Biases affect who’s getting arrested in La Crosse County

A 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that Wisconsin has the highest per capita incarceration rate of African-American men.

New data shows that African-American men and women in La Crosse County are twice as likely to get arrested, compared to the state average.

The Criminal Justice Management Council is trying to figure out why this problem exists and what can be done to change it.

La Crosse County Circuit Court Judge Ramona Gonzalez said, “The fact of the matter is there’s no one that doesn’t have some kind of bias.”

She said the high arrest rate of African-Americans in La Crosse is a complicated issue

“I don’t think you can put your finger on a particular cause,” Gonzalez said.

Part of the problem stems from people having an implicit bias.

“You look different than I look, so I’ve got to be afraid of you, and so I’m going to make an assumption about who you are based upon the fact that you’re not the same as me,” Gonzalez said.

For example Gonzalez said law enforcement may receive an anonymous call that there are two suspicious African-American men in a parking lot.

Not having any more information, police will likely check out the situation to make sure there’s not a real threat.

“Imagine if you’re just two guys in the parking lot at McDonald’s and all of a sudden, law enforcement shows up. That could easily escalate to, ‘What are you talking to me for? Why are you here?.’ The next thing you know I got a disorderly conduct because I’m not taking kindly to law enforcement stopping me at McDonald’s,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said it’s important for everyone, including police officers and judges, to be aware of their own biases.

“None of us are free of bias. The trick is to understand what our implicit biases and our preferences are,” Gonzalez said.

The new data are changing the way officials see this issue.

District Attorney Tim Gruenke said, “It’s not a new problem or a new issue. We’ve always dealt with it, but it’s going to be set as a priority for next year. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can within the system to reduce those numbers and make sure that we’re being fair to all people.”

Even though it’s a complicated issue, Gonzalez is optimistic.

“I have every confidence that the community that I live in, that we live in and share, is one of the best in the state and one of the best in the country at not hiding from the mistakes we made and from learning from those mistakes,” Gonzalez said.

Because it’s such a complicated issue, the Criminal Justice Management Council says it’s going to take time to fix.

But one of the first steps is acknowledging there’s a problem and trying to do something about it.

To find out if you have an implicit bias you can take a quiz at implicit.harvard.edu.

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