March 1, 2024
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Excess suspicion: Racial profiling in a small city in upstate New York

Illustration of a police officer putting handcuffs on another person Illustration of a police officer putting handcuffs on another person
Illustration of a police officer putting handcuffs on another person Image Credit: Pexels.

Racial profiling in law enforcement is an ongoing concern, but documenting it — differentiating bias from appropriate police response — can prove challenging. A new study from Binghamton University faculty and former Binghamton graduate students has come up with an innovative way to use existing crime data to estimate the prevalence of excess suspicion and its impact throughout the criminal justice process.

According to crime statistics from the city of Binghamton, Black men are suspected of larceny more than white men and women of either race. And while they are arrested and convicted at approximately the same rate as white men, they often face harsher sentences.

“Racial profiling exists in our community. Here’s a first stab at representing the prevalence of it, at least in regard to the suspected crime of larceny,” said Binghamton Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Sean G. Massey, the lead author of “Race, excess suspicion, and larceny in Upstate NY.”

The article was recently published in Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society. Co-authors include Mei-Hsiu Chen, director of Statistical Consulting Services for Binghamton’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, as well as two former Binghamton graduate students: Richard Kauffman, now assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Oneonta, and Wangshu Tu, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.

The researchers analyzed archival crime data collected by the Binghamton City Police Department from 2008 to 2015; outcome, sentencing and incarceration data collected by New York State’s Department of Criminal Justice Statistics; and demographic data from the U.S. Census to explore how a suspect’s race and sex impact investigation, prosecution, conviction and sentencing in larceny cases.

The project was prompted in part by Massey’s experience serving on the city of Binghamton’s Human Rights Commission. The body, which he chaired at the time, investigated citizen complaints of bias concerning their experiences with local businesses and law enforcement.

“Part of what we wanted to do was to look at the crime data to see if there was any truth to the idea of the disproportionate targeting of people of color,” he said.

Ten years of crime records were requested from the Binghamton Police Department and the NYS Department of Criminal Justice Statistics (DCJS) through the Freedom of Information Act. The next challenge was to determine whether any observed differences were due to bias or actual differences in criminal conduct. For example, how do researchers differentiate between suspicions that are bias-related and those that are appropriate responses to criminal behavior? Do some groups actually commit more crimes, as some claim?

The answer came by comparing two sets of police records: initial case files and arrest records.

“We think this approach is important because it can be used to explore the existence of bias in other police departments; most police departments keep similar records,” Massey said.

Suspicion and evidence

Case files for suspected criminal activities are created when police stop individuals based on calls they receive from dispatch or the front desk, or because of observations they make during patrol. Open case files include the date, time and location of each incident, the category of crime and the individuals involved, from suspects to victims and witnesses. The case files also contain demographic data about each of these individuals, including race, sex and age. If an arrest is made, another set of records is created, which contains the arrestee’s demographic data.

“One of the things we’ve learned from social psychology is that bias tends to play a bigger role in situations of uncertainty or where there is more discretion,” Massey explained. “And when there’s less discretion, bias is harder to get away with.”

As in many states across the country, in New York state, police only need a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to stop or even search someone. To arrest someone, on the other hand, they must have probable cause — which requires a more stringent level of evidence that will be scrutinized by others. Consequently, any bias present is likely to have a bigger influence on initial suspicion than the actual arrest. This isn’t to say that bias doesn’t play a role in arrest decisions as well.

To determine whether bias was a factor, the researchers first analyzed which demographic groups faced the most initial suspicion, versus which were eventually arrested. If Black and white individuals faced roughly the same rates of suspicion and arrest, it would suggest that either bias wasn’t influencing suspicion or that it played an equal role in both suspicion and the decision to make an arrest. However, if a larger proportion of those suspected of a crime were Black compared to those arrested, it would suggest that initial suspicion was being influenced by bias (i.e., racial profiling).

A single crime category — larceny, a property crime that includes shoplifting — was chosen for analysis. Larceny is a common crime with more than 2,000 cases a year reported annually in Binghamton; researchers analyzed approximately 16,900 files during the course of the project.

If bias didn’t play a role, and suspicion rates were on par with arrests, only 948 Black men should have faced suspicion during this period; instead, the number came in at 1,597 — an excess of 600 individuals.

Further implications of bias

Researchers then analyzed various case outcomes for the same period of time to determine whether bias continued to play a role after an arrest was made. For every arrest made for crimes in which fingerprints are required, the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Statistics (DCJS) keeps track of case outcomes, including prosecution, conviction, sentencing and incarceration, as well as the demographics of the defendant. By comparing the different outcome rates for each defendant group at each decision point in the criminal justice process, it was possible to estimate the potential role of bias in that decision.

Although analysis of these data showed no measurable racial differences when it comes to actual larceny convictions, older Black men were less likely than white men to be shown leniency or be given a second chance by a prosecutor, such as having their cases dismissed under adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD). If convicted, Black men were also more likely to face incarceration. For this outcome, it was estimated that an excess of 22 individuals were incarcerated, above and beyond, if bias had not played a role.

Bias in law enforcement doesn’t always start with law enforcement or the legal system, Massey points out. While police can and do initiate criminal suspicion, many of their cases are prompted by calls from community residents and business owners, some of whom may be motivated by bias. That prompts another line of questioning: Do police have a responsibility to identify and interrupt when bias is driving a complaint or are they simply agents of residents’ prejudice?

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to analyze bias trends in other categories of crime, such as assault, disorderly conduct or narcotics. Additionally, the study only looked at crime data through 2015, the year that the city changed software for crime reporting. Policy changes might also be a factor. Further research is needed to analyze these changes and what led to them, Massey said.

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