SJWs Strike Again: Police Field Reports Are Biased

VCU Professor Liz Coston says black Richmonders are “overpoliced.”

Here we go again. Today readers of the Richmond Times-Dispatch are treated to a front-page, top-of-the-fold article highlighting racial disparity… not in arrests… not in convictions… not in stop-and-frisks… but in the Richmond Police Department’s use of racial identifiers in “field interview reports.”

The newspaper’s indictment:

Of the 29,997 reports Richmond police officers documented in 2017 and 2018, a disproportionate number of them described the subject of the report as a black person. In a city where black residents make up 49 percent of the population, 65 percent of the people documented were listed as black.

The RTD’s Ali Rockett quotes the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project as describing the disparity as an “alarmingly disproportionate policing of black boys and men.” And it quotes Liz Coston, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist, as saying that the numbers constitute evidence of “overpolicing” of Richmond’s black community. “It’s clear that black residents in Richmond are impacted by policing to a much greater extent than white citizens are.”

Not until 31 to 33 paragraphs down does the reader encounter quotes from interim Police Chief William Smith making an obvious point: The reason a disproportionate number of field interviews are conducted with African-Americans is that a disproportionate number of violent crimes and property crimes occur in high-crime neighborhoods populated by… African-Americans.

“Our field interviews align with our violent crime density,” said Smith. “You can see it aligns very closely, and by places that it doesn’t … look at property crime impact. You see how that combination of factors almost always align completely. … We put all of our focus on areas of violent crime and areas of property crime.”

The alignment of crime reports with field interviews conducted in the investigation of crimes would seem to be a pertinent point. The RTD did not choose to publish data that would back up Smith’s claims and undermine the entire point of the article.

But the RTD did quote Coston, the VCU sociologist, as describing this approach as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” — police concentrating their resources in one area and seeing increases in petty crimes because they are there to make the arrest. “If you send a lot of your police officer resources into one community, they’re going to find crime there,” Coston said. “If you don’t send your officers to the West End, there are no officers there to find crime.”

The absurdity of that argument is hard to understate. First, the RPD dispatches police to certain neighborhoods because that’s where the crime complaints are coming from! You can see the crime incident “disparity” in this RPD data numbering the incidents reported in the city’s nine council districts between May 5, 2018, and May 5, 2019:

The low-crime 1st and 4th districts are predominantly affluent and white. The high-crime 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th districts are predominantly poor and African-American. (The RPD also breaks down crime by “neighborhoods” for those who want to zoom in for a closer look at the data.)

The second absurdity is this: If the Richmond Police Department dispatched police resources to the low-crime West End, the cops would spend much of their time idle. Then guess what — Coston or someone like her would criticize the RPD for underpolicing crime-ridden African-American neighborhoods while showing preference to white neighborhoods. With social justice warriors, it’s racist if you do, racist if you don’t.

The fact is, the RPD dispatches police resources to where they are needed. And the department is doing so more effectively than in the past because it uses a data-driven approach to tracking and predicting crime trends.

One of the reasons the City of Richmond’s crime rate has declined dramatically over the past decade or two is precisely because police are using the statistical methods that the RTD and social justice activists decry — a fundamental truth omitted from the story. Thanks to those very same statistical methods, fewer African-Americans have been killed or traumatized by criminals — another fundamental truth omitted from the article.

Instead of quoting white academic “experts” like Coston who, I’ll wager, does not live in a crime-ridden East End public housing project and has absolutely no skin in the game, perhaps Ms. Rockett could have interviewed elderly, law-abiding residents of Mosby Court or Creighton Court to ask if they think their communities are “overpoliced.”

Rockett’s article isn’t reporting. It’s not news. It’s advocacy. It belongs on an opinion page. But even on an opinion page, the piece could be legitimately criticized as ludicrously unbalanced. Rockett should be embarrassed for having written it. Executive Editor Paige Mudd should be embarrassed for allowing it to be published as a “news” article.

