While policing remains at the top of the national agenda, with the National Conference of State Legislatures reporting that in the six months following the killing of George Floyd at least 37 states and the District of Columbia have introduced some 700 pieces of new legislation addressing policing policy, effective reform cannot be achieved without the data-based facts and critical context needed to undergird the ongoing debate, says Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) President and CEO Adam Gelb.
Without reliable data, any potential progress will become mired in misinformation, assumptions, and ideas that are just flat-out wrong, Gelb told an online conference organized by the CCJ.
“A lot of this data has been out there and unknown,” said Gelb, who, before launching the Council, led the Pew Charitable Trusts’ criminal justice work, helping 35 states adopt sentencing and corrections reforms.
“For all intents and purposes it has been hidden in plain sight.”
The conference brought together members of the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing to discuss the release of the organization’s first comprehensive collection of data on law enforcement in America.
The report, Policing by the Numbers, is a collection of data points that, in some cases, stretch back 40 years, and cover trends across a broad range of topics, including the composition of police ranks, police spending, crime and victimization rates, police-involved killings of civilians, officers killed and assaulted in the line of duty, arrest and clearance rates, and public perceptions of law enforcement.
“We’re presenting a set of facts about the state of policing in America,” said Gelb.
“This has been a massive months-long effort by our team to collect, clean, assemble, and present thousands of data points to produce a buyers’ guide that says here’s what you need to know.”
Gelb was joined by Task Force Executive Director Nancy La Vigne and Council Senior Fellow Thaddeus Johnson, an architect of the data project and assistant professor of criminology at Georgia State University, to discuss the findings of the report, some of which up-end conventional wisdom while also painting a stark picture of the road ahead.
For Johnson, a ten-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, one of the most interesting and contradictory findings was how much state and federal governments actually spend on policing.
“There is a narrative that governments have been increasing their funding for policing, as if they have decided to spend more on policing than anything else,” said Johnson.
“But the amount of government spending on police has remained the same overall.”
In fact, according to the report, while inflation-adjusted spending on police did nearly triple between 1977 and 2018, law enforcement accounted for only a small share (about 3.7 percent) of total state and local government expenditures, and that portion has remained virtually unchanged for four decades. This indicates that spending on other functions, such as K-12 education, postsecondary education, public welfare, healthcare, and roadways, has increased along with police expenditures over time.
“Even if we’ve seen increases per capita, overall overtime we haven’t spent any more as far as government spending is concerned,” said Johnson.
“And 80 percent of police budgets go towards salaries, benefits, and compensation.”
And while 2020 displayed a massive spike in homicide rates, with cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles reporting 30 to 50 percent increases over the numbers recorded for 2019, the CCJ report showed that violent crime in 2019 was 52 percent lower than it was at its peak in 1991, though the decline has been uneven in the last 15 years. In addition, Homicide victimization rates have fallen over time, especially for Black people, whose rates of victimization plummeted from a peak of 37 per 100,000 in 1993 to a low of 15 per 100,000 in 2014.
However, the racial gap in homicides remains stark, especially when considering people of color who are killed by the police. Although the report found that three quarters of people killed by police are white, black people are four times more likely and Hispanic people are two times more likely than White people to be killed by police. Black people also remain far more likely to be arrested for violent and drug crimes than white people.
In conjunction with these findings, the report also found that while white and black people report crimes at similar rates, suggesting similar levels of confidence in the police, they provide starkly different responses when questioned directly about their trust levels.
In polls, White people consistently report higher rates of confidence in the police and that high confidence has been stable over time. Black people report having much lower levels of confidence in the police, averaging about 40 percent lower and showing considerably more volatility over time. Most notably, confidence in police among Black people plummeted to a decades-long low in 2020, 16 percentage points below the 1994 level.
“It’s sad to look at the plummet in confidence of African-Americans that’s down to 19 percent in 2020,” said Nancy La Vigne.
“They see members of their own subpopulation being killed in highly televised events or perhaps they’re influenced by their own experience if they reside in high crime areas.”
Ironically, in a survey taken in the weeks after the police killing of George Floyd, the report points out that a majority of Black respondents (62 percent) were either very or somewhat confident that police would treat them with courtesy and respect.
“Black respondents were also more likely to report violent crime or crime victimization to police than whites or Hispanics,” said La Vigne.
“That’s a metric of trust in the police that is interesting to note.”
In another survey taken shortly after the death of George Floyd and the outbreak of protests across the nation, the CCJ report revealed that relatively few Americans favored cutting spending on police. Three-quarters of survey respondents said police funding in their area should stay the same or increase while one quarter said it should be cut either by a little or a lot. And just 14 percent of Americans want police to spend less time in their neighborhoods.
In a recent Gallup poll, when asked whether they want the police to spend more time, the same amount of time or less time than they currently do in their area, most Black Americans — 61 percent — want the police presence to remain the same. This is similar to the 67 percent of all U.S. adults preferring the status quo, including 71 percent of white Americans.
Yet despite these findings, La Vigne warns that public opinion data can mask a lot of variability. And when it comes to subjects like police presence approval or defunding of the police, the notion that everyone may think alike because they share the same ethnicity or neighborhood is little more than a myth.
“As a researcher, I’ve done a lot of work looking at variations in sentiments about the police, specifically diving into communities that experience the highest crime and the heaviest police presence,” said La Vigne.
“Even there, there’s variation and that tends to be by age: people over 40 want the same or more amount of police presence and people under 40 want less.”
And while the CCJ report represents one of the best collections of criminal justice data to date, both La Vigne and Johnson insist that it’s still only the start of a roadmap that is far from complete and that more data is both needed and frustratingly difficult to collect.
“We never have 100 percent coverage for arrests, crimes, use of force, deadly force, etc.,” said Johnson.
“There’s a lot of geographic dissonance and also missing data issues in general.”
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that government data sourcing organizations like the Bureau of Justice Statistics rely on information that police departments are under no legal obligation to provide. Since the FBI launched its Use Of Force data collecting program, only roughly 40 percent of law enforcement agencies in the country have chosen to contribute.
With 60 percent of the departments still silent, painting an accurate picture of the extent of the American policing problem is nearly impossible.
“There’s no clear trend across all of these data sources and the FBI won’t release the data that we need to create this kind of a chart until 80 percent of agencies participate,” said La Vigne.
“Given that the process is voluntary, we may never see this data.”
“The big thing is the voluntary nature of reporting,” said Johnson. “So, how can we incentivize agencies, particularly the smaller agencies, to be part of this process?”
Isidoro Rodriguez is a TCR staff writer and editor of Justice Digest.