Much has been said recently regarding the prison population in the United States. This volatile conversation has also encompassed the hot-button topics of police shootings, arrests of persons of color, and the believe that police target and kill people of color for no reason whatsoever other than the color of their skin.
Before I continue, though, PLEASE, this post is not an open invitation for cop bashing, race bashing, political bashings or an argument about gun control. Instead, here are a few facts for you to ponder. A conversation about the issues is welcome, but not arguments based on “media-based” misinformation or personal biases.
Please, please, please, let’s avoid the arguments.
Here goes (I’m sighing in advance) …
First, the population of inmates in federal prisons is largely white.
Federal Bureau of Prisons chart and graph
Nearly half of all prisoners occupying bed space in federal prisons are there for drug offenses (46.4%).
Federal Bureau of Prisons chart and graph
Whites make up approximately 64% of the U.S. population. Blacks = 13% of the population.
Overall incarceration percentages in both jails and prisons:
2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. on any given day. Of those 2.3 million …
- Whites = 39% of total prison population.
- Blacks = 40% of total prison population.
What Do These Numbers Tell Us?
Whites and blacks make up practically equal proportions of jail and prison populations, BUT, the ratio of U.S. population by race is not equal. In fact, there are far more whites in the U.S. than blacks. So why more arrests of blacks and violent encounters between blacks and police officers than whites?
Well, many factors come into play, but before we go any further, let’s leave racism totally off the table for a moment because we have no data to back up any claims of arrests or shootings based solely on the color of someone’s skin. Therefore, we’ll stick to what we know and that’s crime and why people are approached and arrested by police.
Per FBI data for the year 2015:
There were 10,797,088 arrests in 2015. Of these arrests, 505,681 were for violent crimes, and 1,463,213 were for property crimes.
The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,488,707 arrests)
The estimated arrest rate for the United States in 2015 was 3,363.0 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants. The arrest rate for violent crime (including murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) was 157.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.
First of all, police officers may not pick and choose which laws they can enforce. Laws are laws and it’s an officer’s job to enforce ALL laws. And it doesn’t matter whether or not they believe those laws to be just. If it’s a law and someone chooses to break that law, well, cops are sworn to do their duty.
For example, you’re an officer. You wear a uniform, badge, and gun strapped to your side. You attended the training academy and your instructors taught you to arrest people who’re in possession of marijuana. Sure, marijuana is legal in some states, and you approve, but it’s not legal in your state. In fact, your state laws require that you arrest anyone found to be in possession of even small amounts of the drug. After all, pot is still classified as a Schedule I drug according to federal law, and that’s what you have to go on. Pot is illegal in your area. It is a crime to possess it.
Anyway, you see a subject sitting in his car smoking a joint. You know this is marijuana based upon your training and personal knowledge of how marijuana is smoked. Not really a big deal, though. It’s just a joint, right? Besides, you have other business at hand. However, while observing the dope-smoking, you also notice a gun on the seat beside the guy who’s toking away while listening to Pink Floyd on the 8-track player in his car.
Okay, now you have to act because, even though you work in an open carry state (let’s use Va. as an example) and smoking a joint is so not a big deal these days, the fact that there’s a gun associated with the pot-smoking the situation has now become one that requires the officer to act. And he or she must do so because the two together—gun and pot—constitutes a felony. Remember, marijuana is a Schedule I drug.
Possession of firearms while in possession of certain substances
So you do your duty and arrest the guy. Make sense?
Suppose the guy picks up the gun and gets out of his car with it in his hand as you approach? You have no idea of his intentions so you draw your weapon (wanting to live another day and all that, you know), and you order him several times to drop the gun, but he refuses and starts backing away. You order him to stop, several times, but he doesn’t. Then he makes a very slight move upward with the gun, in your direction. Do you let him bring the weapon up in a position that would enable him to kill you, or do you fire, fearing that he may shoot you, your partner, or an innocent bystander, one of many who’ve now gathered to film the incident?
This is now a life-threatening situation that started out as a lone guy minding his own business while smoking a joint. However, he, the joint-smoker, turned something very minor into a death sentence for someone, and in this case that someone is him. But race played absolutely no part in this. None. In fact, I didn’t mention race at all. Did you imagine one based upon some sort of preconceived notion in your mind? Well, the man in this scenario is merely a nameless, faceless, raceless guy with a gun who broke the law. Had he not been doing something illegal the officer would’ve never given him a second glance.
But he did break the law, and that’s the reason for the initial encounter.
If you attempted to read between the lines to see the suspect’s race, well, that’s sort of the point of this article, as we’ll see in just a moment.
So let’s move forward by getting back to the racial make-up of prison and jail population, and the arrests of people along racial lines.
Percent of Arrests by Race
Again, per FBI data – In 2015, 69.7 percent of all persons arrested were white, 26.6 percent were black, and the remaining 3.6 percent were of other races.
