A number of police officers throughout the country have used excessive and sometimes deadly force in instances that were absolutely unjustified, including some egregious cases in Chicago, the city I know best. Many of these would not have been known about or dealt with properly had it not been for police and citizen cameras. These situations have led to far-reaching changes in police policies regarding the use of deadly force.
Along with these changes, there has been a charge that police departments in many cities over-police minority communities. This charge is accompanied by statistics that show that more police stops occur in minority communities than other, whiter communities; that is, if we divide the number of stops by the number of residents, it is higher for minority communities than for white communities.
But the racial composition is only one variable that can describe a community; there are others. Consider the fact that, in most cities, the areas with the greatest crime rates are populated with minorities. In Chicago there are two high-crime areas: the rest of the city is relatively safe. These two areas are characterized by a high rate of calls for police service, high crime rates and (non-police) shooting and homicide rates, high poverty, high truancy rates, etc. These areas have proportionately the highest number of police stops and are generally more dangerous, both for police and for the overwhelming majority of the citizens in those areas that do not commit crime.
The police did not create those problems in these communities. They were generated by decades of policies both active (redlining and other discriminatory strategies) and passive (neglect by municipal agencies), by decisions made well above the police officers’ pay grade. That some police officers are prejudiced is hardly unexpected, since they grew up under these policies.
But looking only at a community’s racial composition to infer police bias truly obscures the picture. We should compile community-level statistics with different denominators: police stops per number of violent crimes, per number of gunfire incidents, per number of confiscated weapons. That is, to understand the behavior of police, focus on what usually does, and should, drive their behavior.
No one can or should condone the use of excessive (and lethal) force by the police, in these or other communities; however, the focus on more policing of these communities is probably as it should be. Residents of those communities are the ones who are victimized the most, and the over 95 percent of them who are not criminals deserve protection.