Sunday Commentary: Why Are People of Color Over-Policed in Davis?

Davis Police Car

Davis Police Car

By David M. Greenwald

As the Davis City Council deals with nine recommendations from the Joint Subcommittee report on policing from last fall, there will naturally be a tendency to attack the low-hanging fruit.  They will probably look to shift away from police responses, especially to mental health calls, and perhaps look at a CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) style model of response.

While this would be an important start, I would urge them to look at recommendation one: “Determine why racial disparities in arrests, recommended charges, and stops exist in Davis.”

While a CAHOOTS model could be transformative, the over-policing of people of color is the fundamental problem in our criminal legal system today.

The data in Davis bear this out.

“The percentage of Hispanic and Black arrestees in Davis over the 2015-19 period is strongly disproportionate to the population shares of these groups in the City, a finding which holds even when considering arrests of Davis residents only,” the joint subcommittee finds.

The numbers at the local level are stunning: “Black people are arrested at a rate 5.9 times more, and Hispanic people 1.5 times more, than their population share; when considering only Davis residents, Black people are arrested at 5.0 times and Hispanic people 1.4 times their population share.”

The joint subcommittee reports that both sets of figures far exceed the racial disparity in arrests in the United States as a whole—and I would add, worse than the statewide average as well.

It goes further: “Similar racial inequalities hold with respect to the overall number of recommended charges filed by Davis Police Department (DPD) officers in the city, and Hispanic and Black people are also subject to traffic-related stops and searches at a much higher rate than their respective population shares in Davis (though roughly proportional to regional population shares).”

They recommend: “[A] detailed study of the determinants of racially disproportionate stops, arrests, and recommended charges in Davis, including an analysis of the relative contributions of potential bias in policing, potential bias in community reporting, and socio-economic factors. This will likely require a regional analysis in partnership with agencies from Yolo County and surrounding counties.”

There is a tendency for people to attempt to explain away these disparities—like the reason that people of color are over-policed is that they are disproportionately committing crimes.  Like most things in the political world, there is some truth to that simple explanation, but it is not the full truth.

When we examine drug offenses, we see a very different picture—which gives us a window into what is really happening in the criminal legal system.

This is not an aberrant issue.  Drug offenses in 2019, for example, accounted for nearly one-fifth of all arrests.  And here, we have fairly good data showing Blacks and whites both use and sell drugs at comparable rates, and yet the data show a huge disparity in arrest and prosecution rates—how can that be?

The Hamilton Project, a project of the Brookings Institute, 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.

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

He explains this disparity twofold—first,where police deploy resources, and second, the resource disadvantage of people of color versus white people, which puts the former group making such transactions in the streets while people of privilege can do so in the protection and privacy of their own homes.

He said 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.”

But there is also an explicit or implicit bias component, 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 what we have rigorously points to “enforcement choices as important factors in the racial disparities in imprisonment rates.”

Having a deeper understanding of why we have racial disparities in policing seems like something our city should be looking at—even if the city of Davis is far from being alone in this respect.

What is truly striking about Davis’ policing data is Davis does not have huge pockets of residential segregation like other communities.

One of the big problems nationally is that Black-white racial residential segregation reinforces this pattern of policing.

The result is, as Tufts Sociology Professor Daanika Gordon put it, policing strategies in highly-segregated cities show that “predominantly Black neighborhoods are simultaneously over-policed when it comes to surveillance and social control, and under-policed when it comes to emergency services.”

She sees this as an explanation of why Black communities are disproportionately impacted by police violence.

But in places like Davis, that pattern of residential segregation doesn’t hold.

Why are there racial disparities in Davis then?

When Mayor Partida asked that question of Chief Pytel, he responded, “[T]hat’s something that I haven’t really looked at.”

That issue would get to the heart of the problem—why communities of color are disproportionately policed compared to white communities.  The answer there will be a key to unlocking the systemic 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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  1. Keith Olsen

    the reason that people of color are over-policed is that they are disproportionately committing crimes.  Like most things in the political world, there is some truth to that simple explanation, but it is not the full truth.

    I’m surprised you actually conceded this point, well at least somewhat anyway.

    1. Alan Miller

      I’m surprised you actually conceded this point, well at least somewhat anyway.

      I’ll give DG full credit.  As long as everyone in any of these discussions is willing to admit multiple causalities, we can have the discussion.  It’s when people dig in to one side or the other and demonize the other that we freeze.

      *Note:  this is not to say that we should not demonize demons.

      1. David Greenwald

        One thing I would say – I don’t feel like I conceded a point, I feel like we have data and the data tell a story and paint a picture. Unfortunately – and this is where I think Alan is correct – too many people dig into part of the story rather than looking at the full story.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Alan M is indeed correct, as you have acknowledged, David…

          too many people dig into part of the story rather than looking at the full story.

          That would be “mirror time”, David… learn from it… part of maturity… meant as a friendly comment…
          An opportunity to grow further…

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