By David M. Greenwald
A critical point that I think needs to be better understood in the context of policing is, if the problem is one of systemic racism, then the solution may not be reached simply by changing the behavior of individuals.
That’s a crucial point because a lot of the reforms that we have seen—Colorado ending qualified immunity, California changing its use-of-force requirements, many areas requiring body worn cameras—aim their policies at changing individual level behavior.
But what if biased policing comes from three areas—concentrated poverty in urban areas, patterns of policing that reinforce that concentration of poverty, and implicit bias?
I think Mayor Partida in her conversation and questioning of Chief Darren Pytel hit on an important point, but she and we need to dive deeper.
She responded in part to my Sunday column which accused the chief of punting on the issue by stating, “I don’t know if Darren deflected my question as much as I felt he missed my question. He did correctly point out that the buck stopped at the DA’s office. He also stated that he did not fully understand what the recommendation around charging referred to.”
She writes, “Essentially what I wanted to know was all things being equal if you pull over two people with expired plates and broken tail lights and one is white and one is not do you give both a ticket or do you give the white person a ticket but ask to search the POC’s car. If you search both cars do you report the minor drugs you found in the POC’s car and not the white persons.”
And she’s right, “this is a reality in the world.”
But the problem goes far deeper and it is far more sinister. Indeed, if we were only dealing with discretionary decisions by the police officer, we could probably solve that problem with training—although as we have seen with everything from use of force to racial profiling, even that is easier said than done.
The problem here starts well before the police officer has to make a decision on an arrest.
First, we know from data that people of color are more likely to be stopped than white people. That is true in Davis as well as globally. Why? In a lot of areas the answer has to do with where the police are deploying resources, but in places like Davis, it also has to do with the types of vehicles being pulled over. A lot of times—especially at night—the officer can’t see who is driving, but can see the year and make of the car and its condition.
We know from data, people are color are disproportionately pulled over.
Next, once pulled over, we know from data that Black and Brown people are far more likely to have their vehicles searched than whites. That means generally that an officer has to gain permission to search the car (although probably sometimes they do so unlawfully or coercively).
The book Suspect Citizens came out in 2018, and it looked at data from North Carolina and found, “Blacks were 63 percent more likely to be stopped even though, as a whole, they drive 16 percent less. Taking into account less time on the road, blacks were about 95 percent more likely to be stopped.
“Blacks were 115 percent more likely than whites to be searched in a traffic stop (5.05 percent for blacks, 2.35 percent for whites),” they found.
And the incredible thing: contraband was more likely to be found in searches of white drivers.
Why is that? We think largely because Black drivers are being searched based on factors that have less to do with probability of having contraband—they are more blanket searches while whites are being searched because there is a specific reason to search then.
“So, black drivers were stopped disproportionately more than white drivers compared to the local population and were at least twice as likely to be searched, but they were slightly less likely to get a ticket,” Professor Kelsey Shoub, one of the authors, explained. “That correlates with the idea that black drivers were stopped on the pretext of having done something wrong, and when the officer doesn’t see in the car what he thought he might, he tells them to go on their way.”
Lest you think this was a North Carolina specific finding, Shoub and her colleagues also analyzed stop data from 16 others states and found similar disparities.
The point I’m making here is that to get to the point where the police officer is making the arrest decision, they have already made the decision to stop, search, locate and then they decide whether to arrest and, as you can guess, when officers have discretion, they are more likely to arrest the person of color than the white person.
Then the DA takes over, where they are more likely to charge the person of color, more likely to charge them more seriously—and the person of color is more likely to be convicted, more likely to serve more time, and finally more likely to serve a longer period of time.
As I said at the start, decisions on where to deploy law enforcement resources account for some of this, vestiges of systemic racism and concentrated poverty account for some, and implicit bias accounts for some.
We need to figure out why people of color are disadvantaged and how to start creating a more equitable society. That is a hard question. And it will take the police chief having some difficult and uncomfortable conversations to start getting to the answer.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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