Policing has a race problem.
This isn’t some hot take. Plenty of people know this already. What I want to talk about here is how and why that problem exists. I’m going to use traffic stops as the main example.
Traffic stops are one of the most common interactions that the public has with the police, and they’re often used to determine whether or not a police department is acting properly when it comes to racial profiling. This causes a bunch of issues that most people (and police) aren’t aware of.
There is plenty of research out there that shows that Black drivers are stopped more and searched (WAY) more than White drivers. (Here’s an example of some data.) But why this happens isn’t clear from the data. All that the data shows is that the differences exist.
Seeing big differences in outcomes based on race is certainly a red flag for discriminatory behavior, but we can’t point to a single instance of discrimination in all of this data. Traffic stops and searches are made up of countless decisions on the part of an officer, and teasing apart all those decisions to identify where racial bias could be present is practically impossible.
But even though this data can’t pinpoint individual racism, it does show systemic racism.
Even if we were to assume a completely race-neutral police department, where no officer decision is made with any kind of basis in racial discrimination (which, BTW, is not a department that even police officers would claim exists), we would still get these racially inequitable outcomes.
Certain types of crime are not evenly or randomly distributed across the space of a city. In particular, serious violent street crime (aggravated assaults, homicides) adheres to very consistent spatial patterns. These patterns often coincide strongly with minority communities.
The police, in an effort to address the serious violent street crime, will spend more patrol time in these areas. As a result, enforcement actions are more likely to be taken against people who live in these areas than those in other parts of a city.
However, certain other types of crime, like risky driving behavior or drug use, do not have the same spatial patterns. There isn’t more drug use or worse driving in the “high crime” communities that police are focused on. Minority groups don’t use drugs more or speed more often than non-minority groups.
Black and White drivers are just as likely to engage in behavior that will cause an accident; or, in other words, to engage in behavior that will get them pulled over for a moving violation. Black and White people are just as likely to use drugs.
If police officers are spending more time in communities that have a higher proportion of Black drivers, then the police will observe more minor traffic violations from Black drivers, and they will pull over Black drivers with a greater frequency than White drivers, even though driving behavior between Black and White drivers is the same.
If police officers are pulling over more Black drivers, they will find more drugs in those vehicles and make more arrests of Black individuals, even though drug use between Black and White individuals is the same.
In other words, Black individuals are punished more for the same behavior that White individuals engage in.
A defense that might be given here is that enforcing minor crimes leads to reductions in more serious crimes (i.e. zero tolerance policing). Zero tolerance policing doesn’t work. It’s ineffective, and it hurts police-community relationships.
Zero tolerance policing doesn’t work. It’s ineffective, and it hurts police-community relationships.
Another defense of this that I’ve heard is that it’s okay, because the people getting pulled over are still breaking the law and deserve to be punished.
This isn’t a good defense either. Imagine a police officer who stops 20 cars on a stretch of highway. Each driver was going 15 miles over the speed limit. The officer gives warnings to 10 White drivers, and tickets to 10 Black drivers. The Black drivers were all speeding, so isn’t that okay? Of course not.
Racism in policing can take several forms. The one people think of the most is of minority individuals being targeted even when they aren’t doing anything illegal (e.g. Walking While Black). But an even more insidious variation (in my mind) is that minority groups are punished more for the same crimes than non-minority groups. This behavior is then excused by saying that crimes were being committed, so the people being punished deserved whatever they got.
If the same population — in this case, people who break traffic laws or use drugs — gets different treatment based on race, then it’s still racism.
Getting a traffic ticket or a citation for marijuana possession is a financial burden, especially to people living in poor neighborhoods trying to make ends meet, which is where a lot of violent street crime takes place. It can result not only in a loss of money, but of driving privileges and job prospects. These are very serious outcomes, and they are being disproportionately applied to minority communities.
Policing, as it exists today, is a system that creates and enhances racial inequities in our society. And it can do so even in the absence of any individual discriminatory behavior. This is systemic racism in policing.
The fact that individual discriminatory behavior exists as well simply adds to the disproportionate treatment that minority communities receive.
I want to be clear about something here: This is not an opinion. This is a description of policing in the US and how it operates. It is a fact that systemic racism exists in policing, even when individuals within the system have the best of intentions.
It will take deliberate action to undo these problems, and to undo them in a way that does not compromise public safety. Targeted police patrol can decrease violent crime (when it is focused specifically on violence). Traffic enforcement can improve traffic safety. These are both very important things. But we need to be able to address problems like violent crime and traffic safety in ways that do not place a greater burden on minority communities.
We need equitable policing for every community.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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