Analysis: Black people make up nearly 21% of ordinance charges and arrests but about 2% of La Crosse’s population
This disproportionate rate has consistently grown over the last five years, causing concern among criminal justice leaders
LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)–The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers more than two months ago reinvigorated calls for change across the nation, especially when it comes to use of force. But police data shows this is only part of the issue.
Amid the protests, the La Crosse Police Department committed to transparency–launching a new part of its website to answer questions about its work. This included information about ordinance charges and arrests. It didn’t show demographic information, so News 8 Now requested it to see who was behind the numbers.
News 8 Now analyzed five years’ worth of this police data. In 2015, non-Hispanic Black people made up about 15 percent of the total, but account for around two percent of the city’s population. Since then, that disparity has consistently grown through 2019, when Black people made up nearly 21% of all ordinance charges and arrests.
“We would want to see arrest rates of 2.5 to 3 percent for proportionately,” said Lisa Kruse, an associate professor in the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at UW-La Crosse.
Kruse works with Nick Bakken in the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at UW-La Crosse. They’ve completed a similar analysis of disproportionate minority arrests when it comes to youth in the city.
“We’ve found significant disparities consistent in what you’re finding in your report,” Kruse said.
It’s not unique to our area. In 2016, Black people made up about 13% of the U.S. population but nearly 27 percent of all arrests, according to census data and the FBI. But Kruse said the local numbers are particularly concerning.
“La Crosse is particularly disproportionate. Much more disproportionate than the national average,” Kruse said.
In 2018, an outside organization reviewed the data. It found in Wisconsin, Black people were nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested. In La Crosse County, they’re more than eight times more likely.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE RATES
So what’s leading to the rates? Could it be a few people skewing the numbers?
“We were asked the same question with the youth data,” Kruse said.
The answer is no.
“Particularly as you’re looking at [almost] 50,000 points of data, it would be a hard sell to say that there are a few individuals who are shaping and molding those numbers,” Kruse said.
News 8 Now looked at the distinct individuals, disregarding how many times they were involved with the law during the year. It shows that black individuals were disproportionately charged and arrested to their portion of the local population.
So what’s driving the disparity? If you ask Cecil Adams, he can think of a few reasons.
“Those numbers reflect the attitude of society,” said Adams, CEO and founder of the African American Mutual Assistance Network. He has also been involved in a county task force to look at juvenile arrests and disproportionate minority contacts.
He would know, it happened to him. Adams said in the early 2000’s, he delivered newspapers in the Lewiston area. He was sitting in his car outside a KwikTrip, waiting for the papers to arrive when an employee came out to his car.
“[She said] we got over 11 calls about you sitting out here in the car and the police were called,” Adams said.
When authorities arrived, Adams said the manager returned to help.
“What if anything other than her coming out when she did… I don’t know. I don’t know. It was scary,” Adams said.
So how did it deescalate?
“I call it rules of engagement,” Adams said.
Adams said he rolled down the window and put his hands on the wheel. He believes both law enforcement and the people they serve need to understand how to interact with each other.
“That’s life and people have to realize that and understand that it’s a two-way street,” Adams said.
The other part is helping law enforcement understand bias– conscious or not. He said his organization is working on potential trainings for law enforcement, which would cover some of these issues.
“That unconscious bias when they see a minority, particularly an African American, then all that unconscious bias kicks into effect so you have a different interaction,” said Adams.
It’s impossible to say if this plays a factor in any of these decisions to arrest or charge someone without looking at the specific facts of each case.
“The numbers themselves are always tough to just look at in a vacuum and just say, gee, these are numbers that indicate one thing or another,” said Capt. Jason Melby of the La Crosse Police Department.
WAYS TO ADDRESS THE DISPROPORTIONATE RATES
In the last several years, the police department has reviewed its enforcement and charging referral data to look at age, sex, race and ethnicity trends. And it’s been involved with groups like the county’s Criminal Justice Management Council, which brings together many parts of the criminal justice system, to assess what it means.
“Anything we can do to look at our practices, review how we do business as a police department and how the criminal justice system does business and can improve it, we’re willing to look at that,” said Melby.
Like when it with others in the community on a ‘System of Care’ that was was developed to address disproportionate minority contact with kids in the school system.
“That’s just one example of where we’ll willing to work with our partners within the criminal justice system to improve the performance of the La Crosse Police Department and the criminal justice system as a whole,” Melby said.
Some might argue the numbers reflect the crimes and offenses that African Americans are committing, and police officers are just doing their jobs.
“I can’t necessarily speak to if every offense is warranted because within that moment the police obviously feel like something has happened which is going to warrant taking somebody into custody. But there’s a lot of people in the criminal justice system that don’t need to necessarily be there,” said Bakken, a professor in the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at UW-La Crosse.
“They have mental health or substance use disorders and those are factors that are more at the root of their criminality,” Kruse said.
Things the police department can’t address on its own but may outsource to help gain trust.
“Working with outside agencies to deal with let’s say noncriminal offenses or trying to get community relations on a more positive note is one area in which that they could start to make some headway,” Bakken said.
Kruse and Bakken said this is a very complex issue. Institutional change isn’t quick. It’s not going to be easy to change an entire system.
“There has been a call for action and I think this is a time for political leaders, policymakers and those people who work in the criminal justice system to really look closely at what is going on and the disparities exist that exist across all aspects of the system and decide– is this what we really want to be known for?” Bakken said.
The department said it is taking steps to respond to calls for change.
“We do take this seriously. We are working extremely hard to be responsive to community concerns. We will continue to be transparent, work with other members of the criminal justice system and do the best that we can for the City of La Crosse,” Melby said.
In recent years, the Criminal Justice Management Council has made this one of its focuses– to try to address these disproportionate rates across the entire law enforcement and criminal justice system. They are taking evidence-based approaches to make the system more just for all.
**Note on data: These numbers will not match the data on the statistical analysis each year under the heading ‘total persons arrested/cited’ because this refers to cases, not distinct individuals. Further, our total ordinance charges/arrests will not match the department’s data because cases may have since updated and additional charges may have been added, which would be included in News 8 Now’s data.