Posted on May 14, 2008

Beach Disputes Study on Racial Bias in Arrests

Aaron Applegate, Virginia-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia), May 6, 2008

The headline on the news release touting an advocacy group’s study released Monday blared: “Virginia Beach Leads the Nation in Rising Racial Disparity in Drug Arrests.”

Beach authorities, however, dispute the study’s methodology and conclusions.

The report, by criminal justice research group The Sentencing Project, said that, between 1980 and 2003, the ratio of black arrests to white arrests for drug crimes increased by nearly 11 times, the biggest such jump among the nation’s large cities. The numbers were based on arrest rates per 100,000 people by race.

“The war on drugs has been waged in the African American community, and Virginia Beach is a stark example of that,” said Ryan King, author of the study, which looked at drug arrests in 43 major cities with populations of more than 250,000.


The report found that for every four black people arrested in Virginia Beach in 2003, one white was arrested. In 1980, Beach police arrested about three whites for every black for drug crimes, the report said.

Beach police said their statistics, also based on arrests per 100,000, showed that in 1980 they arrested 1.77 whites for every black and in 2003, they arrested 2.63 blacks for every white.

Using those figures, police said, the ratio of black arrests to white arrests would have increased by 4.7 times, not 11 times, as The Sentencing Project found. The police numbers would place Virginia Beach fifth among the 43 cities in the report, between Columbus, Ohio (6.7), and Atlanta (4.5).

Both sides agreed there’s no evidence to show that blacks are more likely to possess or deal drugs. So, why the higher arrest rate?

Cervera said the trend is related to the department’s shift toward “community policing ” in the 1990s. Officers were assigned to work high-crime neighborhoods instead of zones. Those areas tend to have more black residents, he said. “We put people in neighborhoods where crime occurs, and when we arrest people, a lot of the time they have dope,” he said.

Another theory, which King, Cervera and Old Dominion University professor Scott Maggard agreed on, is that blacks more often buy and sell drugs outside and to strangers, while whites tend to sell in homes to people they generally know.


The most obvious flaw in the study, police said, is that all the figures are derived using the city’s 1990 U.S. census racial breakdown of 10 percent black and about 86 percent white. By the 2000 census, Virginia Beach was 19 percent black and about 71 percent white. The black population in 2006 was estimated at about 20 percent of the total.


King acknowledged that not accounting for the increasing black population in Virginia Beach skewed the study toward showing that a higher percentage of blacks were arrested for drugs.

He said the main point of the study remained valid: Blacks still are being arrested more frequently on drug charges. “There are no studies of use, abuse or selling dynamics,” he said, “that support the scope of disparity we see.”