With all of the turmoil currently in the air about this intersection, some facts are helpful, and this article from City Journal reports them.
When Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, legislators mandated that the attorney general begin studying and reporting on excessive use of force by police. Soon after, the Bureau of Justice Statistics developed a series of recurring studies that measured everything from police behavior in specific situations, like traffic stops, to incidents in which police use force. Much of the data was based not on reports by local police departments, but on direct surveys of citizens, providing some 20 years of information on how the police interact with American citizens, and how those citizens see the police.
If Congress believed that this new data might provide some context and insight for national debates about the use of force by police, such as the one we’re having now in the wake of grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for their role in deadly incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island, legislators were largely mistaken. After the Ferguson grand jury made its ruling, President Obama told the nation that “the law too often feels like it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion.” Since the Ferguson incident involving Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson last August, the New York Times has published stories about communities where minorities get stopped more frequently than whites, implying racial discrimination. But these stories ignore Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that crime victims disproportionately identify minorities as perpetrators of crime, too. Senator Rand Paul has even used Ferguson to launch an attack on the war on drugs, saying that it puts the police in a difficult situation in dealing with the public—though drugs had little to do with the confrontation between Brown and Wilson (except as they may have influenced Brown’s aggressive behavior).
Despite such pronouncements, two decades of data on police interactions with the public don’t support the idea that something extraordinary is afoot, that the police are becoming “militarized” as President Obama has suggested, or that distrust between police and local communities has produced an enormous spike in conflicts. By contrast, the data show that significant crime declines have been accompanied by a leveling off and then a reduction in confrontations with the police, as reported by Americans of all races.
After the 1994 legislation passed, Justice Department researchers began exploring ways to study the issues as Congress had mandated. In 1996, they produced a preliminary report on police/citizen interactions that broadly estimated that some 45 million Americans had some type of contact with law enforcement during the preceding year. Of those 45 million, the study found, slightly more than half a million reported that the police had used force against them. This initial study, regarded as experimental, wasn’t detailed enough to say much more and was subject to large margins of error, but it led to a series of more comprehensive and in-depth reports, produced from 1999 through 2011.
What’s striking in the progression of these later studies is a steady decrease in the number of people having interactions with the police—from about 45 million in 2002 to 40 million in 2011—or from about 21 percent of the 16-and-older population to about 17 percent. One clear reason for the decline has been the corresponding drop in crime: the number of people reporting crimes or other problems to the police fell by about 3.6 million from a peak in 2002. More important, perhaps, was that reports of use of force by police also fell, from 664,000 in 2002 to 574,000 in a 2010 report. Those declines occurred across all races. The number of African-Americans reporting that police used force against them fell from 173,000 to 130,000. Among whites, the number has dropped from a peak of 374,000 to 347,000.
Since 1999, Justice Department studies have also measured how police and citizens interact during more mundane encounters, like traffic stops—vastly expanding the data about how citizens who otherwise don’t have cause to deal with the police might see their performance. In the most recent survey, in 2011, 88.2 percent of those stopped by the police said they thought officers acted properly. There were few significant distinctions by race. Nearly 83 percent of African-Americans judged police behavior to be proper, for instance. The study also asked citizens whether they thought the police had stopped them for a “legitimate” reason—and here the data on race is particularly interesting. Some 80 percent of all drivers viewed their stops as legitimate, compared with 68 percent of African-Americans. But the study also asked drivers to report the race of the officers who stopped them, and African-Americans were just as likely to say that stops initiated by white officers were legitimate as those initiated by black officers. Similarly, white drivers saw no difference in how they were treated by white officers or black officers on this question.
Retrieved December 5, 2014 from http://www.city-journal.org/2014/eon1204sm.html