California Data Shows Racial Disparity In Arrests, In-custody Deaths

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Just 6 percent of Californians are African American, yet they are involved in 17 percent of all arrests in the state and a quarter of in-custody deaths, according to what officials called a nationally unprecedented release of data on Wednesday.

The data paints a clearer picture of the racial disparity in arrests and deaths across California and comes as a number of high-profile, police-involved deaths of young black men has ignited a national debate on police practices.

In addition to being arrested and dying in disproportionate numbers, black juvenile males who are arrested are booked into jail at a 25 percent higher rate than whites, according to the data, released by the California Department of Justice on a searchable, state-run website.

The site, called OpenJustice, says it aims to help the state’s Justice Department “understand how we are doing, hold ourselves accountable and improve public policy to make California safer.”

The data amounts to a kind of call to action, say the people who compiled it, and follows research saying half of all black people in the United States, including roughly 60 percent of black men, say they have been treated poorly by law enforcement due to their race.

“It’s very stark and we really have to have a dialogue about why so many African- Americans are dying compared to the state population,” said Justin Erlich, a special assistant attorney general who’s overseeing the data collection and analysis.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris cited the deaths of young black men at the hands of police in California,Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Texas and South Carolina, saying that data needs to be part of the conversation surrounding those deaths.

“What are the numbers?” she said. “What are the facts that we know that we can actually quantify, that can help influence public policy around how we can improve these numbers and improve the situation?”

The database is the culmination of months of work aimed at improving transparency and government accountability. More data will be released over the next few months, including breakdowns by municipality.

“Just like a start-up, OpenJustice is starting small and scaling up. The next version of the Justice Dashboard will include metrics across the criminal justice system,” the website says.

There were 6,837 in-custody deaths between 2005 and 2014, or an average of about 685 annually, according to the data released. Of those, 61 percent were natural deaths, while the second-leading cause was homicides by law enforcement, at 14 percent. Suicides accounted for 10 percent.

The data released Wednesday also includes the number of police officers who died in the line of duty: 345 between 1980 and 2014, or 10 annually. Of those, 187 were a direct result of a criminal act, while the rest were considered accidental.

Missing in the data are reports of non-fatal use-of-force incidents. Harris said she is supporting a state Assembly bill that would require law enforcement to report those incidents to the state. That data also would be made available online, Harris said.

California appears to be the first state to try to democratize such data and easily provide it to the public, said Jim Bueermann, who heads the nonprofit Police Foundation.

“There may be some bumps in the short run, but in the long run, it will strengthen the relationships between the police and communities they’re paid to protect,” said Bueermann, a former Redlands police chief.

The foundation, which aims to improve police practices, has been outspoken about the need for standardized compulsory data reports from law enforcement across the country.

The California Department of Justice partnered with professors at the University of California at Berkeley to analyze the data and is reaching out to other schools, as well.

Officials say they don’t know of any other state department in the country with a similar effort and hope that their actions will inspire other states to follow suit.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck acknowledged the racial disparities reflected in the numbers and said the data will help address the problem.

“Out of crisis comes opportunity,” he said. “We have a national crisis in policing. It’s also a huge opportunity to take a step forward and build trust where sometimes in some communities it has been lost.”

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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