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Posted by on Oct 23, 2008 in Society | 2 comments

Those LAPD Profiling Stats

I flagged this study by Yale law professor Ian Ayres in the civil rights roundup [The link in which I’ve now fixed — DS], but I just wanted to block quote some of the findings:

We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested.” After controlling for violent crime rates and property crime rates in specific neighborhoods, as well as a host of other variables, we found the following:

For every 10,000 residents, about 3,400 more black people are stopped than whites, and 360 more Latinos are stopped than whites. Stopped blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked — and stopped Latinos are 43% more likely to be frisked — than stopped whites.

Stopped blacks are 76% more likely to be searched, and stopped Latinos are 16% more likely to be searched than stopped whites.

Stopped blacks are 29% more likely to be arrested, and stopped Latinos are 32% more likely to be arrested than stopped whites.

Now consider this: Although stopped blacks were 127% more likely to be frisked than stopped whites, they were 42.3% less likely to be found with a weapon after they were frisked, 25% less likely to be found with drugs and 33% less likely to be found with other contraband. We found similar patterns for Latinos.

Not only did we find that African Americans and Latinos were subjected to more stops, frisks, searches and arrests than whites, we also found that these additional police actions aren’t because of the fact that people of color live in higher-crime areas or because they more often carry drugs or weapons, or any other legitimate reason that we can discern from the rich set of data we examined.

The LAPD, of course, is using the study as an impetus for much needed reform hotly contesting the validity of the numbers. Some of their objections are methodological, ones I think Prof. Ayres dispatches quite handily. But several betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what this sort of finding means, and demonstrates how the “are you calling me a racist!?!!?” reaction acts to stifle really important and necessary discussions.

The police representatives say, basically, that the study is flawed because a) it does not account for the race of the stopping officer and b) data cannot tell us what individual officers are thinking when they make any given decision to stop or frisk a suspect. Both of these objections operate from the same basic thought, which is basically that the purported conclusion of this report is that the LAPD is racist, that racism is purely a function of the state of mind of a particular actor, and that raw data can’t provide that information and in any event it is patently absurd to think that, say, Black officers have racist views towards other Blacks.

Now, Prof. Ayres said that he did, actually, find that the racial disparities in rates of arrest did fall somewhat when at least one of the arresting officers was of the same race as the suspect. This, he points out, is bad news, because it indicates that the disparities may be attributable to racial bias. But, he goes further, that really isn’t the point of the study — it makes no claim as to the state of mind of any or all of the arresting officers. The point is to demonstrate that, whatever is driving the policing policies in Los Angeles, they are falling on Black and Latino persons far more than can be at all justified by legitimate policing goals. That’s a problem regardless of what is in brains of the officers when they are making the decisions, and regardless of what race the arresting officer is.

What Prof. Ayres research shows, if anything, is that intention is not a necessary component to demonstrating a racially unjust distribution of effects. Responding to this type of data with flailing assertions about it’s all meaningless because intent is missing prevents these really rather simple insights from getting into the public consciousness. I might say that intent or foreseeability is a component of moral culpability, and without knowing the state of mind of any individual LAPD officer I cannot justly label them bad persons. But showing that the systematic distribution of effects is improperly skewed so as to unfairly burden certain racial groups is sufficient to show that an injustice is present, and impel upon society a duty to rectify it.

Related Posts:
The Profile, 8/18/07

“Fit the Description”, 12/14/06