And Publisher Tom Silvestri should be alarmed at how the news staff has hijacked the newspaper into a platform for middle-class white journalists to pose as social justice warriors. Surely he realizes that publishing social-justice viewpoints masquerading as news day after day, week after week, is not a winning formula for holding on to the older, more conservative readers who still read the newspaper.

(Full disclosure: Late last year I worked about 10 days on the editorial page staff of the RTD before submitting my resignation when it became apparent that I would not be allowed to freely express my views.)

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16 responses to “SJWs Strike Again: Police Field Reports Are Biased

  1. I’d be curious to know about “other” and how many of them were reported by citizens versus initiated by police.

    I’m a bit amused twice here because RTD is not perceived by most to be a left wing “rag”…. it’s probably one of the more conservative papers in Virginia – or name some that are more Conservative …

    AND – they have a paywall so you have to pay – and you have chosen to pay for (apparently) social justice warrior “advocacy”. What gives? Why don’t you just stop paying them money for stuff you obviously abhor?

    geeze!!!

  2. because a SMART person reads everything from right to left to get an idea of the various stories out there, not just one side but various angles. If you take a look at KTTH they are conservative and regularly invite left/progressive/Dem/whatever the opposing side is) and their populace doesn’t scream/threaten/flip the bird to the opposing sides.

  3. “I’m a bit amused twice here because RTD is not perceived by most to be a left wing “rag”…. it’s probably one of the more conservative papers in Virginia.”
    I would say that is the paper’s PAST reputation, one that it has been riding with Republican for years, and that a close reading of the paper of the paper for the last 15 years or so is another story. With the cutbacks in the “journalism industry” how much of day to day work of the paper is in the hands of young, just out of college, . . . and “woke.”
    A comparison with other newspapers is probably moot as in that it would be like comparing Hillary Clinton to Ilhan Abdullahi Omar and stating how moderate Clinton seems.

  4. I was a few paragraphs in before I too concluded it was largely a non-story, given the nature of the reports being tracked. Just contact reports. I’d be stunned given the demographics and concentration of the crime incident reports in this city if the data had been different, as Jim notes. I think another element of this is the officers may be more careful to record certain interactions if they have concerns about later complaints about them.

    It would be interesting to test the VCU “expert’s” theory and and have the police rolling up and down the streets of Windsor Farms hourly looking to charge somebody with something….let’s try that, pull the officers out of the projects for six months, and see how that works out. There’s always a prowl car or two parked in the shade near my Northside condo building waiting to find me doing something nefarious….well, maybe its the shady parking they seek. But I’m very happy to see them.

    Just watched BlacKKKlansman and it was about the first black officer in Colorado Spring in the 70s, but these days the city police reflect this community fairly well, in the ranks and the leadership. I guess the theory is The Man is racist period. I would think the bad old days would be hard to repeat in this new environment.

  5. Jim,
    I agree with you. I glanced at the RTD story and thought Wow!.
    Then I read it and agree that it seems to show a greater police awareness in the African-American community which is plagued by violent crime. And you have one VCU prof backing up the idea of “over policing.”
    Where I do not agree with you is on the trajectory of the RTD. They have, what? 13 reporters? Far cry from long ago. And they stick all of the local stuff on page one with mixed results. But they have been doing some good stuff that they weren’t before when they were the lap dog of the state power elite. As far as alienating, older, conservative readers, I say it should have happened long ago.

  6. Well, I’m willing to bet that this data driven policing is the real reason behind the disproportionate arrest rates of African-Americans for marijuana possession. In the City of Richmond blacks were 1.4X more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites (on a population weighted basis). The City of Charlottesville has solved this problem by almost never arresting anybody for marijuana possession. Meanwhile, in Norfolk and Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorneys sought to routinely dismiss misdemeanor marijuana cases. The Imperial Clown Show elected Va Supreme Court rejected that effort.

    “In 2016 and 2017, more than 1,560 people in Norfolk were charged with first- or second-offense marijuana possession, prosecutor Ramin Fatehi said during a hearing last month. Of them, 81 percent were black in a city that’s 47 percent white and 42 percent black.”

