Opinion

The CP Edit: Ending racially biased policing

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A new report from the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office reveals a disconcerting pattern of police bias against people of color, who are many times more likely to be accused of crimes than white people in every jurisdiction reviewed, including Lansing, East Lansing and outlying communities within Ingham County. The worst appears to be in East Lansing, where Black residents make up only 7% of the population but accounted for 40% of the reported offenses.

These findings are consistent with data collected by the Lansing Police Department on traffic stops over the past 20 years through its Management Analysis of Traffic Stops (MATS) program. According to the 2020 MATS report, Lansing police officers stopped Black drivers more frequently than white drivers compared to their share of the city’s population. Thirty-four percent of all non-accident traffic stops involved Black people, who make up 21% of Lansing’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 47% of the stops involved white people, who make up 61% of Lansing’s population.

Compared to data compiled in the early years of the MATS study, it appears that biased policing in Lansing has actually worsened over time. In the 2007 MATS study, 25% of non-accident traffic stops involved Black citizens, who comprised 22% of the city’s population at that time. Whites, who made up 65% of the city’s population, were the subject of 63% of traffic stops.

The statistics released by Ingham County and Lansing’s MATS data strongly suggest that racial bias continues to play a significant role in area policing. We don’t believe that most police officers are racists, but we do believe that implicit bias — the unconscious tendency to act differently toward others based on physical characteristics like the color of their skin — is a major factor. When implicit bias is layered on top of situational police discretion, it can result in deadly outcomes. Faced with making an instantaneous decision on whether to use force against a subject, an officer’s subjective assessment of the threat is key to determining how they will react. In that moment, their implicit biases against people of color can lead them to use force that they likely wouldn’t use against a white person.

Where police spend their time is also a factor. When most of their patrol activity is focused on economically disadvantaged, minority-dominated neighborhoods, police officers tend to interact more frequently with people of color. Research suggests that these interactions can reinforce implicit biases, leading police officers to view and treat African Americans with an elevated level of suspicion.

Research and statistics are but one window into the reality of any situation. Lived experience is another. And one need only listen to the firsthand accounts of Black citizens in our community to understand that “driving while Black” is real. Being pulled over for no reason other than the color of your skin is even more common outside the City of Lansing than within it, an assertion supported by Ingham County’s data, which shows that Black citizens are accused of crimes by county law enforcement at a rate six times higher than their share of the county population.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, what are the solutions? Much is made of implicit bias training that helps police officers recognize their unconscious tendency to treat people of color differently. But research on the success of these efforts is not encouraging. Awareness of implicit bias increases among those who receive training, but there is scant evidence to suggest it changes their actual behavior toward people of color. This finding suggests that we must do far more than simply provide police officers with implicit bias training.

Limiting officer discretion is another tool that can reduce the opportunity for implicit biases to affect decision making. Use of force is one area where this is especially important. As we have noted previously, the surest path to reducing fatal encounters with police is to change the policy that allows them to use deadly force merely because they perceive a threat. This standard all but guarantees that implicit bias against Black citizens will cause officers to perceive a greater threat than actually exists and to use force rather than de-escalating the situation or retreating to safety.

One of the most promising approaches to reducing implicit bias among police officers is known as “intergroup contact” — an academic term for the simple idea that biases can be reduced through face-to-face meetings, through increasing numbers of minorities in law enforcement, and through community-based policing that encourages officers and citizens to interact when no criminal activity is involved. When police officers see Black citizens as neighbors and peers rather than as suspects, attitudes and behavior begin to change. This also highlights the extraordinary importance of increasing the number of Black officers within area police departments. We have no illusions that this will be easy —the tense relationship between police and communities of color makes it exceptionally difficult to recruit and hire minority officers —but it must continue to be a top priority for local law enforcement agencies.

One thing we know for certain is this disturbing truth: Young Black men are vastly overrepresented in the American criminal justice system due to systemic racism that continues to permeate virtually every level of our society. In 2003, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics projected that of men born that year, 6% of whites would be incarcerated at some point in their lives. For Black people, that number was 32%. Nearly two decades later, this remains the cold, hard and unjust reality of life in America for people of color. It is one of our greatest failures as a nation. We must all work together to change it.

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