CAPITAL REGION — Any sense of progress in increasing racial equity in the criminal justice system is tempered by the fact that there’s a very long way to go to reach this goal.
Across New York state as a whole and in the Capital Region, Black people are arrested at a far greater rate than white people relative to their percentage of the population, Hispanic people at a somewhat greater rate and Asians at a much lower rate.
Black adults are arrested in New York significantly more often than white adults (136,219 vs. 118,952 times in 2019), despite white New Yorkers outnumbering black New Yorkers by nearly 4 to 1.
Say for the sake of argument that the ratio of races in arrests is massively skewed by pervasive racism among all 547 police agencies across 62 counties statewide, and to compensate we cut in half the number of Black arrests on the assumption they’re bogus. Or we double the number of white arrests on the theory that many white criminals go uncaught because police are too busy arresting Black people.
Either way, the Black arrest rate per capita would still exceed all other races in New York.
The Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd nearly a year ago and the resulting civil unrest could be seen as a trigger for the police reform and reinvention process begun soon after in New York, but the underlying friction dates back generations.
However difficult the goal of mutual respect between police and the Black community might be to achieve on its own, it is complicated by the number of times the two sides meet under stress each year in New York.
VARIED BUT SIMILAR
The Daily Gazette asked people on various sides of the issue for their take on the situation, and none offered an easy solution.
A common theme emerged in their comments, though: Criminal behavior is a result of a circumstance rather than color.
Poverty, inferior schools, poor diet, dysfunctional family, poor housing, lack of positive role models, lack of opportunity, lack of hope — pick one of these factors that can contribute to crime and see which demographic group it more often applies to.
Veteran Albany civil rights activist Alice Green describes a vicious cycle that holds back some Black people:
They are born to parents struggling with a centuries-long legacy of poverty and discrimination or enslavement; some grow up in communities with fewer resources; the lack of opportunities leads some to commit crimes; bias and stereotypes make them more likely to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated; the heavily Black prison population stokes negative stereotypes about the race; their criminal record makes it harder to land a good job; this perpetuates more negative stereotypes about their race; and they struggle with poverty and discrimination as they raise their own children.
“This whole line of discrimination increases as you go through the system,” she said.
Multiple factors are coming together in 2021, including the statewide push to reinvent and reform policing in the wake of police killings of Black people; reform of marijuana laws that advocates say disproportionately affect Black and brown New Yorkers; and ever-increasing use of police body cameras, which open an officer’s actions and decisions to scrutiny for potential bias.
In the same conversation, Green makes two statements that seem contradictory but aren’t: Black and brown people are no different from white people, but wind up in the criminal justice system more often.
“The color of your skin doesn’t determine how likely it is that you are going to commit crime but your income will,” she explained.
For that reason, she’s not optimistic that the state-mandated police reform process underway will ease the racial disparity in New York’s criminal justice system: The reforms seek to change systemic racism and its results — arrest, conviction and imprisonment — rather than the root causes of crime, many of which are economic.
U.S. Census data show that in inflation-adjusted dollars, median income rose 10% for Black families from 2002 to 2019, 14% for white families, 19% for Hispanic families and 31% for Asian families.
“The economic gap is getting wider in this society,” Green said. “That’s the major thing — that will still continue to play out.
“We still have segregated communities and I don’t see that changing a whole lot.”
BLACK ARREST RATE
The Daily Gazette reviewed arrest statistics published by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services for seven counties in and near the Capital Region. Six of the counties — wealthier and poorer, urban and rural, high- and low-crime, Republican and Democrat, more and less racially diverse — showed a similar pattern: Black people arrested at a rate of three to five times higher than their percentage of the population.
(The seventh county, Schoharie County, with one of the smallest populations and one of the lowest crime rates in the state, shows less disparity but the numbers involved are so small that they may be statistically misleading.)
