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Big drop in African-American arrests in St. Louis over last 15 years, UMSL study shows

St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden (right) listens on October 11, 2018 along with public safety director Jimmie Edwards and Mayor Lyda Krewson as researchers outline their findings on enforcement rates in St. Louis.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden (right) listens Thursday along with public safety director Jimmie Edwards and Mayor Lyda Krewson as researchers outline their findings on enforcement rates in St. Louis.

The number of African-Americans arrested or facing a summons in St. Louis for all types of crime dropped significantly between 2002 and 2017, according to research released Thursday by criminologists at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

The data show that about 11,300 black individuals faced some kind of enforcement action in 2017, compared to about 38,000 in 2002. Enforcement is defined as an arrest for a felony, misdemeanor, municipal offense or because the person has a bench warrant, or being issued a criminal summons

Blacks were still more likely than whites to face enforcement actions, but the gap between the races narrowed significantly. In 2002, black people were 4.5 times more likely to be arrested or given tickets. That was down to 2.4 times more likely in 2017. The enforcement rate for whites dropped 29 percent, compared to a 63-percent drop for blacks.

The overall drop in enforcement mirrored a downward trend in crime overall in the city over that period, although violent crime, especially homicides, has gone up in the past four years.

UMSL associate professor Lee Slocum, the lead researcher on the report, was quick to note that the study was not meant to draw any conclusions about the cause of the decline. St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden also said he would need to study the data more.

“I really want to get to some of the causal relationships with respect to the numbers that we see so that we can affect policy,” Hayden said. “We’re very much interested in making sure that we’re policing fairly and equitably across the city, and these numbers are the first step in trying to make that connection.”

Slocum and other researchers at UMSL next plan to look at how enforcement varies by neighborhood in the city, and how enforcement and crime trends interact.

“We think this kind of analysis can provide information that the police and community can use to have discussions about what enforcement should look like in their neighborhoods,” she said.

David Dwight IV, who handles strategy and partnerships with Forward Through Ferguson, said he was also looking forward to the neighborhood-level numbers. But he said he was disappointed that the report only looked at arrests and summons, not other contacts with police.

“I was thinking about those huge declines in arrests, and just thinking that might not ring true with a lot of black people’s experiences of policing in the region,” he said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t always end up in an arrest. It might end up in a citation or other kinds of overpolicing of black communities. Arrests are an important part, but don’t show all the disparities in policing.”

National data released on Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that the number of people who had contact with police like a street stop or to report a crime in a 12-month period dropped between 2011 and 2015. Whites had more contact with police, but were also more likely to initiate that contact than blacks.

READ: Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2015

Other highlights

In addition to the overall decline in enforcement, Slocum and her team found:

  • The overall decrease in enforcement was propelled by a large drop in misdemeanor arrests (76 percent) and arrests for bench warrants (68 percent).
  • Enforcement against 17- to 20-year-olds plummeted between 2002 and 2017. “Seventeen to 20-year-olds began the study period with the highest combined enforcement rate and were well above the rate for the total population, but by 2017, this group had an enforcement rate that was lower than that of all other age groups, with the exception of the 35 and older age group,” the report says.
  • Felony arrests of whites went up 25 percent over the 15-year period. Although the study did not look at causes, Slocum said it “seems reasonable” that the opioid addiction crisis drove the increase.
  • Other cities that did similar research also saw overall drops in enforcement, Slocum said, but not the drastic decreases in bench warrant and misdemeanor arrests. In New York City, she said, misdemeanor enforcement rates actually went up over the 15-year stretch.

The St. Louis study was conducted as a result of the city’s participation in the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice.


Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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