There are two dangers associated with the New York Civil Liberties Union’s error-filled report on racial disparities between arrests of blacks and whites on marijuana charges in Schenectady County.
One is that the positive efforts of police to interact better with the community and reduce racial disparities will be overshadowed by the phony statistics contained in the original report.
The other is that an imperfect report will discount the legitimate issues the organization raised that need correcting.
In early June, the NYCLU released a report that among other problems claimed that black residents in Schenectady County were 74 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than whites — the worst such discrepancy in the state, by a lot.
To some, it reinforced their belief that Schenectady police were unfairly targeting a disproportionate number of blacks with their policies.
The report prompted about three dozen people to demonstrate outside the county jail to protest injustices in the criminal justice system, including the racial issues associated with marijuana arrests.
Turns out, though, that some kind of error by the NYCLU in compiling the ratios for the report caused some of its figures to be off significantly.
Rather than being 74 times more likely to be targeted, for instance, the actual number is actually more like 10 times.
In its apparent zeal to issue its report, the NYCLU failed to provide police with a draft before releasing it to the media and failed to provide city police with certain information beforehand that it could have refuted to avoid the errors.
The NYCLU has since issued an apology and explanation.
That’s well and good. But the initial report gave a false impression about the city’s efforts to combat the very problems the organization was trying to spotlight and undermined the positive changes that have been taking place.
The errors, however, also tainted the entire report and overshadowed some of the legitimate points the NYCLU was trying to make about transparency, use-of-force policies and racial inequality — not just in Schenectady County, but in all the areas that this report and a subsequent second report issued by the NYCLU covered.
Once lost, trust is difficult to regain.
In the future, organizations like these need to be particularly careful about the statistics they compile, cautious about the conclusions they draw and mindful of the potential negative impacts they can have if they’re wrong.