime neighborhoods. For example, in both Newark (pg. 20) and Baltimore (64), vast racial disparities in stops existed in neighborhoods that were largely white or low-crime. The DOJ’s Baltimore report found that “racial disparities in… search rates persisted after controlling for the area in which a search occurred” (64). Clearly, racial discrepancies aren’t solely the result of police focusing on certain neighborhoods, as they still exist in white or low-crime neighborhoods where they wouldn’t otherwise be expected.
These forms of statistical analysis show that crime rates and area are insufficient in explaining why racial disparities occur. To reinforce their conclusions of discrimination, investigations focus heavily on anecdotal evidence of racial bias amongst police officers.
Anecdotal examples of outright racism demonstrate that racial bias in these police department is often blatant and pervasive. In Ferguson, for example, numerous email chains between officers and supervisors contained explicitly racist content, from racist caricatures to portraying President Obama as a chimpanzee to praising abortions for African-American women as “Crimestoppers”. In Baltimore, supervisors explicitly told officers to target black men and make up charges, and BPD used a helicopter unit reserved for serious crimes to try and find young black men playing dice on the street. These reports contain pages and pages of similar anecdotal evidence, portraying instances of abuse and disregard for constitutional duty. This type of evidence helps to show that discrimination is part of a much larger cultural problem.
Through a variety of methods and statistics, police investigations provide ample evidence to show that police discrimination is a real problem in many cities. Their methodology is in-depth, multidimensional, and effective in disproving alternative explanations. These investigations leave little doubt that police discrimination is a major cause of racially disparate policing in numerous cities.
In light of this evidence, the insistence that “black crime” disproves claims of police bias can be attributed to the “conscientious stupidity” that Martin Luther King, Jr. decried. This idea was embraced by a group of people- in the media, in politics, and in everyday life- who ignored facts and context to construct a narrative against a modern civil rights movement. This narrative has entangled those with “sincere ignorance”, who consume this misinformation without the knowledge to challenge it. The result is a large group of the angry and the ignorant who believe that police discrimination is a fabrication. This misinformation ought to be met head-on, because, in the words of King, “nothing in the world is more dangerous.”
Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas, majoring in Political Science.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.