Whites are more likely than African Americans to experience some form of contact with law enforcement, but when police initiate the encounter, blacks are more likely to experience “the threat or use of physical force,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
The BJS study, based on comparing data between 2011-2015, found that the percentage of U.S. residents over 16 who had some form of police encounter had slipped from 26 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2015—or from nearly 63 million people to 53.5 million people.
The number of police-civilian contacts that were police-initiated fell by approximately nine million, and the number of contacts initiated by residents dropped by six million, the study found, adding that the same person could have had both police-initiated and resident-initiated contact during that period.
Although the period of the study includes the 2014 unrest following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen in Ferguson, MO—and what some police authorities say was a withdrawal by police from street arrests in response to community anti-police protests (the so-called “Ferguson effect”)—the figures do not necessarily corroborate those assertions.
“We don’t know whether contacts fell after Ferguson and ensuing events or had been decreasing since 2011,” said criminologist Rick Rosenfeld, Founders Professor at the University of Missouri-St.Louis, and a leading national authority on crime control policy.
“Annual data on police contacts are needed to show any relationship with the controversy over police violence.”
Rosenfeld noted that arrest rates had also dropped in 2015, but “they were declining well before the Ferguson incident.”
The BJS study found that whites (23 percent) were slightly more likely than blacks (20 percent) or Hispanics (17 percent) to have had contact with police during 2015.
But the figures also showed that blacks and Hispanics were more than twice as likely (5.2 per cent and 5.1 percent respectively) to experience the threat or use of physical force by cops than whites (2.4 percent).
About two percent of those who experienced police contact experienced a nonfatal threat or use of force by law enforcement, ranging from being pushed, hit or kicked to having a gun pointed at them, and a majority (84 percent) found it “excessive,” the study said.
The most common reason for police-initiated contact (8.6 percent) was a traffic stop, according to the study—most often for speeding.
According to the findings, females were more likely to initiate contact with police than males.
In another noteworthy finding, residents of cities with a population of at least one million were less likely to have contact with police than residents of cities or towns with a population fewer than 100,000.
The report was written by BJS statisticians Elizabeth Davis and Anthony Whyde, and former BJS statistician Lynn Langdon, Ph.D.
The complete study can be downloaded here.
This summary was prepared with reports from Stephen Handelman, Editor of The Crime Report, and Ted Gest, TCR Washingtron bureau chief.