Police officers make more than a million arrests per year in California. Arrests to enforce laws and protect public safety can have wide-ranging consequences for individuals and communities, and there have long been concerns about racial disparities. But little is known about the factors that contribute to arrest trends across the state. At a recent event in Sacramento, PPIC researcher Brandon Martin outlined major findings from a new report on arrests, and a panel of experts offered state and local perspectives.
Martin pointed out that arrest rates have fallen significantly over the past few decades, largely in tandem with declining crime rates. He also noted that arrest rates are higher in relatively poor counties, while racial disparities are largest in more affluent counties. These and other findings add up to a broad view of arrests that can inform efforts to reduce overall rates and racial disparities.
Shirley Weber, who represents California’s 79th Assembly District, said that the racial disparity findings are not new to the African American community. She noted that African Americans who commit offenses are “more likely to be arrested and incarcerated . . . rather than just being picked up and talked to,” and that confrontations that lead to uses of force are also more likely. These disparities have significant effects on employment and family stability, among other things.
Edgar Boyd, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, emphasized the need for police and communities to reduce disparities: “When you look at . . . the conflict that exists between communities and law enforcement across the state, you’ll find that there’s a possibility of less negative impact, if it’s worked on.” Tod Sockman, chief of police for the city of Galt, agreed: “Law enforcement spends a lot of time doing community outreach. I think that’s key to everything we’re doing.”
The panelists also agreed that while local efforts are critical, the state has an important role to play in monitoring disparities. Weber—who championed Assembly Bill (AB) 392, a measure that sets statewide standards for police use of force—said that it would be irresponsible for state lawmakers to view criminal justice challenges as local matters. After AB 392 passed, a number of police officers told her that they were pleased because “they had ideas of working to de-escalate . . . and now this bill says we gotta do it, and so they can blame it on me. And that’s OK! Because sometimes there are things at the local level that prevent you from moving in a direction.”
Recent criminal justice reforms have led to further reductions in arrest rates, seemingly without a major impact on public safety. But there is still room for improvement. Sockman pointed to increases in theft and the continuing challenge of addressing addiction and mental illness, and Weber noted the difficulty of changing course after decades of reliance on incarceration.
Boyd, who serves on the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board, made the case for ongoing dialogue: “Our work on this, our dialogue together . . . is all important. Every one of us has a role and a responsibility in that.”