Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on December 5, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

In the past week, people across the country reacted with disbelief as grand juries declined to indict the two police officers involved in the tragic deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Both men’s deaths once again pointed to the uneasy relationship that exists between law enforcement and communities of color, especially with their young men.

Research undertaken by Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University on the nature of stops by the police, race, neighborhood, and type of crime in the period, 2004 to 2012 in New York found that more than half of the persons stopped were black (51.9 percent) and about one in three (32 percent) were Hispanic. Whites (9.13 percent) and Other race/ethnicities (6 percent) were stopped far less. Additional demographic patterns emerged from Fagan’s study: nearly 3 stops in four were among persons aged 16-34; males accounted for more than 9 in 10 stops. Black and Hispanic suspects were stopped over 50 percent more often on the suspicion of violent offenses and were twice as often suspected of carrying weapons and trespassing. Whites were about four times more likely to be stopped for Quality of Life offenses. Stop-and-frisk tactics by the police, that are now discontinued as an official strategy since Mayor de Blasio took office, occurred most frequently in neighborhoods with high black and Hispanic residents and where crime rates were high. Fagan’s study suggests that the disparate treatment by the police could be a result of “over-policing” in the most racially segregated neighborhoods with high minority populations or “underpolicing” in neighborhoods with low minority concentrations.

Other findings from Vera Institute, a non-partisan research organization, confirm the high level of mistrust of the police that exist in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates. In a survey of 500 people, 59 percent reported that they would not go to the police even if they were the victim of a violent crime. NYPD’s own statistics show that 95 percent of shooting victims are black or Hispanic who also represent 87 percent of all murder victims.

In many parts of the country, community policing has meant vigorously pursuing petty-crime and enforcing small laws in the belief it will deter more violent crime and lead to better quality of life for residents in tough neighborhoods. NYC Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, has been a strong advocate for “broken windows policing,” a strategy intended to combat disorder, the lack of control and the fear that pervades violent neighborhoods. It is unclear whether this strategy has been the reason behind the drop in crime in NYC that Mayor de Blasio announced earlier this week. New York’s decline in crime is consistent with a nation-wide trend of a decreasing rate of violent crime, possibly due to the waning of the crack epidemic since the early 1990s.

Effective policing is a high priority issue across the nation. The question that confronts us all is how to implement a strategy that will result in a win-win situation for police departments as well as the “hot spot” neighborhoods, in particular those with a combined poverty, high-crime, and minority populations. Disproportionate attention on young men of color have had unintended negative consequences as we have seen all too well across the country. One can only hope that particular corrosive strategy can be overcome through revised policies, retraining, supervision and monitoring by police departments and neighborhood watch groups everywhere so that black, brown and white lives equally matter to all.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.