Race and Policing

Racially biased policing takes many different forms, from elevated police presences in the neighborhoods of marginalized communities, to disproportionate street and vehicle stops and searches, to use of force, to outright expressions of racism within some police departments.

Racial Disparities   Race and Policing Resources   Additional Resources on Race and the Criminal Justice System

A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on interactions between police and the public found that Black residents were more likely to be stopped by police than white or Hispanic residents, that Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to have multiple contacts with police than white residents, and that when police initiated an interaction, they were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black and Hispanic residents than against white residents. According to a report from the Sentencing Project, Black Americans comprised 27% of all individuals arrested in America in 2016, about twice their proportion of the total population. Further, Black youth made up 35% of juvenile arrests in 2016, despite only accounting for 15% of the total youth population in the U.S. The authors argue that main drivers of these disparities include disproportionate levels of police contact with Black Americans, residential segregation and concentrated urban poverty, continuing Broken Windows Policies in many cities, and revenue-driven policing.

Local-level data provides more insight into policing across the country. A study of traffic stops in San Diego between 2014 and 2015 found that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than white drivers to be searched following a traffic stop, even though white drivers were more likely to be found with contraband. Similarly, in 2016 a Chicago Police Accountability Task Force found that Black and Latino drivers were searched by police four times as often as white drivers, even though police found contraband on white drivers twice as often (Vera Institute, 2018).

Police use of force data is limited, as most precincts don’t explicitly collect data on use of force, but existing data suggests that African Americans are subject to both non-lethal and lethal use of force at disproportionate rates. A Propublica report published in 2014 found that young black men in recent years were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than were white young men. Even in situations where officers make no arrest and report compliance, Black people are 21.2 percent more likely to experience some form of force (Fryer, 2017).

In some police departments, police officers report explicit racism from their superiors. In Brooklyn, multiple officers say that their commander instructed them to focus their enforcement on Black and Latino people, and to leave the “soft targets”—white and Asian people—alone. An investigation into the Austin Police Department found evidence of bigotry, racist language, and clear policy violations, bolstered by a culture of retaliation that stifles any effort to make the department better and to address officer misconduct. Some expressions of racism are less explicit. A 2013 study found that police officers with higher implicit dehumanization scores were more likely to use force against black children than against white children. Officers who use unnecessary force often employ dehumanizing portrayals of the victim to justify force under the prominent “reasonable belief” approach (Salky, Schuman, & Stanford, 2015).

Heavy policing as a response to crises, from drug epidemics to viral pandemics, disproportionately subjects people of color to arrest and further involvement in the criminal justice system. In May 2020, NACDL’s Board of Directors unanimously adopted a Supplemental Statement of Principles warning against overcriminalization during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Such criminalization, as in the balance of America’s criminal justice system, will be borne disproportionately by people of color and other socially and economically disadvantaged and stigmatized communities, and this is unacceptable. Indeed, in recent weeks, we have witnessed disparate treatment by law enforcement authorities as well as pronouncements by elected political officials adversely impacting groups including African Americans, Asian Americans, Hasidic Jewish Americans, and Hispanic Americans, among others.”


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