The 57 counties outside New York City, on the whole, show a disparity similar to the Capital Region’s: 9% of the people who live outside New York City are Black and 30% of arrests there are of Black people.
Schenectady County annually has had one of the worst rates of reported crime among the state’s 62 counties in recent years, and in 2018 it reached the top of the list — the highest per-capita number of reported index crimes, the eight major offenses widely used as a measure of criminal activity.
Each year from 2015 to 2019, more than half of those crimes in Schenectady County were reported to the Schenectady Police Department, and the Schenectady PD made an even greater percentage of the total arrests countywide.
Schenectady County has a smaller Black-white disparity in arrests than the rest of upstate New York: 11% of county residents are Black while 39% of adults arrested are Black.
The disparity is narrower yet in the city. The demographic report published in September by the Schenectady Police Department showed white people constituted 42% of adult arrests in 2019 and Black people 44%. The U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 estimated the city population is 57% white and 20% Black.
Addressing racial equity is one of the priorities for the Schenectady Police Department as it moves forward with the reform and reinvention process that Governor Andrew Cuomo set in motion for the state’s police departments last year, after violent demonstrations over police killings of Black people.
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said it’s a difficult balance to strike: If his officers go where the crime is, they’re accused of over-policing minority neighborhoods; if they stay away from these communities, they’re accused of ignoring the people suffering most from the effects of crime.
Clifford said the disparity in arrests was increased in the mid-2000s by data-driven policing — commanders analyzed crime statistics and flooded the area where the crimes were concentrated with officers who would question, ticket or arrest everyone for every offense they saw, however minor.
“That was the philosophy,” Clifford said. “While it may have been successful, it had the unintended consequence of further victimizing the people in that area.”
With so much police attention focused on the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, for example, identical offenses in other areas of the city could go unnoticed by officers. Residents of the lower-income neighborhood wound up with more citations and quality-of-life arrests than other neighborhoods and they typically have less money to deal with the consequences.
“What we’ve learned through conversations and trainings statewide, nationwide, is to really focus on problems within the hotspot, not the hotspot itself,” Clifford said.
“We’re going to use more discretion than we did in the past, be a little more transparent why we’re there, why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Was the old protocol good policing if it produced legitimate arrests, even if the arrests were racially imbalanced?
“That’s one of things I think about a lot,” Clifford said: The department wants to reduce the racial imbalance without ignoring crime.
Police in the past would focus heavily on the open-air drug markets at Albany and Hulett streets in Hamilton Hill or Crane and Sixth in Mont Pleasant, he said, and those were valid arrests. But those arrested typically were people of color. And as those arrests were being made, Clifford said, other drug sales might be continuing unchecked behind closed doors on the city’s Northside to Union College students.
It takes more time and effort to build a legal case in those discreet drug deals, which is one of the reasons police have gone after the low-hanging fruit — street dealers.
Schenectady police can’t and won’t ignore the open-air drug dealing in minority neighborhoods, Clifford said, but he’s directed them to dig deeper into the drug trade below the surface elsewhere.
“Quite honestly, the fact that they’ve legalized marijuana is going to make it a little easier for us to focus on the drugs that are the addictive ones,” he said.
Part of the reform and reinvention process underway within the Schenectady PD is looking for ways to divert people from the path to arrest by police.
Clifford said this effort predates the Cuomo reinvention mandate — the department might seek domestic violence counselors for a particular community with a high number of domestic violence arrests, for example; or change the way officers deal with people who have mental health problems; or use the Schenectady Cares program to divert drug addicts from jail to treatment; or work with homeless people rather than immediately evict them from a park.
All of these are beyond the wheelhouse of most police agencies, the chief said, but most agencies can link with community partners to avert situations that potentially would lead to friction with police. This is what Schenectady police are trying to do.
“We’re problem-solvers but we don’t necessarily attack every single problem and solve it ourselves,” Clifford said.