So why is it that we seem to believe that blacks are arrested more often than whites?
Blacks often reside in more densely populated urban locations, and densely populated equals a larger police presence than we see in rural areas or even city suburbs. Therefore, more people and more police in a compact area is a perfect storm for more noticeable arrests. Why? Because crime is more apparent in a compact population, and cops are able to catch the suspects quicker because the suspects are more readily available as are witnesses and evidence of the crimes.
Whites are often the predominant residents of suburban areas where investigations are much slower-paced due to smaller populations and larger search areas for both suspects and evidence. Think of an Easter egg hunt. It’s more difficult to find the eggs when they’re hidden in a large yard than it would be to grab a handful from the basket before they’re spread out and concealed in a broad area.
Obviously, smaller populations = less arrests and less contact with police. More contact = more opportunity for arrests. And, when a population of an area leans more heavily to one particular race then those are the people who generally commit the crimes in those areas and are therefore subject to arrest.
Cultural differences and the way these urban areas are policed also has great deal of bearing on the rates of arrests and on the violence between blacks and police, and I’m basing this on my own experiences. I have seen this stuff first-hand, meaning I’m not relying on government or political or activists’ statistics to make a point or to push an agenda (I do not push agendas. Never).
But, the following is an offering of my professional opinion. Again, this is based on what I know from personal experiences.
I’m a firm believer of the notion that police officers need to park their cars and get out and walk the streets in the areas they patrol and work. They need have meaningful conversations with residents. Go up on the front porches and sit down to talk with the residents. Learn from them. Listen to what they have to say. What are their needs? Are their kids in school? Playing sports? How’s grandma? Is her sciatica acting up again? Do they have heat? Food? Are they being bullied? How’s their week going so far? What can you do to help?
Be seen as a person, not some sunglass-wearing robot who passes by once in a while in a patrol car. Be there for them, but not just during the bad times. Besides, a “drive-by” cop is a total stranger—an outsider who makes people feel uncomfortable. Residents soon begin to feel as if they’re being watched instead of protected. Actually, I totally understand that feeling.
I rarely see a police car pass through our neighborhood. I may have seen one drive through within the past two years. And then, the officer who did drive by my house didn’t look my way or return my wave. I was standing in my front yard, not twenty feet from him as his sunglass-wearing-self drove past. I tried to speak to an officer in the grocery store one afternoon. She walked past without so much as a kiss my a** in response to my greeting. No eye contact because she wore dark sunglasses inside the store.
My point is that I don’t know the officers who patrol my neighborhood. Not a single one. On the other hand, our chief is one of the finest men I know and he’s a people person whose office door is open to all. But he’s not the officer who’d respond to my house if the crap hit the fan, and that’s a problem because those officers would not have a clue about me, my special needs, if any, etc.
COPS NEED TO KNOW THE PEPOLE ON THEIR BEATS.
Officers also need to talk to known criminals. Let them know they’re there to protect the residents and that they won’t tolerate trouble. Look the bad guys in the eye. Get a feel for them and how they operate.
Violence often occurs because one person doesn’t truly understand the other, and that lack of understanding sometimes brings about fear. And, of course, fear brings about the need to self-protect.
Let’s face the facts. White people are often culturally different than black people and black people are sometimes culturally different than white people. Our lifestyles often differ. Our histories are sometimes from different pages in the books. However, we’re all equal and everyone should be treated equally. As I said, sometimes our cultures and lifestyles differ from one another. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other because it’s not and neither is better or worse than the other.
Therefore, attempting to make someone look, act, talk, and seem like something they’re not will never work. Instead, we all need to accept one another for who we are, and police officers absolutely must do the same. Learn the people in the areas where they patrol and work. I can’t stress this enough.
The same is true in reverse, though. The public needs to understand that officers, who are nothing more than specially trained PEOPLE, are there to protect and serve, yes, but part of that “service” is to enforce the laws that are on the books. The public also needs to understand that breaking the law, whether or not you agree with a particular law, is cause for arrest, and that’s part of an officer’s job—arrest law-breakers.
Violence in either direction—officers toward citizens or citizens toward officers—is not acceptable. A huge step toward quelling at least some of the violence, some of the masses of people behind bars, and deaths of both citizens and police officers, is as simple as taking the time to talk and listen.
Yes, a simple, heartfelt conversation on someone’s front porch could mean the difference in life or death.
So, respect your fellow man and obey the law. Officers—respect your fellow man and do not abuse your authority. It’s that simple. Really, it is.
Oh, and the officer who refused to speak to me in the grocery store and the one who drove past my house and did not bother to acknowledge my presence … you are part of the reason people feel as if you’re out to get them, not to help. But I know better. I know cops, for the most part, are wonderful people who’ll come running when a citizen calls. But people need to feel safe all of the time, not just when their house is burning or after some crazy guy shoots innocent people in a mall.
We can’t change yesterday, but tomorrow is a blank page. Let’s write a different story.