    “In March, as he prepared to take his case to the Supreme Court, Underwood announced his prosecutors would not handle misdemeanor marijuana appeals when simple possession was the only charge. Instead, the arresting officers would testify against the defendant without the guidance of a prosecutor — akin to the way traffic cases are heard. This is a common practice in the lower District Court and something the Circuit Court judges have suggested.

    On Friday, Underwood spokeswoman Amanda Howie said that, now that the Supreme Court justices have ruled, that temporary policy will become permanent.”

    https://pilotonline.com/news/local/crime/article_d260c5ce-6d3f-11e9-96bb-0364d44e54da.html

    “Over-policing” high crime areas to stop violent crime and property crime makes perfect sense. The RTD article is a croc and so are the sentiments of the VCU professor. However, ending the disproportionate arresting of African-Americans for something that is neither a violent nor property crime has to stop. Either the police in Richmond need to follow the approach of Charlottesville and just “look the other way” or the prosecutors in Richmond need to follow the Portsmouth / Norfolk example and withdraw support for prosecuting such crimes.

    And let’s all remember that in the 2019 Imperial Clown Show session a bill was brought forward to de-criminalize marijuana. The cowards who run Virginia’s Republican Party concocted a sub-committee of 5 politician for life Republicans who blocked consideration of the measure by the full committee. I sincerely hope Virginia’s Republicans get their asses waxed this November. Undemocratic pig’s tricks like using a 5 person sub-committee to block a vote on important legislation is unacceptable. Let the votes fall where they may – pass or fail. Letting 5 politicians stop the legislature from going on the record in an election year is disgraceful. The Republicans in Virginia need to go. I’ll pay the higher taxes brought by the Democrats just to put the asshat Republicans on the back row.

  7. For all the reasons cited by other commentators in this blog, the RTD article was poor. What is really regrettable, however, is that, with some more analysis of the underlying data, the authors of the report may have been able to make a much better case for their claim of racial disparity.

    Aggregate data like this should not be used to draw broad conclusions. The chief function of such data is to indicate where there might be problems. A good researcher then needs to dig into the details of the data to find out what is really going on. I am surprised that a sociology professor at VCU was willing to be satisfied with just the aggregate data.

    First of all, the category with the highest number of “encounters” was “other activity”. Because these encounters did not involve “suspicious activity” or “suspicious person”, one can probably rule out any possible criminal activity being the basis of these encounters. In fact, the article itself said that an encounter could be “as innocuous as an officer stopping to play basketball with some kids.” In recent years, there has been a lot of emphasis on community policing, in which the police establish positive relationships with the citizens in their communities, i.e. have encounters. In fact, the city of Richmond has received substantial grant funding from the Office of the Attorney General , which, as the OAG press release explained, “will allow RPD to assign more officers to directed proactive patrols in areas that have been identified as likely to experience violent crime because of factors like street configuration, lighting and visibility impediments, previous criminal activity, vacant buildings, or businesses known to be patronized by gang members. RPD will be able to assign even more officers to those areas, creating a crime deterrent effect through increased visibility and stronger relationships with community members.”

    In summary, these encounters in the “other” category were more than likely with black people because they were designed to be. The Richmond crime data clearly shows that most reported crime occurs in areas predominantly inhabited by black persons. There is not enough detail in the RTD article to calculate precisely, but, after the “other” encounters are deleted from the overall analysis, the “racial disparity” is probably decreased significantly.

    It is in the other two categories with the largest number of encounters—suspicious activity and suspicious person—that the authors of the report and the RTD reporter might have found data to buttress their claim of racial disparity. One needs to look closely at that data with several questions in mind: Where did the encounter take place? What were the circumstances of the encounter? Is it likely that similar encounters could have occurred with white persons, but did not? If they had done this, I suspect that they would have found data to show racial disparity.

