Racial Gap in U.S. Arrest Rates: ‘Staggering Disparity’

Brad Heath, USA Today, November 18, 2014

When it comes to racially lopsided arrests, the most remarkable thing about Ferguson, Mo., might be just how ordinary it is.

Police in Ferguson–which erupted into days of racially charged unrest after a white officer killed an unarmed black teen–arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races.

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.

Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. 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. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.


Whatever the reasons, the results are the same: Blacks are far more likely to be arrested than any other racial group in the USA. In some places, dramatically so.

At least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black, USA TODAY found.

“Something needs to be done about that,” said Ezekiel Edwards, the head of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, which has raised concerns about such disparate arrest rates. “In 2014, we shouldn’t continue to see this kind of staggering disparity wherever we look.”


{snip} USA TODAY’s analysis, using arrests reported to the federal government in 2011 and 2012, found that those inequities are far wider in many cities across the country, from St. Louis to Atlanta to suburban Dearborn, Mich.

Suspicion in Dearborn

A dozen people stood or slumped on benches before sunrise in Dearborn on a recent morning, waiting for officers to unlock the doors of the 19th District Court, where they had been summoned to answer traffic citations and petty criminal charges. Almost everyone who lives in Dearborn is white (including a large population of Arabs). Almost everyone waiting in the morning dim was black.

“You can see who’s going in there. I guarantee they don’t live here,” Lawrence Wynn, who is black, said, looking at the line outside the courthouse door. Most days, Wynn said, he detours around Dearborn on his way home from his job at a suburban auto plant. It makes the journey half again as long, “but I’d rather do that than have to come through Dearborn at night.”

He leaned in close. “I think they’re targeting people.”

Dearborn police officers and officials say that’s not true. The city’s police chief, Ronald Haddad, said the arrest rates are skewed because many of the people his officers arrest don’t live in the city. They’re picked up at the shopping mall, on their way to work or simply when they’re driving through. Some are detained by private security officers before police ever arrive, meaning police would have no chance to single them out.

Haddad said it is unfair to measure his officers’ work against the city’s demographics. “We treat everyone the same,” he said.

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.


To measure the breadth of arrest disparities, USA TODAY examined data that police departments report to the FBI each year. For each agency, USA TODAY compared the number of black people arrested during 2011 and 2012 with the number who lived in the area the department protects. (The FBI tracks arrests by race; it does not track arrests of Hispanics.)

The review did not include thousands of smaller departments or agencies that serve areas with only a small black population. It also did not include police agencies in most parts of Alabama, Florida and Illinois because those states had not reported complete arrest data to the FBI.

The review showed:

• Blacks are more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.

• Arrest rates are particularly lopsided in some pockets of the country, including St. Louis’ Missouri suburbs near Ferguson. In St. Louis County alone, more than two dozen police departments had arrest rates more lopsided than Ferguson’s. In nearby Clayton, Mo., for example, only about 8% of residents are black, compared with about 57% of people the police arrested, according to the city’s FBI reports. {snip}

• Deep disparities show up even in progressive university towns. USA TODAY found police in Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis., arrested black people at a rate more than nine times higher than members of other racial groups. {snip}

• Arrest rates are lopsided almost everywhere. Only 173 of the 3,538 police departments USA TODAY examined arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups.


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