As protesters clash with police across the country, they are venting not only their rage about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but more broadly their frustration with decades of racial inequality in the American criminal justice system.
These inequalities persisted during the coronavirus outbreak, a new Marshall Project analysis of arrest data found. Even as crime rates fell while much of the country was ordered to shelter in place, arrest data from five U.S. cities suggests racial disparities worsened in March and April. Across these cities, arrests of white people dropped 17 percent more than arrests of black people and 21 percent more than Hispanic people.
In March, the New York City Police Department made about 13,000 arrests, a 30-percent drop from the same month a year before. While most people in the city were confined to their homes, the changes in arrest practices did not affect residents of all races equally. White people experienced the largest decreases in arrests, whereas arrests of black and Hispanic people dropped at a much slower rate.
New York is not an outlier. The Marshall Project’s analysis found that arrests in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Tucson, Arizona, reflected similar patterns.
As the total number of arrests plummeted through March and April, they didn't drop equally across the board. Arrests of white people decreased far more than the arrests of black and Hispanic people. Though they were much fewer to begin with, arrests of Asians, Native Americans and people of other backgrounds declined faster than arrests of white people.
These disparities in arrests took place during the same time period when some police departments came under fire for how they enforce social distancing orders. In New York City, more than 80 percent of people arrested for violating those orders were black. In major cities across Ohio, black residents were more than four times as likely to be charged with violating stay-at-home orders than their white peers.
In Los Angeles, New York and Tucson, three cities that break down arrests by the severity of the alleged offense, The Marshall Project found that with each racial and ethnic group, misdemeanor arrests plummeted during the early weeks of the pandemic, while felony arrests, for the most severe crimes, declined slightly.
For example, from February to March, the Los Angeles Police Department made 1,000 fewer arrests for misdemeanor charges, such as driving under the influence or traffic violations. Meanwhile, arrests for felony charges, like aggravated assault and rape, dropped by 100.
While public defenders and advocates argue that the inequality in arrests during COVID-19 exhibits some long-existing patterns in law enforcement—black and brown communities are far more heavily policed than affluent white communities—police departments say what’s driving the numbers is more complicated.
Michael Silva, an assistant chief at the Tucson Police Department, said while he is not certain why there was a disparity in arrests during COVID-19, he doesn’t believe bias is the answer in his city. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Silva said his department decided to cut down on police-initiated arrests, such as traffic stops and stop and frisks, to minimize officers’ contact with the public and possible roles in spreading the coronavirus.
“A police officer who has unknowingly contracted the virus could potentially expose others in the homes or businesses he or she visits,” Silva said. “For this and other reasons, our department transitioned to an environment where we are primarily responding to calls for service from the public. Officer-initiated events have reduced by a considerable margin.”
That means in those two months, the vast majority of arrests Tucson police made were in response to 911 calls, Silva said. Based on the department’s analysis of internal police data, police-initiated arrests dropped by 20 percent, while arrests initiated by calls from the public dropped by 8 percent. The police were making fewer arrests of their own initiative, Silva said, and thus there were fewer opportunities for bias to influence their decision-making.
Police departments in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh did not reply to inquiries regarding the disparities in arrests, and Baltimore police did not comment. The New York Police Department responded with a statement that Chief Dermot Shea made at a coronavirus press conference last month, following controversies about the department’s social distancing enforcements.
“We also have to recognize that police officers are human. They are you and they make mistakes, they're not infallible. So, that's the backdrop,” Shea said on May 13. “But I will push back strongly on any notion that this is business as usual for the NYPD or that this is ‘racist police’ … Our record over the last six-and-a-half years is there for anyone to see in how we police this city with the lightest possible touch.”
One factor that may influence the disparity of arrests is who was still on the street during quarantines and curfews. In New York City, while affluent white neighborhoods were emptying out as residents escaped the city, a recent report published by the comptroller showed that more than 70 percent of the city’s frontline workers are black, Hispanic or Asian.
Dawit Getachew, a public defender at the Bronx Defenders in New York, says he’s seen the racial disparity in arrests before and after the pandemic, because he represents clients from a South Bronx neighborhood that is primarily home to black and Hispanic residents.
While Getachew said he is not surprised to learn about the widening gap between arrests of whites and people of color, he said it is a disheartening extension of historically heavy policing in black and brown neighborhoods.
“The discretionary nature of quality-of-life policing can create opportunities for law enforcement to insert their existing bias,” Getachew said.
Essential workers—clerks at grocery stores, public transit workers and healthcare workers—are also people who have to leave their homes and go to work during the pandemic, which means they have more chances to be stopped, questioned and frisked by the police, said Alice Fontier, the managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem in New York City.
“If you see a white man in the mask, most people would think they are responsible and respecting social distancing,” Fontier said. “Black men in masks are not viewed in the same way. In some communities, people have higher risks of being arrested just by being outside and being around the police.”