City on a Hill: The brutal truth about D.C.’s finest

September 25, 2014

Watching the riots unfold in Ferguson while sitting on my couch back home in Jackson, Miss., during the 50th anniversary of the South’s Freedom Summer movement for racial equality no less, was enough to make me seriously wonder whether I was watching a broadcast from the 1960’s. The cruel murder of a black teenager by a policeman, a supposedly upstanding citizen, unfortunately harkened back to the days of law enforcement’s unchecked corruption, and brutality against minority citizens.

In the weeks following the ordeal, America once more turned a reflective eye on the reality of police misconduct and the abuse of power. The violence against Michael Brown, a young man bound for college, is a stark reminder of just how important it is for college students to be aware of their environment. Georgetown students know all too well the frequency with which “Public Alert” emails students fill their inboxes, but there isn’t much of a comprehensive discussion on the nature of crime within the city.

A closer look into the details will reveal that D.C., the nation’s political and judicial center, is actually far from having a perfect system of law enforcement. D.C. certainly is not still in Jim Crow-era class structure, however, data shows that the city’s police still seem to operate under a racial bias. Over the years, there has been a disproportionate number of arrests involving police misconduct in cases concerning minority group citizens.

Eight out of 10 people arrested in the city for “disorderly conduct” are either Hispanic or African American, according to a 2013 report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on racial disparities and crime rates. What’s even more telling, however, is that eight out of 10 arrests listed under “other assault”—a general category that contains the “least serious assaultive” behavior noticeable to law enforcement—were African American, according to the same report. While the majority do not lead to confinement or probation, it’s important to remember that an arrest record can be detrimental to an individual’s ability to find a job, hold public office, and other opportunities.

One might find it reasonable that in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 where the majority of the population is African American, that they would be involved in a greater number of arrests. The report found, however, that even in wards where there are fewer African Americans, the group still accounted for the majority of arrests. In Ward 2, for instance, blacks account for only 12.6 percent of the population, but just under half of total arrests.

Let’s look more closely at a specific case, one that has actually caused significant concern this past year in the debate on the decriminalization of marijuana. From 2009 to 2011, African Americans accounted for 91 percent of all drug-related arrests and nine out of 10 simple possession charges—a trend that appears to be somewhat suspiciously skewed.

While most of the wards with higher percentages of blacks reported a higher number of drug-related arrests, Ward 3, with a population that is 78 percent white, only reported 27 total drug-related arrests in 2011. Not to mention the fact that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the national rate of drug use among both black and white communities in the United States fell around 15 percent of the population. What’s more, the survey found that drug use rates in Ward 3 were about the same as all other wards.

Now, as police set a precedent in Ferguson by arming themselves with military-grade weapons, should students become overly paranoid because of the statistics? While I don’t think anyone needs to start looking over their shoulder, the information above is certainly cause for some alarm. And, given that D.C.’s transparency index for reporting misconduct charges is the worst in the nation, it’s difficult to know for sure just how effectively cases of police brutality are handled.
Yet, there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. As early as Oct. 1, some police officers may be donning body cameras that will record their interactions with the public as part of a pilot program—and it will be interesting to see whether this sort of constant vigilance will have an affect on those arrest statistics. Just as a student should call the police when his safety is in danger, a student that finds himself or any other person being harassed or wrongfully addressed by law enforcement absolutely needs to report it. Events occurring in Ferguson, and throughout the country, point to why it’s so important to not let history repeat itself.


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