Today I read an article posted in the Sunday, July 12, 2020, edition of The Valdosta Daily Times under the section “Their Point of View.” The article was titled “VPD Arrests, Force Reveal Differences” by Valdosta State University Professor Tom Hochschild.
The article apparently attempted to analyze (or review if you wish) data obtained by the professor under an open records act he made with the VPD. The data focused on all arrests, citations and response to resistance (use of force) rates by that department.
In his article I do agree with the professor when he indicates or suggests that socio-economic issues affect crime. However, one needs to be extremely cautious when using data without understanding the field from which the data originates and then leaving it incomplete for assumptions.
I also have concerns with a section of the article where the professor states “Nationwide research shows that patrolling particular neighborhoods more often typically result in higher crime rates in these neighborhoods” and where that data or quote originated. In either case, the concern I have is the theme of the article could easily be misconstrued to suggest the Valdosta Police Department has and are engaged in some type of biased-based enforcement against minorities from 2016 through 2020.
Again, the problem with the article is when looking at data, you must understand the source of the data (in any career field or organization) and the external factors which affect the operation of the source. For example, let’s look at the data numbers provided by the professor and then examine the source and external factors:
1. Valdosta Demographics: 51.9% black, 42.4% white and 5.2% Hispanic.
2. Arrests & Response to Resistance: The article indicates from January 2016 to June 2020, Valdosta Police arrest demographics were 77.5% black and 19.4% white. The article states there is a 25.6% overrepresentation of blacks while there was a 23% underrepresentation of whites.
Looking at these numbers, the average lay person may develop an assumption, opinion or reaction that the Valdosta Police Department is targeting blacks at a rate of 25% more than whites. But not so fast.
Where the article fails is understanding what causes crime, the source of the data (in this case the Valdosta Police Department) and external factors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33% of Valdosta is in poverty. This number is significantly higher than the national average (25%) and blacks are almost twice as likely to be in poverty than whites in Valdosta.
The next thing people seem to have a lack of understanding on is what causes crime. There are many factors which affect crime rates but the major cause of crime is poverty.
The next thing you must understand is the source of the data and in this case, Valdosta Police. I know from experience that Valdosta police officers (and in most medium to large cities in the United States) respond “call-to-call” to reports of crimes and do so in those areas where the calls demand they respond.
In Valdosta, if we all can agree (and data supports this) that poverty is one of the main root causes of crime, a reasonable person would understand that in Valdosta Police’s case, they will probably be in the impoverished areas more because that is where the crimes will be occurring.
Additionally, one can expect they will arrest and use force making those arrests more in these areas which can skew their arrest/use of force demographics numbers.
To be clear, one thing which does not cause crime is race and I think the professor and I both will agree on that.
One of my favorite things to do when assessing law enforcement agencies across the United States is to participate in a ride-along with a patrol officer. When doing so, I always ask the officer to take me to their “troubled or hot” areas where crime is an issue. What I routinely see is these crime areas (and every city has them) is either majority white, majority black, or a mix.
But the point here is law enforcement will always respond to crime because they have no choice but to do so, regardless of race. And when they do respond to these calls which monopolize the vast majority of their time (especially in medium and large cities), who they arrest and use force on will generally be in those areas.
3. Citations: The article indicates from January 2016 to June 2020, Valdosta Police citations by demographics were 54.7% black and 38.9% white. When you understand law enforcement, anyone in the profession will certainly agree one of the ways to determine if a law enforcement agency is targeting a particular group is to look at traffic citations.
But why is this? Because traffic citations are generally considered proactive law enforcement (versus calls for service which are reactive) and therefore, are initiated by the officers themselves. But even in the Valdosta Police data, the article indicates a 2-3% overrepresentation/underrepresentation based on blacks/whites. In the world of crime and data analysis which I am trained on, those numbers are clearly “consistent” with the city’s demographics.
So what can we take out of this article and pure data from any law enforcement agency (or for that matter, any organization)? We need to be careful because anyone can make data sound any way they want.
But before we put data out there, we owe it to the source of the data and our community to examine all aspects to include the data itself, the source and the external factors or environment. Doing it any other way leaves it open to suggestion which often is not based on facts and the real world.
Brian K. Childress of Valdosta is the retired chief of police of the Valdosta Police Department and works with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.