DC police disproportionately target black people for minor violations: study

Black residents in the District are disproportionately arrested for minor violations, despite making up less than half of the population, according to a study by two watchdog groups.

Black people make up 47% of D.C.’s population but accounted for 86% of all arrests in the District — ten times the arrest rate of white residents, according to a study by D.C.’s ACLU office and the advocacy group, Open the Government.

D.C. police arrest data from 2013 to 2017 shows that more than 16,000 people were arrested for low-level crimes such as driving without a permit, possessions of an open container of alcohol, public marijuana consumption, gambling and noise complaints. The data covers the entire District — not just high crime areas.

While only 34% of the District’s black commuters travel by vehicle, 78% of all people arrested for driving without a permit were black. according to the data. The disparities in arrests and traffic stops are likely a result of discriminatory decisions being made by officers, the study suggests.

D.C. police only recently began tracking the race of the individuals its officers stop as required under the 2016 Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, or the NEAR Act.

“MPD waited more than two years before taking any steps to comply with that statute,” said the study.

It was in response to a lawsuit from ACLU-DC that D.C. police began “attempting to put the NEAR Act into effect … Thus, almost three years after the NEAR Act was enacted, MPD continues to thwart inquiries into why it arrests so many Black people for offenses like driving without a permit.”

Additionally, 80% of people arrested for having an open container of alcohol were black; the percentage of black arrestees for public consumption of marijuana reached 80% through the five-year period. Out of the 667 people arrested for gambling, 99% of them were black; from the 412 people arrested for noise complaints, 76% of them were black, the study showed.

Kevin Donahue, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, said D.C. is addressing some issues, such as directing officers to issue citations instead of arrests for more crimes.

The study also calls on Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has supported more police funding, to instead support more transparency within the police department. The two advocacy groups also say a repeal of criminal statutes that disproportionately target people in poverty are necessary to address racial disparities.

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

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