Killed over a counterfeit bill: Data on misdemeanors can lead to racial justice in policing

Killed over a counterfeit bill: Data on misdemeanors can lead to racial justice in policing

March 4, 2021

As activists across the nation call for meaningful police reform and elected officials create task forces to “reimagine public safety,” law enforcement leaders should seize the opportunity to advance ideas that can make a real difference. Police chiefs are navigating tricky waters by simultaneously responding to demands to defund the police and calls for police to address increases in violence in some places. As they do this, police chiefs should tackle a question that lies at the heart of the tension between police and communities — the overuse of their arrest powers when it comes to lower-level crimes.

Contrary to popular belief, police work does not primarily involve responding to serious crimes and making felony arrests. In fact, about 80% of arrests are for misdemeanors — like disorderly conduct and small amount of drug possession. Though less dramatic, these high volume enforcement actions, concentrated in communities of color, are highly consequential.

They constitute the daily interactions that can erode community trust, undermine cooperation in solving crimes, and damage the health and economic well-being of individuals and their communities. At worst, misdemeanor arrests can have deadly consequences. 

Real path to reform

Until recently, this aspect of American policing has received little critical attention. To begin a national discussion on misdemeanor arrest practices, we launched the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice in 2016. We invited seven universities from geographically and demographically diverse jurisdictions to partner with local criminal justice practitioners to study these practices. The data revealed some surprisingly consistent trends.

First, arrest rates for misdemeanors declined from their most recent peaks in all seven sites.  At the low end, Louisville and Seattle saw 33% declines in misdemeanor arrests between 2010 and 2016. At the high end, St. Louis reported a stunning 76% drop between 2002 and 2017. These declines generally occurred after larger increases in almost all areas.

Although the reasons for these trends are not clear, the findings raise questions at the heart of today’s demand to “reimagine policing” — what is the right level of enforcement? What are the costs and benefits? What is the community sentiment?   

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Second, the sites reported changes in the types of misdemeanor crimes resulting in arrest.  Several Research Network sites — New York City; St. Louis, Missouri; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Durham, North Carolina; and Seattle — reported recent declines in misdemeanor drug charges. At the same time, New York City, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Durham, and Seattle, reported increases in arrests for misdemeanors involving harm to a person (e.g., simple assault).

These findings highlight a central truth of policing: The chief can emphasize enforcement with identifiable victims and reduce arrests for more discretionary charges, such as drug charges. Reform-minded police leaders can use these data to engage their communities on questions of whether to reduce arrests for crimes where police have more discretion.

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Third, despite recent declines in arrests for all racial groups, all Research Network sites reported that Black people consistently had the highest rates of arrest compared to other racial or ethnic groups. Although Black people experienced declines in enforcement rates across the sites, there were never fewer than three Black people arrested for misdemeanor crime for each arrest of a white person.   

Small crimes, big consequences

These analyses speak volumes about the reckoning over racial justice now confronting our nation. 

George Floyd was allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill when he was seized by the police; Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes; Michael Brown died after a store clerk called 911 about shoplifted cigars. The national debate on these cases has appropriately focused on the police use of force. A related question also commands attention: Why were the police called in the first place? Was this the best use of police resources? How do we address the daily indignities and racial disparities arising from enforcement of lower-level crimes?

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As the country reimagines policing, tackling the issue of lower-level enforcement will go a long way to restoring confidence in the police and addressing long-standing racial disparities.  Transparency is the starting point.

Every police chief should release data on the volume and location of arrests, types of crimes, and the age, race, and gender of those arrested. When racial disparities are evident, the chief should convene community groups and researchers to assess the drivers of those disparities and ways to reduce them. The chief should use these data to ask whether the benefits of misdemeanor enforcement outweigh the costs in officer time, taxpayer dollars, racial disparities, and public trust in the police. 

Thanks to the urgency of the calls for racial justice, we’re at a turning point in police reform. Through prioritizing data collection and transparency, police chiefs have a clear opportunity to help right-size our criminal legal system into one that promotes both safety and justice.   

Jeremy Travis is executive vice president of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures and the former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY). 

Preeti Chauhan is director of the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

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