On the other side of the process is Schenectady County Public Defender Stephen Signore, who has spent his entire legal career representing defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. He doesn’t have an exact breakdown but said his office’s clients in those 31 years have been minorities more often than white.
“One square mile constitutes the bulk of our caseload,” he said, referring to the Hamilton Hill area of Schenectady. (The Hamilton Hill/Vale ZIP code is 59% Black, Hispanic and Asian).
Clifford, Green and Signore all made the same point in different words: If police want to make arrests they go where they think the crime is being committed.
Bias comes into play if the police search a car for drugs or weapons for no reason other than the driver’s skin color, Signore said, and he thinks the digital video recorders pinned to police uniforms will make a difference in ferreting out bias: The prosecuting and defense attorneys can both see the footage and have a better sense of whether the officer had reasonable cause for his actions. And if the case progresses to trial, a jury can make that call too.
“The body cams I think are going to be huge,” Signore said.
Uniformed officers on patrol in Schenectady use body cameras, as do many other police agencies, and others are continuing to adopt them.
Robert Carney, Schenectady County’s district attorney for more than 30 years, said he has no reason to believe police use their discretion to cut white people a break more often and arrest Black people more often, but such a thing would be essentially immeasurable beyond a collection of anecdotes.
There is, however, clear evidence of the disparate racial impact of crime, he said.
“High-crime neighborhoods tend to be plagued by poverty, lack of job opportunities, poorer schools, higher school dropout rates, fewer intact families, poorer health care access, substandard housing, some of which may be poisoned with lead-based paint, food deserts, drug and alcohol addictions, and heightened gang activity,” Carney said via email.
“Some are now saying it would be better to not police these neighborhoods or to defund or abolish the police because of the disproportionate impact of policing on peoples of color. But to do that would be to ignore the valid concerns of people who live in these neighborhoods who lead crime-free lives and do not want their children exposed to aberrant and dangerous behavior. They need police and want their help as long as they treat people fairly.”
Carney said sentencing guidelines have been changed in recognition of the disproportionate racial impact of the war on drugs, the get-tough policies in the 1970s and 1980s that led to mass incarceration of mostly Black and Hispanic drug dealers.
But he believes there still is need for drug enforcement, “especially when people are dying in record numbers from ingestion of fentanyl and other lethal substances being sold on the black market as heroin.”
Richard Giardino — former district attorney, former judge and now Fulton County sheriff — made a point some other upstate police agencies have made in discussing the disproportionate number of interactions they have with Black people:
Many of the Black people arrested in his county are not county residents, and this skews the equation of racial disparity in Fulton County, where 2% of residents are Black but 9% of arrestees are Black. Fulton County Jail records show many non-resident inmates, he said.
In the broader picture, he blames the drug trade and gang membership for the disparity.
Reactive policing, which is dictated by victim complaints, presents less chance for bias.
“We react to the call,” Giardino said. “We don’t know what color the driver or the burglar is going to be, we don’t get to pick that.”
Proactive policing, in which officers look for problems, can present more chances for intentional or inadvertent bias.
Lacking unlimited resources to uncover hidden crime, police go for the low-hanging fruit of open street crime, which is more often in marginal neighborhoods, which are more often Black than white.
“The inherent bias, if you will, I’ve seen firsthand,” Giardino said.
He recalled setting aside a murder conviction and ordering a retrial after it was disclosed a juror had said he knew the defendant was guilty because he was Black.
He recalled another case before him, in which a Black man was being processed on charges that ultimately were dropped. Police investigators had picked him up because of his multiple prior felony convictions and never bothered to review surveillance footage that clearly showed a different person at the crime scene.
Underlying a significant percentage of crimes is drug abuse and mental illness, Giardino said, and state and federal lawmakers haven’t devoted enough resources to addressing either. “The jails and prisons have become warehouses for drug addicts and mental health problems,” he said.
Many, many observers (including most of those quoted in this report) make the point that total arrest numbers grouped by skin color don’t provide an accurate or complete picture of race and crime.
