Denver shouldn’t disband or defund its police department
With Austin poised to cut its police budget by a stunning one-third, the Texas city joins a list that includes New York, Seattle and San Francisco where law enforcement budgets have been trimmed in response to the racial justice movement.
Denver has so far resisted the defunding trend, partly because of Mayor Michael Hancock’s forceful rejection of the idea. Typical was his reaction to a half-baked plan unveiled recently by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca to replace the police force with a Department of Peacekeeping Services whose “strategies include the ability in as limited cases as possible” to apprehend lawbreakers
Those are the words of a man who knows police sometimes abuse their power for a variety of reasons — yes, including bigotry — but who isn’t fully buying the charge that his department is systematically oppressing small segments of the community. Which of course is a crucial question, isn’t it? Do cops operate under a pervasive racial double standard such that there is little option but to slash their budgets and redirect the money to humane alternatives?
The Denver Post recently published a lengthy article cataloguing incidents involving the use of force by police in Denver and Aurora and concluded the statistics provide strong evidence that “police in two of Colorado’s largest cities disproportionately use force against” Black citizens. And that is certainly true if the expectation is that use-of-force incidents will break down among ethnic groups according to their distribution in the population at large.
Which of course is not the case. The Post reports 27% of use-of-force incidents in Denver in 2019 involved Black people even though they comprise 10% of the city’s population; in Aurora, the respective percentages were 47 and 16.
In other words, in each city the use of police force against Black people occurs at a rate between 2 1/2 and three times their percentage in the general population. As it happens, however, use-of-force incidents broadly track the rate of arrests, as the Post’s data also reveals. In Denver, for example, 26% of arrests involved Black people — just 1% less than the use-of-force statistic. For comparison, white people accounted for 44% of arrests and 50% of use-of-force incidents.
Now, you are free to dismiss the arrest statistics as additional evidence of racial bias — to argue that if cities didn’t devote so many resources to policing minority neighborhoods and targeting young men for petty crimes and drug offenses that the arrest statistics wouldn’t be so cockeyed. Perhaps. But there are problems with accepting the thesis wholesale.
To begin with, as Denver police Chief Paul Pazen has noted, officers usually respond to citizen calls for assistance. They have no control over the origin of those calls.
In addition, arrest figures for violent crimes are, if anything, more skewed racially than for other offenses.
Ever since the passage of the Community Law Enforcement Action Reporting Act in 2015, Colorado has collected a wealth of statistics on arrests and court cases. The most recent report on Denver, covering 2018, shows Black people account for over 30% of arrests for violent crimes, or three times their percentage of Denver’s population.
There are many reasons for this depressing reality — including poverty, the legacy of our racial history and fewer intact families — but to blame it on police having a selective interest, say, in shootings and robberies in which Black suspects are involved is not credible. The violent crime rate really is higher in some communities. It is reflected in FBI statistics, and it is acknowledged even by harsh critics of current police and judicial practices, such as the Brennan Center and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “It is important to acknowledge that the high crime rates and violence that occur in high-poverty, inner-city neighborhoods do increase the likelihood of police-civilian interactions,” the commission stated in a 2018 report.
And with an increased likelihood of police-civilian interactions comes an increased likelihood of use of force incidents no matter what race is involved.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting this explains all of the disparity in arrests or to excuse incidents like the recent one in Aurora in which four black girls — two handcuffed behind their backs — were forced face down in a parking lot during a bungled probe into a stolen vehicle. But overstating a societal problem has policy consequences too, and it is simplistic and misleading to tally up use-of-force incidents or arrests and draw hard conclusions about the nature of local policing.