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Racial Disparities In Arrests Are Prevalent, But Cause Isn't Clear

Protesters and law enforcement officers face off during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department in October. Ferguson police statistics show the department arrest blacks at a higher rate than other racial groups — but that disparity is true for police departments across the country.
Charles Rex Arbogast

Ferguson, Mo., continues to watch and wait as a grand jury decides whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Brown's death was the spark for mass protests in Ferguson, but many of the city's black population say the problems go deeper, and that blacks are unfairly singled out by police.

Ferguson police statistics show the department does arrest blacks at a higher rate than other racial groups. But that disparity is true for police departments across the country.

Brad Heath, an investigative reporter with USA Today, wrote in a story last week that the most remarkable thing about Ferguson might be just how ordinary it is. He examined data that police departments report to the FBI each year and compared the number of black people arrested during 2011 and 2012 with the number who lived in the area the department protects. He notes that the FBI does not track arrests of Hispanics as a separate race.

Heath tells guest host Tess Vigeland that nationally, black people are arrested at a rate about three times higher than other races, and Ferguson aligns pretty closely with that average.

"But if you look at the geography of those inequities, there are a lot of cities where the disparity is five times higher, 10 times higher, even 20 times higher," Heath says.

One of those cities Heath talks about is Dearborn, Mich., where blacks are only 4 percent of the population, yet made up more than half of arrests in 2011 and 2012. Here's the catch: A lot of those arrested don't actually live in Dearborn.

"They do get a lot of people driving through from Detroit on their way to work [and] they do have a large shopping mall and a large retail presence," he says. "So you see a lot of people who wouldn't be counted in the resident population."

Heath says this sort of situation can and does skew the disparity numbers in many of the cities he looked at with smaller populations of black residents.

Despite that, Heath says Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad does acknowledge the accumulated mistrust that comes when the population standing in line at the courthouse doesn't look like the city as a whole.

"It's become a really interesting challenge for them to try to solve," he says.

The difficult question to answer, Heath says, is why these disparities in arrests are so prevalent across the agencies reporting data to the FBI. He says while it certainly points out the possibility of law enforcement bias, it could point to other factors as well.

"This could be a function of disparities in economic outcomes, in education, in poverty, in all sorts of other social variables that are really hard to measure and really hard to correlate," Heath says.

What is clear, he says, is that the police chiefs he has talked to are concerned and want to figure out why the disparities exist — "so that we can do something about it so that the communities we're trying to police will trust us," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff