Sunday Commentary: Punting on Taking on Biased Policing

Police Chief Darren Pytel

By David M. Greenwald

The Davis City Council is moving in the right direction in terms of accepting the recommendations of the subcommittee on policing.  As I noted in the webinar on Friday, given that in 2006 we basically saw strong opposition to the creation of civilian review of the police—a commission that was implemented in 2018, and looks largely like the one that was proposed but rejected in 2006.

The data on police stops bears out what we believed going back to 2006—people of color are disproportionately stopped by the police.  Even when we limit the group to simply Davis residents, “Black people are arrested at 5.0 times and Hispanic people 1.4 times their population share. Both sets of figures far exceed the racial disparity in arrests in the United States as a whole.”

It was unfortunate that Police Chief Darren Pytel seemed to punt on the implications of this—laying the blame on the DA’s office.

He told Mayor Gloria Partida: “As a general rule what the subcommittee is saying is correct, law enforcement is the gatekeeper to the justice system, and has a lot of authority to determine who gets arrested and who doesn’t and often times how the case is going to be investigated and what charges may be viable.

“Certainly we have the authority as to whether to make an arrest or not.”

But he said that “the DA can reach right around us… they can charge someone with a crime even if we never make an arrest or never actually recommend any charges.”

Gloria Partida pressed, saying that “it’s still at your discretion to reveal everything you encounter when you make an arrest…  that is still at the discretion of the police department.”

She said, “When I read this Recommendation #1, and it states that there are disparities in arrests, recommended charges, and stops…  I just question… why there would be disparities.

“Why does that happen?”

Pytel strangely acknowledged that “that’s something that I haven’t really looked at.  I would have to study that more to find out exactly what it is they’re saying.”

He again pointed the conversation back to the DA, “We don’t charge anybody with any crimes.  That’s the sole authority of the DA.”

But this ignores a crucial factor—yes the DA can charge people or not charge people, but the gatekeeper plays the most important role, especially with low level offenses.  The DA might on their own investigate and indict high level crimes, but are they going to, on their own, investigate a low level drug offense?

Drugs offenses are a huge percentage of the overall arrests in the criminal legal system.  In 2019, they accounted for nearly one-fifth of all arrests.  The research is pretty clear on this—Blacks and whites actually use drugs and sell drugs at similar rates.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is out of the Hamilton Project, a project by the Brookings Institute.

They found that about 19 percent of whites use illegal drugs while about 16 percent of Blacks do.  Moreover, they found that the two sell drugs at about the same rate.

However, Blacks are about 6.5 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

This is purely a function of how policing occurs.  There are two things at play here.  First, police make the decision where to deploy their resources and they often choose so-called high crime areas where people of color live.  Second, there is overall privilege.  A more affluent person makes drug transactions and uses their drugs in the privacy of their own home where police are unlikely to be able to observe and detect—while people living more on the margins are more likely to make their transactions on the street and use on the street, where police are patrolling.

This is the point that Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff makes.  He notes the incarceration rate for drug offenses are 34 per 100,000 for whites, 74 for Latinos, and 193 for Blacks.

He noted like I did that “even if there is no difference in offense rates across races and ethnicities, black and Hispanics are more likely to buy and sell drugs in public and that outdoor drug markets are easier to police.”

He notes this as the race-class interaction: “Wealthier (and thus whiter) people have more access to private drug markets.”

His third explanation is explicit or implicit bias, and this suggests either “a black dealer is more likely to be arrested than a nearby white dealer” or that “black neighborhoods are more heavily policed than white neighborhoods, even if the white neighborhoods have similar or greater levels of drug crime.”

Pfaff argues that we don’t have enough study on these topics, but finds that the few rigorous point to “enforcement choices as important factors in the racial disparities in imprisonment rates.”

It is easy to point to this as simply biased actors—but that is largely a misread.

Here I think a very important point is made about the nature of systemic racism.

Radley Balko points out that “systemic racism” is often misinterpreted to mean “everyone in the system is racist. In fact, systemic racism means almost the opposite. It means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them.”

