Thursday, November 20, 2014

Putting Disparities In Perspective

By happenstance, I did something the month after I arrived in Durham, North Carolina to jumpstart its community marketing that I would recommend to any newly appointed DMO exec.

This exposure came back to me as I used an interactive map about arrests broken down by community, including comparisons of ethnicity of the suspects, which I will get to in a minute.

At a small gathering that summer of 1989, I was introduced to Charlie Tiffin, who had served as a Durham police officer for ten years.  We formed a connection and he asked me if I would like to ride along with him one night on patrol.

It not only gave me a clearer perspective of what Durham visitors who were out late in various districts would experience, but it gave me a close up of what it is like to be a police officer including moments of boredom punctuated with sudden bursts of adrenalin while converging to apprehend suspects.

Office Tiffin had just completed his bachelor’s degree from Guilford College after attending Durham Tech following his military service, and was about to start a masters program at Duke.

A few years after we met, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and took leave to study in England before earning a Ph.D., all related to policing, while he worked his way up the ranks before retiring to academia in 2005 after being passed over for Chief.

Our loss.  We’ve had some terrific police chiefs and he would have been among our best.

I always believed that contributing time - where possible - to help reduce crime and to put it into perspective was a part of my job in community destination marketing, a field of visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

In part, this was because crime coverage is such a dominant part of the news anywhere, but especially for communities heavily covered not only by local news media but those nearby, giving the misimpression of double the trouble when it is just twice the coverage.

But this is also because my philosophy of community marketing is that it must involve lowering barriers to perception as much as it does simple promotion, no amount of which can compensate otherwise.

Our involvement included playing a role in founding a Durham Crime Cabinet to detect and close gaps between agencies and resources throughout the judicial system.

This followed a model our organization had spearheaded to increase the volume of public communication made available by various agencies about the community including the Durham Police Department (DPD.)

We also began assembling and publishing crime data that compared communities in far more useful and accurate cohorts than the FBI has time to crunch, in part, to help the news media provide better context for local news stories.

As part of our work to track metrics related to the perceptions of both local stakeholders and external audiences, we also began including questions on annual surveys to measure community-wide residents’ perceptions of safety.

So it is with that background and interest that long after retirement I still find myself interested in reading studies about apparent racial bias in arrests and wishing that instead of just breaking ratios down by ethnicity that they could index to factors such as reduced criminal behavior and resident perceptions of safety.

But even in Durham, where those metrics exist, reports seem to fail to connect those dots.

Police officers are as human as the rest of us, especially when it comes to being engaged.  We all take far too much of our cues about police behavior from television and news headlines (not necessarily the full stories.)

Actually, with fewer and fewer resources for investigative reporting, I’m sure journalists feel like stories themselves have become more like headlines.

So Tuesday night, after returning home from a new production of Cinderella (I know I’m the authenticity guy but I’m also a good significant other and after all, the moral was “Ella” being herself) I was fascinated by an interactive map published by USA Today.

The headline read “Racial gap in U.S. arrest rates: ‘Staggering disparity’” but what caught my eye was the interactive map that permitted readers to drill down to look at state and community data.

Because I read only the Durham newspaper for local news, two things surprised me.

When you click on data for surrounding communities that are far less ethnically diverse, you see that they are roughly equally if not more disparate in the rate of arrestees who are black vs. non-black.USA Today Interactive Arrest Disparity

Raleigh, for example, has a ratio of 4.2 arrests of African-Americans for every one non-Black to Durham’s ratio of 5.

This is even though Raleigh has much smaller proportion of African-Americans which would have been useful to include in the index.  Cary, in the same metro as Raleigh, has an even lower proportion of African-Americans but arrests them at a ratio of 4.6 to 1.

Chapel Hill, which is in the Durham metro area also has a much smaller ratio of African-Americans, but arrests them at a ratio of 7.3 to 1.  Of course, people there who are ignorant to their own crime would probably dismiss this as arresting criminals who commute from Durham.

We’re rivals at more than just sports.  Of course, it took ten years for Chapel Hill residents to admit the tony Streets at Southpoint is in Durham, proving that this misperceptual rezoning is highly selective (smile.)

The fact is, we’ve been beating our police department up about this disparity for more than a year now but when news outlets as well as policing agencies fail to gather or share perspective, the stories and perceptions get skewed.

But the stats also tell another story.

Raleigh has an arrest rate per 1,000 residents for African-Americans more than 2 1/2 times greater than Durham’s (292.6 compared to 110.3).

Its rate for non-Black arrests is 3 times greater.  Stats for Greensboro, Winston-Salem and to a lesser extent, because it merges city and county statistics, Charlotte tell a similar story.

In a fair world, news outlets in these communities which don’t experience double news coverage might insinuate from this disparity that these communities must have more criminals if not more crime.

But what I see is that either Durham needs more police officers and the state needs to fund our fair share of magistrates, assistant DAs and judges or perhaps we as Durham residents also need to better balance our concerns for social justice with less ambivalence about enforcement.

See what you think but this further makes the case that in both official reports as well as news reporting about crime, local perspective is most important but should always placed in larger context.

While Durham must be ever vigilant about social justice and remain concerned about the disparity by race in arrests.  It must also take into concern data about resident perceptions of feeling safe.

While overall, 62.4% of residents feel personally safe, a positive-to-negative ratio of 3-to-1 and just above the average here for the past nine years, the percentage for Caucasians is higher, especially among Hispanics.

It may not be coincidence that the age cohort feeling least safe is the one that remains most likely to get information via a local newspaper or television station.

The perception of safety among Durham residents compared to those in other communities is high.  Across the nation, 64% of Americans believe there is more crime, including 41% who believe that is true in their local area.

But in Durham, the percentage of African-Americans feeling safe is nearly six percentage points lower than the average for Durham overall.

This may mean they don’t feel safe from the police but I suspect it means, that especially neighborhoods that are predominantly black may more frequently be the targets of criminals.

Addressing the needs of those neighborhoods may also be one of the reasons for the disparity in arrests.

Regardless, I suspect it is a whole lot more complicated than simple disparities.

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