    For example, take the circumstance that Don Rippert has cited, to his credit, several times—arrests for marijuana possession. An article last year in the other Richmond newspaper, the one that actually does some serious digging into what is going on in the city, the Richmond Free Press, described how “police officers are using the claim of ‘I smell marijuana’ to justify pat-downs of people and car searches, particularly in poor ‘communities of color.’” Apparently, VCU police officers also have very highly trained senses of smell. They have conducted traffic stops of black people based on their smelling marijuana from a car passing them on the street. I wonder if the VCU cops have walked through any of the student housing complexes sniffing the air or if the Richmond police have used their trained noses around the new apartment complexes in Shockoe. See: http://richmondfreepress.com/news/2018/aug/16/aclu-calls-prohibition-marijuana-smell-warrantless/?page=1

    • Very interesting conjecture about the “other” category. It would be ironic indeed if the RPD was making an effort to engage in community policing and then those encounters were turned around to depict the department as racist.

      Also, you and Don both raise an interesting point about the marijuana arrests. Police may not be targeting blacks for marijuana use; marijuana arrests may be an incidental result of the fact that police are stopping blacks for other reasons. That doesn’t make criminalization of marijuana right, but it does suggest that “racism” is not the driving force.

      If one is absolutely determined to find racism in the numbers, I’d dig into the reports on “suspicious activity.” Perhaps some of those can be accounted for by little old white ladies fretting about seeing a young black man walking around in their neighborhood. If the SJWs followed Dick’s advice to dig deep into that data rather than take lazy swipes, they might find numbers that, to some degree, supported their narrative.

      • Likely, there are several hidden stories buried in this screwed up, group think, and heavily bias Richmond Times Dispatch faux news article. I suspect that in each case of a hidden story, one will uncover patterns of chronic and systemic bureaucratic over-reach and incompetence, giving rise to legitimate public complaints. These counter-productive actions by government administrators, lawmakers, and regulators will be akin to Dick’s lists of fees, charges, and penalties levied and heaped endlessly upon those caught up in the penal and justice system. The victims and their communities will understandable see these impositions and chronic inferences in their lives as racism, when in fact what is going on is heavy handed bureaucratic out of control meddling and piling on.

        All of this incompetence will give the local demagogues the opportunity to jump on the racist bandwagon so as to aggregate power for themselves, shift blame onto others, and/or work the system so as to levy social justice claims for reparations, and wrangle other pork out the politicians. This the oppressed community will then call, among its members, “bringing home the bacon.” All this will be cheered on and enabled by local reporters feeding the myths they create so as to feel good about themselves, slap one another on the back, and do as their bosses order, selling their souls to keep their jobs. Meanwhile the politicians eager to “feed their base” and buy black votes with other peoples money happily along with the charade claiming racism, and acting forcible to solve problems with false solutions that only make those real problems worse year after year.

        Meanwhile, the cops on the street, doing all their good and necessary work, gets all the blame, are heaped with abuse, and weighted down with regulation, for doing nothing more than their job, protecting the public. The classic example of this, of course, is what happened to Charlottesville police in summer of 2017. There it continues on steroids to this very day.

  8. Agree that small-time marijuana possession and use should not be a crime.

    But why the concern about journalists’ jobs? Are they exempt from market forces? Most people in business understand that businesses and employees need to be focused on their customers and potential customers. Smart businesses have focused on a variety of sub-market categories, such as minority groups, gays and lesbians, women, senior citizens, rural communities, inner-cities, etc. And the result is usually more sales and more customers. But that comes only because there is focus on the customer’s needs and wants and the subjection of the owner’s and employee’s own needs and wants to obtain the former focus.

    But most journalists tend to focus on themselves and those who think just as they do. When has the WaPo really dug into a story inconsistent with its political views? So why would anyone be surprised that fewer people turn to MSM sources regularly? And why would one expect the number of jobs in journalism to remain stable or even grow?

    I get and can appreciate the digging into Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore. A lot of bad stuff came out. But at the same time, why didn’t the Post put the same level of digging and exposure into Northam’s blackface and other racist behavior pre-election? How about the rape allegations against Justin Fairfax pre-election? Why was an Alabama senate race more important than Virginia executive branch elections?