The important point here is that enforcement of drug laws and deployment of law enforcement resources are critical here.  In Davis, those who are getting stopped creates a selection effect that starts driving the data.  This is not conscious bias on the part of police—it is a combination of implicit bias, biased policing, and enforcement choices.

But we don’t solve it by passing the buck to the DA’s office in this case—the DA’s office has their share of blame on their charging decisions, but that’s a discussion for another time.  Here the gatekeeper is local law enforcement, and until we can change how they do business, we are not going to resolve this problem.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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36 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    use drugs and sell drugs

    Use and sell are two different things.  I have always believed people should not be arrested for use only, even of illegal drugs – only for crimes committed as a result of their lifestyle.  Sales, however, that’s a different matter.

    A more affluent person makes drug transactions and uses their drugs in the privacy of their own home where police are unlikely to be able to observe and detect—while people living more on the margins are more likely to make their transactions on the street and use on the street, where police are patrolling.

    I agree with the above statement as written.  That may explain much of the disparity, though that in itself is not outright racism, but a result of the economic disparity in wealth by race (structural).  How would that be normalized?  I wouldn’t want the police to start going into houses and apartments as part of their patrol to normalize racial disparities by ease of finding drug offensives.  The only solution I could imagine is put far more resources into drug investigations of ‘homed’ people, but those are relatively time consuming and expensive.  It is a dilemma if the goal is equity of drug arrests by race.

        1. David Greenwald

          That wasn’t my intent. But regardless, the point of the commentary was to show that policing creates this inequalities not necessarily because of differential in crime rates but because of police tactics which Pytel was dodging.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Let’s see… if they sell drugs, they’re buying drqugs… selling them “to pay for their own habit (actually likely ‘addiction’)” means they have a “mark-up”/profit when selling the drugs they buy… capitalistic, or predatory?

        I fully agree with Alan about the differentiation between using and selling… former I’d want to give alternatives to (help/support them in ‘getting clean’), the latter I’d want to sanction (incarcerate)… just me…

        Think one or two ‘steps up’ David… those who acquire (make or buy) drugs, but are smart enough not to use… they are despicable pedators… and should be treated as such… a form of ‘rape’ if you will… those should be super-fair-game for prosecution… just me…

        1. David Greenwald

          I have a strong disagreement – most people who are selling drugs are not being predators, they are supporting their own habit. For the most people we need to view the low level drug dealers in the same category as the addicts. You want to label upper level distributors differently, be my guest.

  2. Alan Miller

    Radley Balko points out that “systemic racism” is often misinterpreted to mean “everyone in the system is racist. In fact, systemic racism means almost the opposite. It means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them.”

    That is actually the best explanation of systemic racism I have heard, and with that I agree.  Unfortunately, the terms have become so convoluted in 2020 and I don’t believe most Americans really understand how to use the terms properly and so a lot of people don’t get the message about systemic racism as a concept because they hear it as ‘you are racist’.  If this message could get past the shouting, perhaps activists and society as a whole could work together on these issues.

    1. Eric Gelber

      Balko goes on to say:

      When you consider that much of the criminal justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.

      While systematic racism doesn’t mean everyone in the system is racist, those who fail to even acknowledge systemic racism and its origins are complicit in its perpetuation. There’s also truth in Eldridge Cleaver’s statement, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”

      1. Alan Miller

        While systematic racism doesn’t mean everyone in the system is racist, those who fail to even acknowledge systemic racism and its origins are complicit in its perpetuation.

        I hear that a lot.  “You are with us or against us.”  “You are racist or anti-racist.”  ‘You are complicit in its perpetuation.’  The first one is a common tactic in tyrannical governments, and any variation an attempt to force allegiance to a cause, government or dictator.  As not much of an allegiance kind-of-guy, and one who sees validity in the arguments of both sides of most polarized issues – I find such platitudes to be destructive and mainly for the purpose of self-boosting the righteousness of those espousing them.  Most people are just trying to raise a family and keep their jobs.  Such a lack of political awareness/participation may be offensive to social activists, but that’s how it is.

