An aggregation of the Madison Police Department’s annual reports from 2005-’14 shows the total number of arrests has dropped across every racial demographic, with a deepening disparity between black and white arrests.
Total arrests dropped from 19,730 in 2005 to 9,726 in 2014, roughly a 50 percent drop. White, black and Asian arrests dropped, while Native American arrests stayed constant.
Despite this drop, disparities have deepened. Although Asian and Native American arrests have both remained under 1.5 percent of total arrests, the white percentage has dropped while the black one has risen.
White arrests as a percentage of total arrests went from 54 percent in 2005 to 48 in 2014, as opposed to black arrests, which rose from 23 percent to 33 percent.
This could be attributed to changes in Madison’s racial demographics, for which data is not available. Dane County, however, saw a less than 1 percent change in the population of both demographics since 2010. Dane County is 86 percent white and 5 percent black, and Madison makes up nearly 50 percent of Dane County’s population.
Assistant Chief of Police Randy Gaber said there are many factors behind the data, but one he specifically mentioned is a 2010 policy change in reporting just arrests rather than all charges, which can vary.
He also pointed to an increase of 30 MPD officers in 2009 to give all officers more “unobligated time.” During officers’ obligated time, they must be doing tasks like paperwork and attending briefings.
“In that unobligated time what we want our officers to do is be proactive,” Gaber said. “To be very engaged with community policing, with problem solving, to get in touch with the community to find out what’s important [and] do things that are preventative.”
Madison’s total population grew from 223,440 to 245,691 during 2005-’14, a 10 percent rise. MPD Police Chief Mike Koval said in a 2015 blog post that as Madison approaches a population of 250,000, more police will be needed. According to Koval, Madison needs to have 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents, as opposed to the current 1.83 ratio.
According to Gaber, increases in officers allow for better policing and fewer arrests because they can be more proactive with a stronger presence in the community. He said MPD tries to instill a philosophy in its officers that they must be proactive and engage with the community to build trust.
Gaber pointed out that it’s hard to measure the effects of some department programs because they are preventing crimes that are never recorded.
That proactive style of policing requires more officers, but Gaber noted it would be impossible to bring the number of commissioned officers to Koval’s proposed number in one year. MPD is, however, planning on meeting with city officials to increase the number of sworn-in officers.
According to UW-Madison sophomore Tyriek Mack, not enough is being done to address racial disparities. Mack is also a leader of BlackOut, a group trying to figure out how to reduce racial disparities in UW System schools while working with university officials.
“I think the Madison Police Department has to start putting more action behind the efforts regarding unconscious bias,” Mack said. “The actions that they’ve taken hasn’t necessarily [been] reflected in the policing. So I think that they need to put more effort into ensuring that what they say they’re doing is actually being accomplished.”
UW-Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver, who has been analyzing racial disparities since 1999, noted police are not the only ones with implicit bias.
“The police department does implicit bias training, they work on it a lot. Madison Police has really worked hard to diversify the workforce. They're very conscious,” Oliver said. “It's not just the officers’ decisions, a lot of the kind of disparity in who gets hassled by the police comes from citizen calls. White citizens call up and say ‘I think there’s a fight going on’ if a group of black people are standing around together.”
Mack thinks the media plays a role in the community’s perception.
“I think some of what else happens is that the media plays [a] really important role in perpetuating black people in a criminal way,” Mack said. “And once black people are seen in this criminal element it almost justifies the action that black people face as it relates to arrest rates.”
Oliver agrees that more officers focusing on the community could be a possible factor in reducing arrests. While she also noted this could play a role in the overall decreases, it doesn’t account for the white arrest drop.
Oliver said community policing often refers to policing in poor and minority communities. The community policing initiative, which MPD started in 2008, could be a contributing factor to the decreases among arrests of people of color.
While the minority arrest drop may be related to community policing, Oliver believes the white arrest drop may have more to do with the offenses for which people are arrested.
“The first hypothesis just looking at the trend is that they're choosing to do fewer arrests of certain types and in particular it looks like they're doing fewer arrests of white people, which is probably disorderly conduct and drunkenness and other except traffic,” she said.
“Disorderly conduct” and “other except traffic” are discretionary arrests, which means officers are often left with the decision of whether or not to arrest. On average, the black and white rates of arrest stayed consistent for those offenses.
Another discretionary offense, which did not show consistency between black and white arrests, was liquor laws.
The drop in white liquor law arrests is the single biggest of any offense and race in all the reports— from 3,576 total in 2005 to 531 in 2014. This 85 percent drop accounts for nearly one-third of the entire drop in total arrests over the same time period.
Black liquor law arrests, conversely, actually rose between 2005 and 2007 from 310 to 400, before trending downward to 162 in 2014.
Starting in 2006, MPD changed how they approached large UW-Madison related events such as Mifflin and Freakfest. In the 2006, 2007 and 2008 reports, then-Chief of Police Noble Wray noted how these changes reduced arrest numbers and led to “reductions in cost, staffing and arrests.”
Decreases in arrests at these events could be a contributing factor as to why the white percentage of total arrests has fallen while the black percentage has risen.
There is perhaps an unquantifiable range of factors that could affect these trends, but Oliver said there are possible solutions to address them.
“The first thing to recognize [when addressing disparities] is that there is no magic bullet, [we are] gonna have to work on lots of fronts,” Oliver said. “It can be done… [It’s] being aware and actively seeking to promote greater equality and justice in whatever sphere that you live in.”
UPDATE (April 12, 5:22 p.m.): This article has been updated to include the specific racial population demographics for Dane County.