Here is a closer look at some aspects of the data.
YEAR OVER YEAR: A five- or 10-year average is better for drawing conclusions than a single year’s data, but it’s hard to create such an average in New York.
The state Department of Criminal Justice Services has published arrest statistics by race for 2016 through 2019. But 2018/2019 data are not directly comparable to 2016/2017 data because juvenile arrests are not included in the newer data.
That said, the 2019 arrests that have been the focus of this report are not greatly different in their racial demographics from the other three years for which DCJS has presented data.
JUVENILES: The Schenectady Police Department’s comprehensive September 2020 report on arrest demographics shows a relatively narrow disparity between Black and white arrests from 2017 through 2019.
But that’s only adult arrests. They arrest far more juveniles than either Black adults or white adult arrests, and there’s no racial breakdown on juveniles in the report.
DRUNKEN DRIVING: Driving while intoxicated arrests are the most racially equitable type of arrests in the DCJS database: 69% of misdemeanor and 68% of felony DWI cases involve white motorists. The state’s adult population is 76% white.
This is the weight of numbers catching up with white offenders, activist Alice Green believes. Black motorists are stopped by police in disproportionate numbers but not often enough to counterbalance the fact that Black New Yorkers are fewer in number, own fewer cars and drive fewer miles than white New Yorkers, she said.
State troopers make more DWI arrests than any other agency in New York, nearly 38% of the statewide total in 2020.
A spokesman said the state police patrols and checkpoints that yielded more than 20,000 DWI arrests in 2019 are targeted not on race but on the likelihood of success.
Deciding where to set up sobriety checkpoints is a multipoint consideration based on the location of previous arrests and previous crashes, troopers’ own intuition and community input. Also, there needs to be an available location with adequate visibility and sufficient open space to operate a checkpoint safely.
BUT WHAT ABOUT: Discussion of racial inequity in arrests seems to fall heavily along Black and white lines. But what about other minorities?
In the 57 counties outside New York City, there are 16% more Hispanic than Black residents but 116% more Black arrests than Hispanic in 2019. Is there less inherent or overt bias against Hispanics on the part of police?
People of Asian heritage make up 5% of the population outside New York City but just 1% of the arrests. Is the system biased in their favor over white, Black and Hispanic New Yorkers?
Green said she doesn’t know what is behind the low number of Asian arrests.
“It could be economics, it could be cultural, there’s a whole bunch of things that could enter into that. You have to have some better understanding of any economic gaps. They’re not as low on the economic scale as Black people are.”
(Census data show the U.S. progression of median household income from lowest to highest as Black, Hispanic, white and Asian, the exact opposite of per-capita arrest rates for those four demographic groups in New York.)
VIOLENCE: The stereotype of Black neighborhoods as dangerous places is a sore point for many Black people but once again, arrest data suggest the stereotype has at least some basis in fact. In the 57 counties outside New York City in 2019, there were 736% more white adult residents than Black but 21% more Black arrests than white for violent felonies: kidnapping, arson, rape and murder.
The white fear of Black violence is misplaced, Green said — most violence is intraracial.
The FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report shows a strong pattern in this direction:
From 2010 to 2019, in New York state homicides where the race of both the offender and the first victim are known, white killers claimed 1,592 victims — 80% of them white and 18% Black.
In the same decade, Black killers claimed 2,941 victims: 80% of them Black and 19% white.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said the racial divide in statistics such as these reflects a major issue.
“The possession and use of illegal handguns is perhaps our most significant crime problem,” he said via email.
“I am sure that arrest for gun crimes skews heavily toward young African-American males. But the scourge of young Black men killing other young Black men is a deeply American problem. … Our most important work is to center our efforts on justice for the victims of crime. The death of anyone, no matter if they engaged in high-risk activities or not, leaves a void and is a grievous insult to the community. And for these efforts race is surely irrelevant.”
More from The Daily Gazette: