Are We Asking the Right Questions About Police and Race?

BY DIANE DIMOND

As the nation continued to watch for the grand jury announcement out of Ferguson, Missouri, this week, USA Today released a disturbing analysis of arrest records from across the country. After pouring over FBI records from more than 3,500 police departments, the newspaper finds that blacks are far more likely to be arrested than people of other races — and for all sorts of crimes — from murder to marijuana possession.

USA Today called the racial divide in America’s 2011-2012 arrest rates a “staggering disparity” with at least 70 police departments from Connecticut to California arresting blacks at a rate 10 times higher than people of other races.

But before you jump to any conclusions, the paper also quoted experts who said the lopsided nature of arrests didn’t necessarily prove racism or racial profiling. Read that sentence again, please.

My worry is that some people will choose to glom on to the arrest numbers alone and ignore the very important questions these statistics raise.

Of course, it was the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson’s white police officer Darren Wilson that once again re-ignited the discussion about racial tensions and perceived police bias.

So let’s look at the FBI’s stats on Ferguson. Police there arrested black residents not quite three times more often than whites. But, look deeper. More than 67 percent of Ferguson’s population is black; only 29 percent are white. It’s not difficult to understand, then, why more blacks might be arrested there.

Census Bureau statistics show the largest sector of Ferguson residents are between the ages of 15 and 19 — prime age for committing crimes.

This is not to say there was no police bias at play in Ferguson or any of the other areas cited in this latest report.

The paper’s analysis concluded that at least 1,581 other police departments arrested blacks at rates even higher than in Ferguson, including cop shops in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco.

It was mindboggling to learn that in 2011 and 2012 in areas around Detroit, Michigan — the poorest and blackest of America’s major cities, according to USA Today — arrest rates for blacks were up to 26 percent higher than for people of other races. Yet police there insist no one is targeted for their race.

“Our officers aren’t being told to look for any particular demographic,” former Dearborn police officer Gregg Algier told the paper. “We come across what we come across.”

Police at the Virginia shore were quoted saying, “We’re arresting folks based on who’s committing the crime.”

Which begs the question: Is the black community doing all it can to produce law-abiding citizens? Does it do enough to help promote education, healthy family-oriented lifestyles and self-discipline? If the complaint is that police officers need to restrain themselves, doesn’t that also apply to the citizens they encounter on the job? Tensions can’t always be laid at the feet of the police, right?

Statistics can sometimes be startling. But don’t be swayed by mere numbers. We need to keep asking questions and seeking answers.

What societal pressures impact today’s racial equation? What can be done to help at-risk young people? Why are so many police departments predominantly staffed by whites, even when they are in majority black communities? Why aren’t more candidates of color stepping forward to serve? If drug arrests are high, what kind of public resources are earmarked for drug rehab programs? I guarantee the amount will surely be less than the cost of incarcerating those arrested on drug charges.

I cringe when I hear activists calling for their brand of justice on young Brown’s behalf. They have no idea what evidence was presented to the secret grand jury, yet they are positive the only just end is to find Officer Wilson guilty. That’s not the way the system works. Do we need to revive high school civics courses so people understand that?

There are reasons the arrest rate for blacks is higher than for whites. I want to understand what they are and take steps to fix them. What no one should want is mob rule, fueled by inconsistent and often incorrect media reports, blindly telling us who is guilty and who is not.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net