Study Documents Extreme Racial Disparity in Arrests for Low-Level Offenses

For Immediate Release

Study Documents Extreme Racial Disparity in Arrests for Low-Level Offenses

In four test cities, Blacks were 2.6 to 9.6 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for loitering, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and marijuana possession

NEWARK - Black people were 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than White people in Jersey City in 2013 for low-level offenses such as loitering, possession of small amounts of marijuana, trespassing, and disorderly conduct, according to a study (PDF) released today by the ACLU of New Jersey.

This extreme racial disparity was not unique to the state’s second largest city. Data for the most recent years available revealed disparities in low-level arrests in the three other municipalities studied – Millville, where Blacks were 6.3 times more likely to be arrested; Elizabeth, 3.4 times; and New Brunswick, 2.6 times. Disparities in the number of arrests between Hispanics/Latinos and Whites also were significant, where data were available. Not all of the departments tracked ethnicity in their arrest data.

“The data reveal a clear pattern of communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of police practices that target low-level offenses,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer.

“In Black and Latino communities, New Jerseyans are arrested for minor misbehavior at a much greater rate than in White communities. Unlike more serious crime, where there is a victim or some form of property damage, low-level offenses rest primarily on a police officer’s discretion to arrest for behavior that poses little or no harm to the community. The discretionary nature of these arrests creates ample opportunity for arbitrary and unfair enforcement of the law.”

The origins of this report stem from a 2013 national report by the ACLU that showed Black people in New Jersey were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people, despite similar rates of marijuana use – a clear indicator of selective enforcement.

“New Jersey’s shameful racial disparities in arrests for minor offenses mirror what we’re seeing across the country,” said Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Just as in Ferguson, Minneapolis, Maryland, and beyond, New Jersey police must end this unequal treatment and the harm caused to communities of color.”

The ACLU of NJ, supported by the national ACLU, further examined those findings by taking a closer look at arrest data from four municipalities in New Jersey – Jersey City, Elizabeth, New Brunswick and Millville – that reflected the diversity of the state in population density, demographics and geography.

In the report, the ACLU-NJ examined 10 years of data on the enforcement of four low-level offenses: loitering; marijuana possession of 50 grams or less; defiant trespass; and disorderly conduct. The report chose to examine those arrests because police officers exercise so much discretion in the enforcement of these types of offenses.

The report relied on departmental data for arrests obtained through the Open Public Records Act. The report originally sought to include Asbury Park in the analysis but the Asbury Park Police Department, despite the existence of a data management system and electronic database, was unable to produce records that could be properly analyzed and was dropped from the study.

The report documented widespread and extreme racial disparities in all four locations studied. Among the findings of the report:

  • Racial disparities between Black and White arrests exist in every city studied. For the length of each city’s study period, the data show Blacks in Millville were 6.2 times more likely to be arrested than Whites for the low-level offenses studied; in Jersey City, they were 4.8 times more likely; in Elizabeth, they were 3.6 times more likely; and in New Brunswick, 3.2 times more likely.
  • Individuals charged with low-level offenses are generally not involved in serious crimes. For example, 95% of the low-level arrests in Jersey City did not involve any other offense classified as “serious” by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
  • Some law enforcement agencies do not even track Hispanic/Latino data. For example, the Elizabeth Police Department does not track Hispanic/Latino arrests, despite serving a population that is nearly 60% Hispanic/Latino.
  • Police department records are often inaccessible and were kept in a haphazard manner by all four departments. The lack of transparent, reliable records hinders transparency and accountability.

The human cost of all of these low-level arrests can be devastating.

“Even though these are low-level offenses, arrests and convictions can impose heavy burdens on the person involved, including payment of court costs and fines; criminal records that will follow them the rest of their lives; and loss of income, housing, child custody, or immigration status,” said Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “In extreme cases, a confrontation with police over a low-level offense can escalate into an episode of deadly violence.”

The report recommends remedies at the local and state level that include changing the policies and practices of police in enforcing the law; improving recordkeeping; and creating greater accountability by police to the civilian population they serve. Among the specific reforms:

  • Local officials, police chiefs, and prosecutors should agree to make enforcement of low-level offenses that do not harm public safety among their lowest priorities.
  • State and local government should adopt strong and enforceable anti-racial profiling laws and municipalities should mandate police training for conscious and unconscious bias, which can influence officers’ decision-making when dealing with the public
  • Police departments should stop using low-level arrests as a performance measure for evaluating officers.
  • Cities should institute oversight of police departments, such as a strong and independent Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to review allegations of individual officers’ misconduct and Inspector General (IG) offices to monitor police policies and practices.
  • Law enforcement should expand use of police dashboard and body worn cameras with appropriate rules for retention and disclosure to the public.
  • New Jersey should legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. The disproportionate number of Black arrests for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates between Whites and Blacks, illustrates the fundamental unfairness of these laws in practice.
  • Local police departments must improve data collection and management, and they should systematically analyze the data for the benefit of the department and the public.
  • Police departments should collect data on arrests, searches and stops by requiring officers to fill out reports and publish the results online on a periodic, preferably monthly, basis.

The report also calls on the Attorney General to investigate racial disparities in low-level offenses in municipalities throughout the state.

"This study serves as a glimpse into the racial disparities in low-level arrests for only four law-enforcement agencies. But it's clear: Black and Latino communities bear the disproportionate impact of enforcement in New Jersey,” said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of the ACLU-NJ. “The Attorney General should investigate whether such disparities exist throughout the state, determine the causes of the disparities, and take steps to eliminate them. It's time for action.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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