ACLU Report Shows Racial Disparity In Arrests For Minor Offenses

NJ Spotlight News | December 22, 2015 | Law & Public Safety

By David Cruz

Very few will likely be surprised by the findings of the ACLU report. The organization tracked 10 years of arrest records in four New Jersey towns. The study concentrated on arrests for minor offenses in four categories:

• marijuana possession
• disorderly conduct
• loitering
• defiant trespass

“Where a police officer has to exercise his or her discretion on whether to arrest someone or not for minor misbehavior like disorderly conduct,” explained Udi Ofer. “So we thought that this would be a good way to get a sense of how policing is done in neighborhoods within cities. What we saw is that in the Black and Latino neighborhoods of particular cities there’s a much more aggressive enforcement of low level offenses.”

Resulting, says Ofer, in the perpetrators having criminal records, affecting their ability to get a job, stay in public housing or even – in some cases – stay in the country. All the result of a reliance on the broken window theory which says focusing on minor offenses keeps potential major offenses from happening.

The study’s findings are stark. In Jersey City, Blacks were five times and Latinos twice as likely to be arrested as whites. In Elizabeth and New Brunswick, Blacks were just over three times as likely. In Millville, that number jumps to six times for Blacks and three times for Latinos.

One of the problems that the ACLU study found was that some towns – Elizabeth particularly – didn’t even track arrests for Latinos.

“We were shocked when we learned that Elizabeth, where the population is nearly 60 percent Latino, did not track ethnicity data in its police records,” said Ofer, “so the city of Elizabeth has no idea how many people that it arrests are Latino.”

Which, says Ofer, reduces racial disparity records because Latinos are generally categorized as white. One of the city’s in the study that is struggling with these statistics is Jersey City, where Public Safety Director James Shea says striking a balance between checking minor offenses and concentrating on major crimes is a major part of daily police strategy.

“At the most recent community meeting the mayor and I attended, in response to a spate of violence that we had in Greenville in October and November, quite a few members of the community brought up that while our police officers were present and visible, were not engaging in these types of arrests that they felt would break up the crowds of young people, eliminate unsightly groups, would stop low-level marijuana smoking,” notes Shea. “This is a conversation and a challenge for policing across the united states now.”

Shea – a former NYPD deputy commissioner – says he’s seen Broken Windows work, but the price police pay in community mistrust and political fallout, is too high.

“To be honest, we police might have been a little tone deaf to the community and probably should’ve been on it a little earlier but we’ve deemphasized that type of enforcement completely and I mean, I think if you see New York has also,” said Shea. “You’re seeing conversations around the country about communities not being willing to tolerate that kind of enforcement.”

The 105-page report makes several recommendations to the Attorney General’s office, among them.

Demand good data management from all cities
Tracking police practices, including stop and frisk
Investigate other cities to see what the data there say
And de-emphasizing low level offenses.

The communities were reluctant to talk about the report and the Attorney General’s office says it is reviewing the report and the data, all seemingly in agreement that police community relations need a re-set. Just not all on the same page about how to get there.