Ferguson, Missouri, has become the flashpoint in the racially charged debate over the relationship between law enforcement and blacks, but a USA Today analysis found notably higher arrest rates among blacks in 1,581 other police agencies across the country.
Twenty-two of those police departments are in the Lower Hudson Valley.
“I’m not surprised,” said Damon Jones, president of the Blacks in Law Enforcement of America chapter representing Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. “The majority of our departments are made up of Caucasian males, and we can’t deny that they bring their prejudices to the job. There are only a handful of blacks in policy-making and supervisory positions in the entire region. Another big factor is that most cops don’t live in the communities they serve, so they don’t make the kinds of connections that result in mutual respect. That’s something that needs to change.”
The USA Today analysis used arrests reported by agencies to the FBI in 2011 and 2012, along with U.S. Census data, to calculate the number of arrests per 1,000 black residents and compare that to the number of arrests per 1,000 nonblack residents. Not all agencies were considered; the police department had to have at least 200 arrests in both 2011 and 2012, and the municipality had to have at least 500 black residents.
Experts say there is no simple explanation for the disparities found in the analysis. They could be a result of biased policing, but also could be a byproduct of educational and economic gaps that are closely tied to overall crime rates.
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and leading expert on racial profiling, told USA Today that the higher arrest rates for black people “does not mean that police are discriminating. It does mean it’s worth looking at. It means you might have a problem and you need to pay attention.”
While Ferguson police arrest blacks at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races, data from the USA Today analysis show that the Mount Pleasant police department arrests black people nearly 13 times more than people of other races — more than any other in the Lower Hudson Valley. The department is facing lawsuits over the 2010 shooting death of Danroy Henry, a black Pace University football player killed by a white Pleasantville police officer.
Mount Pleasant Police Chief Paul Oliva said two residential treatment centers for troubled youths in the town account for the disparity. Both facilities serve diverse populations, with many students being placed there by court orders.
Hawthorne Cedar Knolls and the Pleasantville Cottage School “consume a lot of our resources,” Oliva said. “There are frequent incidents at both facilities, and a large portion of our arrests come as a result of those incidents. Race isn’t a consideration; we arrest people who commit crimes.”
Stony Point, which arrests black people nearly five times more than those of other races — the largest disparity in Rockland County — has a small black population of 576 people, according to the 2010 U.S. census. That was just enough to include it in the analysis but Stony Point Police Chief Brian Moore took issue with its inclusion, saying that those who are arrested aren’t necessarily residents of the town.
Moore said his department has done its analysis on the 2012 statistics and found that whites are arrested by a 3-to-1 margin over minorities in Stony Point.
“When you have a small number, the numbers can get skewed,” he said. “We have a large transient population so I don’t think this involves our residents.”
In Clarkstown, where blacks are arrested at a rate four times higher than non-blacks, Police Chief Michael Sullivan said the Palisades Center, one of the country’s 10 biggest shopping malls, accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the department’s incidents and draws people from New York City and other urban areas. Sullivan said the department and mall security deal mostly with shoplifting and fraud at the businesses, but doesn’t have a breakdown based on race.
The only factor his officers take into consideration when making an arrest, he said, is the law.
“We have no racial preferences,” he said. “We do our jobs. We get a complaint, we act about it, whether it’s at the mall or on the streets. Our policy is to treat everybody equally, without passion or prejudice.”
Staff writer Hoa Nguyen contributed to this report.