Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics in Law Enforcement

The DOJ has put forth a number of statistics about law enforcement and race in Ferguson, with the clear suggestion that the Ferguson police intentionally engage and racist policing. While that may well be true, it is important that these statistics, and the writing of the articles accompanying them, be viewed with a critical eye. Let’s start by looking at some of these stats, then their meanings.

Cops Are Mostly White Men
According to a recent New York Times article, the percentage of whites in law enforcement agencies is regularly upwards of 30% higher than the populations the agencies serve. This was apparently true even in heavily non-white populations.

Affirmative Action Hasn’t Changed the Whiteness of Policing
Despite the fact that the head of just about every police agency in the country is either an elected official or a political appointee, and they’ve been engaged in efforts to get their police demographics to mirror their population’s since the 70’s, even uber-liberal cities like San Francisco still have massive white majorities in their police agencies!

Arrestees Are Mostly Black Men
According to recent DOJ stats, when comparing the number of arrests for members of particular racial groups per 100,000 people of that racial group in the general population, in 2012 black juveniles were twice as likely as white juveniles to be arrested. This stat has remained solid for the last 30 years.

Force is Used More Against Blacks
While I’ve had difficulty finding stats from wider sources, we’ll assume Ferguson is normal for the sake of this argument. One of the touted statistics from the recent DOJ report on Ferguson was that while black people account for 67% of the population in Ferguson, 88% of the reported police uses of force were against black people.

But What Does This Mean?
Curious, why would there be such a disparity? Oh look! This headline says that the president “slammed” Ferguson PD. That one says the DOJ declared Ferguson engaging in racially biased policing! Thank you kind writer, for telling me how to interpret the statistics! So the argument goes, it’s all about white hoods and burning crosses.

Pay Attention To What Isn’t Being Said
So, our kind of writers have paired these statistics with the opinions of influential people, to help us understand the numbers. But wait, did that statistic about police demographics say anything about qualified non-whites being denied badges? Nope, didn’t say that. Did that stat about blacks being arrested at twice the rate of whites say that the arrests were false arrests, or that the whites not arrested should have been? Not that I could see. Did that stat on use of force say that those uses were unjustified, or that officers were needlessly kind to non-black people? No, it didn’t.

Statistics Can Be a Double-Edged Sword
While Ferguson PD may well be a Klan affiliate group, without a deeper analysis of the incidents underlying the statistics, to justify the interpretation of the statistic, the meaning ascribed to it is nothing more than speculation. That same statistic about uses of force could easily be coupled with a statement assuming the officers’ preference not to use force, and used as evidence that black people are much more violent than people of other races.

Imagine if an article wrote, “90% of those who physically resisted police were black, despite accounting for only 67% of the population.” With a simple tweak of the wording, the suggested responsibility is shifted. Same statistic, completely different interpretations. Neither one is good, but without more information, we can’t honestly say if either interpretation is right or wrong.

Sometimes Stats Don’t Fit The Narrative
While the majority of stories around these stats we’ve discussed assume a narrative of white racism, the stats don’t always support that interpretation. In fact that DOJ study I referred to earlier, that said blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested is one of them. That same study showed that Native American juveniles were 10% less likely, and Asians were 30% less likely than whites to be arrested.

Say what? If we assume the same motivations claimed to be evidenced by all of the anti-Ferguson PD stories, suddenly the stats make all those racist white cops look like head-dress-wearin’ chopstick usin’ self-hatin’ sell-outs!

It’s also important to note that the White-Native gap fluctuated to effectively zero-out over time, but like the White-Black disparity, the White-Asian gap was rock-solid for the entire 30 year period covered. So unless you’re ready to believe that white cops view Native Americans as their equals and Asians as their betters, you probably need to reassess your thoughts on the cause of the racial disparity in law enforcement stats.

What do you think? Is all of this racial debate much ado about nothing? Are more dramatic measures in order to address this issue? Should police departments have racial hiring quotas, or perhaps dispatch officers according to the race of reported suspects?

References
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/03/us/the-race-gap-in-americas-police-departments.html?_r=3

http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/JAR_Display.asp?ID=qa05260

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/03/03/ferguson-justice-report/24320987/

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