        There’s also truth in Eldridge Cleaver’s statement, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”

        I met Eldridge cleaver at a Kinko’s in the 70’s.  Met – as in, Last name:  “Cleaver”; First name:  “Eldridge”.  Whoa!  —— some people like to share their brush with fame re: celebrity entertainers; I share here my brush with well-known social activists.

        1. Eric Gelber

          Most people are just trying to raise a family and keep their jobs.

          That’s a valid point. But public officials and others in positions of authority in the public or private sector aren’t most people. They are complicit if they fail to acknowledge or address racism or other systemic issues.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Alan… good insight… will cogitate on it, but makes sense…

      However, the way folk are, ‘terms’ have intentions… language ‘morphs’… can think of a whole lot of words that have true meaning, yet if someone uses them they get a strong reaction… and it works the other way… some use language deliberately to provoke… or guilt, or whatever…

      1. Alan Miller

        That is a further part of the issue here.  One of the tactics of radicals is to change language.  Change the meaning of a phrase society has used for decades – so that when those not ‘hip’ speak it, they are speaking a different language and now the two sounds can’t communicate, and you can slam your ‘enemies’.  This has been done with much language recently regarding the race issues.

        I’d rather have opposite sides of issues sit down and discuss, but there are always the radicals who want to set of a bomb (literally in some movements) under the negotiating table.  One slow-burn bomb is continually shifting the language — with the internet, the ability to do this has gone exponential.  We cannot discuss if we cannot agree on the meaning of words and phrases.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Skimming through this, it appears that the article goes off into the weeds regarding drug arrests (nationwide), vs. arrests (which may, or may not be drug-related) in Davis.

    As usual, there seems to be an expectation that all groups will be arrested at the “same rate”. It is complete and total nonsense to automatically conclude that this is evidence of systemic racism. That implied conclusion is not only dishonest; it is dangerous.

    1. Tia Will

      Ron

      I agree that leaping to conclusions is dangerous and can be dishonest. However if one is going to discount systemic racism as a major, or even contributing factor, I would question what you do see as alternative explanations for the discrepancies which have been demonstrated again and again.

  4. Tia Will

    why there would be disparities?”

    Pytel: “that’s something that I haven’t really looked at.  I would have to study that more to find out exactly what it is they’re saying.”

    To me this is amazing. This was the core issue that some were asking be addressed at least as far back as 2006. To think that even though the city decided not to pursue this issue via a commission, it would still be on the radar of the police chief, a position Pytel has held since 2015, having been the number 2 for the preceding 3 years. To have overlooked the critical role of his own department for 5-8 years depending on how you want to count is difficult for me to justify.

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      “why there would be disparities”?

      Seems to me that the most likely reason is that different groups commit crimes at different rates. I attribute that conclusion to common sense.

      1. David Greenwald

        Skimming through you probably missed the key point that they don’t commit these kinds of crimes at different rates which was the whole point of the data dive.

          1. David Greenwald

            The point of the exercise was to show that policing decisions drive the arrest data. Drugs happens to be a clear example because blacks and whites use them at comparable rates and yet there is a disproportionate arrest rate. Nowhere did I apply the national data to Davis.

        1. Ron Oertel

          You’ve got a photo of the chief at the top of this article, and also make comments like this:

          It was unfortunate that Police Chief Darren Pytel seemed to punt on the implications of this—laying the blame on the DA’s office.

          Though I agree that Pytel did deflect, in his response.  I doubt that he can even answer that question in the first place – other than to say that his officers arrest people as crimes are reported and observed.

          I would ask the mayor if she expects all groups to be arrested at the same rate. If so, I would tell her that she is making unreasonable, illogical requests.

          Perhaps there is no “blame” to be found – as you imply. Other than from those who are committing crimes.

          1. David Greenwald

            “Perhaps there is no “blame” to be found – as you imply. Other than from those who are committing crimes.”

