Responding to minor crimes is arguably one of the most critical activities of any police department.
The resource demands are certainly substantial. These enforcement actions also provide opportunities to reduce crime and enhance public trust. In addition, they pose considerable safety risks to the responding officers.
Given that low-level arrests also clog the nation’s courts and jails, it is remarkable that this police function has received so little public attention.
By any measure, enforcement of minor crimes is a high volume activity. According to the FBI, only 18 percent, or 1.9 million arrests, made in 2015 were related to the seven major crime categories (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, grand larceny, and motor vehicle theft).
The remaining 8.8 million arrests were for other charges, including 13 percent for drug offenses, 10 percent for driving under the influence and another 10 percent for assault.
Federal statistics shed little light beyond the big picture. The FBI website provides no arrest data for specific police departments, only estimates by region, state and county.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which does provide arrest data by police agency, has not updated these numbers since 2012 and several cities have missing data. Remarkably, neither agency reports on the issuance of summonses, citations, pedestrian stops, or traffic stops.
Without these rudimentary statistics, a national assessment of the enforcement of minor crimes is impossible.
Local jurisdictions can show the way. The work of the Misdemeanor Justice Project in New York, which we launched four years ago, illustrates the power of statistical analysis to illuminate these unexamined police practices.
Using data from our city and state partners, we documented significant shifts in police enforcement activity in New York City. In 2003, the police recorded nearly 891,000 misdemeanor arrests, criminal summons and pedestrian stops. Eight years later, that number rose to 1.4 million—a 57.5 percent increase.
Yet by 2015, the number dropped to 540,000, a dramatic 61.5 percent decline.
Many hypotheses have been offered to explain this stunning rise and fall, but the bottom line is clear: The interactions between police and public have changed dramatically.
Merely focusing on trends in enforcement activity only scratches the surface. More research is needed.
At a minimum, the public should know the court outcomes of these arrests. Policy-makers should also assess the costs—certainly the costs of arrest, prosecution and detention, but also the individual costs such as lost income, court fees, family expenses, and medical costs.
Harder to measure, but very important, are the psychological costs attendant to being stopped, arrested and detained.
The benefit side of the ledger also deserves analysis. The simple fact that the police have responded to a citizen’s call for assistance has intrinsic value. More complex is an assessment of the public safety benefit of these arrests.
The literature on “hot spots” policing and focused deterrence shows significant crime reduction effects and suggests that strategies tailored to specific problems are more effective than general “quality of life” policing.
Research on procedural justice suggests that respectful interactions between police and public yield increased respect for the law and law-abiding behavior in the future. Negative interactions can contribute to legal cynicism, a lower likelihood to call the police at time of need, and fewer police interactions initiated by the public. Public trust in the police can be enhanced or undermined by these high volume activities.
The lens of racial justice is also informative.
Even if individual enforcement actions are legally justifiable, a pattern of overly aggressive enforcement practices in communities of color can still give rise to claims of disparate treatment. These claims demand deeper examination of the reasons for the exercise of police discretion.
For example, our analysis of the impact of enforcement trends on different demographic groups has shown that young men of color have been the beneficiaries of the steep decline. Yet we also found that significant inter-group racial disparities remain, prompting questions about the reasons behind these racial disparities.
The misdemeanor justice agenda should also examine alternatives to traditional arrest practices. One example is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Seattle, which provides community based treatment and support services for individuals involved in drug and prostitution crimes.
Station house release is another option that promotes human liberty while maintaining accountability for wrong-doing. Because many individuals arrested for low-level offenses also have frequent interactions with emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and mental health institutions, a robust set of alternatives for responding officers would necessarily involve those sectors.
Fortunately, the country is now seeing overdue attention to the front end of the justice system.
In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge, dedicated to reducing jail populations in 40 sites. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has pioneered the use of predictive analytics to help judges make better bail decisions. The Pretrial Justice Institute has infused new energy into the movement to reduce reliance on money bail.
A focus on the role of the police in making arrests for minor crimes will complement these efforts.
In that spirit, we are pleased to announce the creation of the Research Network for Misdemeanor Justice. Funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Research Network will comprise seven jurisdictions committed to documenting misdemeanors, criminal summonses, stops and pretrial detention at the local level.
We received a staggering 39 applications to join the Research Network, demonstrating a strong desire to better understand these trends. After a rigorous selection process, six jurisdictions were chosen to join New York City: Los Angeles, CA; Toledo, OH; Durham, NC; Seattle, WA; Prince George’s County, MD; and St. Louis, MO.
Each jurisdiction will work with a local research partner, e.g., University of California, Los Angeles, University of Toledo, North Carolina Central University, Seattle University, University of Maryland, and University of Missouri – St. Louis.
Over the next three years, the Research Network sites will produce reports on enforcement of minor crimes in each jurisdiction, with comparative analyses examining trends across the sites. These reports will be the first of their kind in the policing literature.
Taken together, they will make a distinctive contribution to an overdue national conversation focused on society’s response to minor crimes, the most frequent interaction between the public and the law.
Jeremy Travis is the President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Preeti Chauhan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay. They co-direct the Misdemeanor Justice Project. Readers’ comments are welcome.