Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
As U.S. arrest rates fall, suburban areas are getting a growing share of policing attention, according to a new data tool from the Vera Institute of Justice.
Every three seconds, someone gets arrested in the United States. Most of these arrests are for low-level drug-related offenses and misdemeanors, and many reflect the persistent racial bias in policing that’s been a focus of so much recent effort to reform the criminal-justice system. The bulk of this vast pool of more than 10 million arrests—78 percent—occur in metropolitan areas. But perhaps surprisingly, within that geography, it’s suburban areas, not urban centers, that have the highest arrest rates.
That’s according to a new report and interactive tool by the Vera Institute of Justice that shows arrest trends by geography and demographic groups since the 1980s. “In terms of policing, there really hasn’t been, as far as we can tell, a whole lot of effort focused geographically at suburban policing and how that impacts enforcement nationally,” said Rebecca Neusteter, the policing program director at the Vera Institute of Justice. “By simply focusing on that city, we’re missing the mark.”
Vera’s tool lets users adjust the levers of an interactive graph to display the annual nationwide arrests by offense type for any period between 1980 and 2016. (Data note: The “reported” arrest data comes from an FBI database that pools voluntary reports from law enforcement agencies, and may have missing data. To avoid the undercount issues, the FBI also puts out estimates for this data, which can be seen by selecting the “estimated” option.)
Nationally, this is what that graph looks like for the entire 36-year span. Overall, the number of arrests has been dropping since 2006, and is now just slightly higher than it was in the early 1980s.
And below is the graph showing the rate of arrests (the number of arrests per 100,000 residents) during the same period. This measure gives a sense of arrest trends relative to changing population over time, and it reveals how the rate has fallen greatly since 1980.
“There has been a decrease in the arrests as you can see which is a really good thing,” Neusteter said, “We want to make sure that there is a continued focus in this area because we could very easily find ourselves in a situation where our arrest volumes and rates were more similar to what they were in the past.”
Violent crime makes up a very small fraction of these arrests—in 2016, only around 5 percent. And so while the three-decade-long War on Drugs may be fading as more states and cities decriminalize cannabis use, the type of low-level drug enforcement approach it institutionalized still persists. Drug arrests (in the graph below)—overwhelmingly for weed-related offenses—increased by around 171 percent in this time period. “More people end up being involved in the criminal justice system and being arrested as a result,” Neusteter said, “as opposed to more preventative problem solving mechanisms.”
So who is getting arrested? While African Americans only make up 12 percent of the population, they make 28 percent of the arrests in 2016. The volume of arrests for this group rose 23 percent between 1980 and 2014, despite the conversation about discriminatory policing and criminal justice reform. African Americans remain twice as likely to get arrested on a “drug abuse” violations, even though they have the same rate of drug use as their white counterparts.
Another striking demographic finding: Arrests of women have increased by 83 percent in this time period, whereas that of men has seen a 7 percent decrease. That lines up with previous research out of Vera showing the steep growth in incarcerated women, who are often being being jailed for crimes of poverty (like shoplifting or other petty theft) or those related to drug addiction. In Washington, D.C., a recent study found that the criminalization of women—particularly black women—starts young: teenage black girls are arrested at 30 times the rate of white boys and girls together, again, for crimes of poverty and for acting out in response to trauma at home.
“Girls of color are dealing with challenges posed by racism but they’re also suffering as a result of adversity due to sexism,” Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls, who co-authored the D.C. report, told CityLab in 2018.
Vera’s tool also breaks these trends down by geography—letting users explore the rate and number of arrests by region, state, and county. In sheer volume of estimated arrests in 2014 (the last year for which the data are available) the populous states of California and Texas top the list.
When you toggle the rate of arrest, though, the picture is quite different: Wyoming, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Mississippi have the highest rates (in map below). That raises an interesting question for Neusteter: Even though California’s rate of arrests—its volume relative to the population—is low, shouldn’t it still be concerning that such a large absolute number of people in the state are being targeted for low-level crimes?
The high arrest rates in rural states like Wyoming line up well with a previous report out of Vera showing the rise in prison populations in smaller, rural counties—even though crime rates have fallen across the board.
Here’s a look at that arrest rate by county in the same year:
According to Vera’s analysis, suburban cities with populations over 50,000 residents had the highest average arrest rates (4,604 per 100,000) in 2016—higher than what the FBI characterizes as cities outside their surrounding metro areas with populations over 50,000 (4,090 per 100,000). One factor driving suburban arrests up could be greater automobile use, given previous research showing how black motorists face elevated odds of being pulled over and searched by police. The trend may also be driven by the growing economic and racial diversity in suburban areas, which could be eliciting a harsher policing response from the police and local governments. This particular dataset does not provide specific answers—but the experts at Vera point to a litany of recent news reports to point out that the reaction to changing demographics may certainly be a factor.
In 2017, BuzzFeed News examined a pattern of arrests in several small suburban towns that used to be white but had seen demographic shifts in recent years. In Troy, New York, officers arrested seven black resident on flimsy grounds over six years—and later acquitted by the courts. Many sued the city for the excessively forceful way they were treated. “It’s white protectionism,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida, now a law professor at the University of South Carolina, in BuzzFeed. “When that element of otherness invades our community, it’s very easy to react as if we are being threatened, and to be fearful. And we react by calling the police.”
Several other cases of problematic suburban arrests have come to light in recent years. In Biscayne Park, a suburb of Miami, the town’s police chief explicitly told officers to arrest black residents to make “the department look good.” In Evanston, Illinois, police tackled a black man on suspicion of car theft, then had to pay out a hefty sum in settlement when it turned out the car was his own. And famously, in the suburbs of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Ferguson, Missouri, interactions with the police led to the deaths of Philando Castille and Michael Brown.
While TV shows like Law and Order or Cops portray arrests as sensational actions involving perpetrators of egregious crimes, in reality, they can be traumatizing events that trigger a spiral of criminalization, especially for those wrongly targeted. More arrests doesn’t necessarily mean safer streets, Neusteter argues. A recent investigation by BuzzFeed News and The Trace found that law enforcement’s rate of solving gun-related crimes has dropped across the board—and is especially low if the victims are people of color. This is a wider problem: Per Vera’s analysis, only 25 percent of the crimes known to law enforcement in 2016 were actually solved.
“American policing today is totally overly reliant on enforcement and that is causing two of our nation’s most pressing problems,” she said. “First, mass incarceration. The second key issue is tensions between police and community—particularly communities of color who oftentimes feel both simultaneously under- and over-policed.”