            I direct you to the paragraph on systemic racism. Also again the disparity between those committing drug crimes and those being arrested and prosecuted for them.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Common sense is also the reason I stay out of certain cities (and in particular, certain neighborhoods).

          Even animals use common sense, to survive.

          What doesn’t make “common sense” is an expectation that all groups commit crimes at the same rate. That’s an agenda.

      2. Richard McCann

        As I said to you last week, the disparity in stop and arrest rates don’t match the disparity in crime conviction rates. On top of that, the conviction rates are also biased (numerous studies have shown that over the years.) Further, the reason for the disparity in the crime rates is explained by the disparity in income and wealth between different socioeconomic groups (and our collective unwillingness to identify and punish white-collar crime). And even moreso, Blacks have had an incarceration culture imposed on them, first through slavery, and then through the Jim Crow laws and other segregation actions over the next century. So your trite explanation really isn’t an explanation.

        1. Ron Oertel

          It’s amazing how many people who aren’t named “Gloria” respond on here, in her defense. In your case, citing slavery, Jim Crow laws, white -collar crime, etc.

          To a question which already contained an implied conclusion, itself.

          What is her “recommendation” (that she referred to, and the chief did not understand)?

          Again, she wrote this article – maybe she should be the one to explain.

  5. Tia Will

    Ron

    I agree that leaping to conclusions is dangerous and can be dishonest. However if one is going to discount systemic racism as a major, or even contributing factor, I would question what you do see as alternative explanations for the discrepancies which have been demonstrated again and again.

      1. Don Shor

        Seems to me that the most likely reason is that different groups commit crimes at different rates. I attribute that conclusion to common sense.

        Seems to me the most likely reason is that different groups are stopped and frisked at different rates by police. I attribute that conclusion to actual data.
        Here’s an example of the outcomes of that policing behavior.
        —–
        From the ACLU:
        April 2020
        Marijuana arrests are still widespread nationwide, making up 43 percent of all drug arrests — more than any other drug. The vast majority of these arrests — nine out of 10 — are for possession.
        Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates.
        Racial disparities vary in severity across states. Colorado has the lowest disparity, at 1.5, while in Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa, Black people were more than seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. However, one commonality among all states— legalized, decriminalized, illegal — is that Black people are still significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. And at the county level, there are places where Black people are more than 20, 30, 40, or even 50 times more likely to be arrested than white people.

        Police often target people (for stop and frisk, search, and arrest) based on their actual or perceived race rather than reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Minor offenses — including marijuana possession — are aggressively enforced in communities of color while these same offenses are rarely enforced in more affluent, predominantly white communities. The result is the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of people of color, and particularly young people of color, who can wind up entangled in the criminal legal system with lifelong implications because of a minor offense.

        https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/a-tale-of-two-countries-racially-targeted-arrests-in-the-era-of-marijuana-reform/

  6. Ron Oertel

    Again, I would ask the mayor if she actually expects all groups to be arrested at the same rate.  If so, I would suggest that this is a political agenda, rather than a logical one (which should be based upon public safety).

    If that is indeed her expectation, I might suggest that she is unfit for office – ultimately posing a potential risk to public safety as a result of a political belief and agenda.

    Perhaps the other council members need to question this.

    1. David Greenwald

      To me that question is a red herring. Huge gulf between same rate and 5 times their share of the population WHEN the data suggest they are committing drug crimes at least at the same rate. To me the appropriate question is how do we create a more equitable legal system not whether you expect the same rates of stops and arrests.

    2. Don Shor

      Again, I would ask the mayor if she actually expects all groups to be arrested at the same rate.

      It is a near certainty that the answer to that question would be no. The question would be why they are arrested at different rates.
      What are the rates of police interaction with different groups?
      What are the reasons for the interactions?

    3. Eric Gelber

      Again, I would ask the mayor if she actually expects all groups to be arrested at the same rate.

      There’s a difference between being equal and being equitable. No one has suggested that arrest rates be equal.

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