New Report Reveals Racial Disparities in Police Arrests in DC

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of DC released a report earlier this week that found grave racial disparities in DC policing from 2013 to 2017. The report revealed trends similar to those found nationwide, which see Black people disproportionately arrested for minor offenses in the city.

The ACLU of DC report, which looked at arrest data from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for the years 2013 to 2017, found that Black people accounted for 47 percent of Washington DC’s population, but 86 percent of its arrestees. During that time, Black people were arrested at a rate 10 times higher than white people.

According to the ACLU, Black people were not just arrested at higher rates in predominantly Black neighborhoods but all over DC. Michael Perloff, the Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund Fellow at the ACLU of DC, told The North Star that the data was fairly consistent in showing the disproportionate arrest rates.

For example, Perloff noted that Tenleytown, a historic DC neighborhood, is predominantly white with nearly 75 percent of the population identifying as white, and where about 5 percent of the population is Black. Despite the gap, Perloff said that Black residents made up 61 percent of those arrested in Tenleytown. Perloff told The North Star that while there needs to be more data to prove racial bias, it does bring up questions about whether or not MPD officers are racially profiling.

The report also found that a staggering number of Black people were arrested for relatively minor offenses. An overwhelming majority of people arrested for driving without a permit in DC were Black. Of 10,305 arrests, 78 percent of arrestees were Black. Those percentage rates are even higher for other minor offenses, such as possession of an open container of alcohol (80 percent), public marijuana consumption (80 percent), and gambling (99 percent). In its report, the ACLU of DC noted that arresting people for these minor offenses is often unnecessary and can be avoided with a citation. Perloff wondered why Metropolitan Police feel the need to make arrests for these offenses instead of issuing citations, and whether poverty and race played a role.

“Given the high correlation between race and poverty in the District, arresting people for crimes that are disproportionately committed by people who are poor will result in more arrests of Black residents,” the report claimed.

Metropolitan Police did not respond to The North Star’s request for comment. “It is also disturbing that MPD has devoted considerable resources to making such arrests, particularly given that DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently asked the DC Council for an additional $3 million to MPD’s budget to hire more police officers,” the report stated, “even though the Department already has one of the largest police forces per capita in the nation, and already receives over $500 million in annual funding.”

Perloff said he believes that by moving toward citations, the police department could free up resources for other sorely needed areas. In a statement to The North Star, DC Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue said Bowser’s administration was committed to a comprehensive approach to public safety.

“Our residents deserve safe neighborhoods and a police department they can trust. We have invested heavily in resources like the nation’s most progressive body-worn camera program, increasing opportunities for our students and residents for a career with MPD, and providing officers with training on DC history and culture utilizing the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Donahue said.

Donahue added that the mayor’s administration has focused on addressing “long-standing inequities” by introducing bills to “reform the District’s criminal record sealing process, funding a study to re-establish local control over our parole board, and being transparent with crime and arrest data. The combination of these efforts allows us to get to the root causes of crime, while being accountable and transparent to our residents.”

Similar trends have been observed in cities around the country. A 2014 report by USA Today found that in at least 1,581 police departments across the US, arrest records show Black people were arrested at higher rates than other racial groups. Echoing the data from DC, USA Today found that in at least 70 departments, Black people were arrested at a rate 10 times higher than people who were not Black.

“District residents deserve a police force that serves them without bias,” the ACLU of DC said. “This report raises important questions about whether MPD is achieving this ideal.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.