Racial disparities challenge local police forces in Ferguson and Madison

Local activists demand equal protection under the law during a Nov. 25 march in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri protestors.

Image By: Andrew Bahl

Racial disparities nationwide have come into focus following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri not to charge the police officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. That heightened awareness has also exposed racial disparities in Madison, which in some ways exceed those in Ferguson.

While black people comprise 67 percent of Ferguson’s population compared with 7.3 percent in Madison, according to the most recent U.S. Census, the cities have similar disparities when it comes to arrest rates.

Black people in Ferguson are arrested more than twice as often as white people, according to data released by the Missouri Department of Public Safety. This falls roughly in line with the national average.

The differences are more drastic in Madison. Black people in Dane County have an arrest rate more than eight times that of whites, according to the Race to Equity report released in 2011 by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Despite comprising less than 5 percent of Dane County’s population, black people made up 29.9 percent of all adults arrested in 2012, according to an unpublished report from the Wisconsin Justice Data Portal.

Pamela Oliver, a UW-Madison sociology professor, said these racial disparities are not new.

“There are longstanding arrest and incarceration disparities [among races] in Madison,” Oliver said. “There has been a lot of local discussion about these issues, and people have been attempting to address them.”

Police tactics used during traffic stops are another major point of contention in Ferguson and nationwide.

“Traffic stops and stop-and-frisk can be used in ways that implement segregation,” Oliver said. “Whether this is happening in Madison or not is up for debate.”

While the Madison Police Department maintains it does not keep records of traffic stops, MPD data obtained in a 2011 open record request by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows black drivers were stopped 4.6 times more often than white drivers in 2010.

Police spokesperson Joel DeSpain said the MPD has increased its commitment to addressing racial disparities.

“Certainly there have been disparities in local arrest rates of African Americans,” DeSpain said in an email. “[MPD] Chief [Mike] Koval has been meeting with community leaders as we all work together to find means by which these arrest numbers can be reduced.”

While Oliver acknowledges a commitment from the MPD, she also has “been told many stories that sound like unfair policing.”

“A lot of MPD officers care about the issues and are conscious about trying to avoid disparities in policing,” she said. “At the same time there are a lot of people claiming they have been unfairly profiled by local police.”

However, former MPD Chief Noble Wray said he sees a generally positive relationship between law enforcement and the Madison community, something that does not necessarily exist in Ferguson.

“Yes, we have issues in Madison, but we have been out in the community, working side by side with members of the community to improve things,” Wray said.

Wray emphasized trust and empathy between law enforcement and the communities they serve as crucial for effective policing.

“The big question is: Do the people of Madison believe [in the police’s efforts], and do those impacted by policing believe that,” he said. “It can be a major challenge for communities.”

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