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Newly Released Data Finds Racial Disparities in Arrests, Deaths in California 

Los Angeles police cars. Chris Yarzab/

Los Angeles police cars. Chris Yarzab/


The state of California is a glaring example of the racial disparities that persist in the criminal justice system. Although Blacks make up just 6 percent of the California population, they account for 17 percent of people arrested and nearly a quarter of individuals who die in police custody, according to the new OpenJustice data portal launched by Attorney General Kamala Harris to provide transparency about law enforcement.

“Recent events in California and across the nation have highlighted the need for an important conversation between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to protect,” the OpenJustice site states. “It is important that part of it be in a universal language — numbers.”

An analysis of arrests in California from 1980 to 2013 reveals that African-Americans face an arrest rate that’s 25 percent higher than the white arrest rate. Moreover, Blacks are the group most likely to be arrested across age brackets, but especially between the ages of 18 and 40. The data indicates that Hispanics also are overrepresented among arrestees, making up 42 percent of people arrested but 37 percent of the Golden State’s population. Asian-Americans are least likely to be arrested, with an arrest rate of just 3 percent.

The OpenJustice data also reveals that more than 6,000 people died in police custody from 2005 to 2014. This averages out to approximately 685 deaths in custody per year. Whites make up 41 percent of people who die in custody, Hispanics make up 29 percent and Blacks make up 24 percent. Although Blacks came in last in this area, the percentage of African-Americans who die in police custody remains striking given they comprise such a small portion of California’s population.

The numbers indicate that 61 percent of the people who died in police custody did so because of natural causes, 14 percent died as a result of police killings and 10 percent died as a result of suicide.

These numbers don’t necessarily let law enforcement off the hook. Inmates commonly complain that they’re given inadequate medical care behind bars or even denied medication. It’s unclear whether the high percentage of police custody deaths from natural causes stems from this. The same goes for suicide deaths. Although Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman found hanging in a Texas jail cell this summer after being arrested under questionable circumstances, didn’t die in the Golden State, her case exemplified how prison officials neglect inmates with histories of mental illness. In Bland’s case, prison workers failed to check on her in a timely manner on the July morning they found her dead.

Public officials such as Special Assistant Attorney General Justin Erlich and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck both weighed in on the OpenJustice findings.

“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,” Erlich told the Sacramento Bee.
Beck told the newspaper that the findings indicate the dire state of policing in the United States today.

“Out of crisis comes opportunity,” he told the Bee. “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.”

But lawmakers also applauded themselves for launching the OpenJustice data portal, pointing out that no other U.S. state has launched a similar website. They said the website debuted after months of efforts to shine a light on how the authorities and the public intersect.

“Being ‘Smart on Crime’ means measuring our effectiveness in the criminal justice system with data and metrics,” said Attorney General Harris in a statement. “This initiative puts forward a common set of facts, data and goals so that we can hold ourselves accountable and improve public safety. The California Department of Justice is proud to join with many in the law enforcement community to make our work more transparent.”

The OpenJustice site also documents police killings, finding that roughly 10 police officers die yearly in California. From 1980 to last year, 345 officers died, 180 as a result of crime and 150 from accidents.

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