    I watched BBC coverage of local elections in the UK last week. I learned that the Conservatives took a drubbing but also that a strongly expected trend for Labour gains not only didn’t materialize but also that the Party lost quite a few seats. If the Post (and most other MSM companies) were the BBC, the Conservatives were the GOP and Labour was the Democrats, does anyone think all of the reporting would have mentioned the failure of Labour in the election? Most journalists aren’t journalists in the traditional sense of the word and must accept much of the blame for their declining economic conditions.

    So when WARN Act notices go out to the entire staff of the NO Times-Picayune, don’t ask me to weep.

    • The reporting may be flawed but it isn’t inappropriate to audit policing practices. I assume we can all agree on that?

      One need not read more than the comments on this blog to see the problem. Scholars are discredited. Striving for “social justice” is ridiculed by those for whom the system largely works (straight, white, middle class men). Politicians working for their black constituents are “buying the black vote with other people’s money” . What do you call it when politicians advocate on behalf of their white constituents (school vouchers, low property taxes)? I suspect you don’t call that “buying the white vote with other people’s money”. Why the double standard?

      Black people can read you know. They see the comment sections of blogs like this, FB, RTD, WaPo… Are they wrong to feel like the system is stacked against them (even if the data proves otherwise)?

      • Several problems with your comment:

        1. I thought I was clear that disparities in relative rates of marijuana arrests was an indication of an unfair outcome of data driven policing decisions.

        2. Not sure how school vouchers “buy votes with other people’s money” – both in general and specifically in Virginia where they don’t exist.

        3. Not sure how “low property taxes” buy votes with other people’s money. Do you contend that my money is not mine so if I keep more of it I am somehow stealing from others who never earned the money?

        4. Black people can not only read but write as well. I would be glad for a more diverse set of commentators. Both from a racial and political point of view perspective.

        5. If somebody writes an article that claims police field reports are indicative of bias it is incumbent on the author to explain why. That didn’t happen here. In fact, it has become part and parcel of the liberal intelligentsia’s philosophy that any discrepancy based on race is obvious evidence of bias. By that standard both the NHL and NBA belong on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of doers of dirty deeds.

        • 1) You do understand how promising one group of people something can come at the expense of another.

          2) It isn’t my opinion that serving constituents , regardless of race, is akin buying votes (with other people’s money, see item 1 above).

          3) I contend that black people pay taxes too.

          4) It is flat out racist to assert that politicians advocating for their black constituents is akin to buying the black vote with other people’s money (see item 3 above).

          5) My initial response was never directed at you. I thought your response was thoughtful and helpful.

          • TooManyTaxes

            Trying or succeeding to deliver benefits to constituents based on race is both unconstitutional as well as racist.

            There is certainly nothing wrong for the senator and delegate who represents Petersburg, VA to work to bring state money or programs to that district with full knowledge that the district is heavily populated with African Americans who would benefit from those results. But when done this way, other constituents who are not African American would also benefit. Whites, Native Americans, Asians who also live in Petersburg would benefit as well. For example, assume the Petersburg City Schools are given a state grant to upgrade the water system. Every student and teacher in Petersburg regardless of race would benefit. Similarly, every taxpayer in Petersburg would benefit by not having to pay local taxes to fund the full cost of upgrading the school water system.

            But it is certainly wrong, racist and unconstitutional to limit benefits to only those Petersburg residents who are black just like it would be wrong, racist and unconstitutional to bring state money or programs to Alexandria but limit their receipt to only whites, or Hispanics, or those born in China.

  9. “It is flat out racist to assert that politicians advocating for their black constituents is akin to buying the black vote with other people’s money (see item 3 above).”

    Surely, you are kidding.

  10. Someone better warn the RRHA that policing their housing is potentially racist. https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/transformation-time/Content?oid=14615382
    So in the world of determining what is racist does the white professor trump the black head of RRHA or the black police chief?

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