This morning, CNN’s New Day hosted a panel discussion on recent protests against alleged biases in law enforcement that target black Americans. Featuring former New York Police Department (NYPD) detective and CNN analyst Harry Houck, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, and former NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks, the panel quickly grew heated. (Full video below)
Houck argued that because the NYPD reports that black Americans commit a majority of violent crime in New York City while making up a minority of the population, black Americans are more prone to crime than other races. Houck continues, pointing to his sheet of paper with statistics on it:
“That’s why there are more blacks in jail than there are whites. They turn it around — the racial demagogues out there — turn it around that the blacks are being picked on.”
Immediately Hill calls him out, first saying that an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department found “significant evidence of racism.” Then he continues:
“You think black people are prone to criminality? … You don’t mean to say that. I’m going to give you a chance to correct [yourself]. You don’t mean that black people are prone to criminality.”
“You are interpreting something else into what I’m saying into your narrative! That’s what you do!”
Houck takes the NYPD statistics to be gospel truth, but in reality they are not immune to bias.
On the panel, Banks clearly articulates a case in which NYPD statistics are skewed in a racially biased way. After a violent crime is committed, the NYPD establishes checkpoints in the area around the crime scene. These check points are most frequently set up in black or Latino neighborhoods. Check points inevitably catch more people committing small crimes – like drunk driving, carrying small amounts of marijuana, and petty shoplifting – and when the checkpoints check more people of color than whites, crime statistics unfairly overrepresent crime in communities of color, in comparison to white communities.
During his argument, Houck mentions that “this thing about the disparity of blacks and whites in jail … has got to stop.” According to his simple logic, since blacks commit more violent crimes, of course more of them go to jail. However, the truth is much more complicated, and the problem is startlingly vast. Right now, people of color make up roughly 30% of the U.S. population, while constituting 60% of the prison population.
The problem is so great that the United Nations (UN) has set up an entire project devoted to studying racial bias in American criminal justice. It has found that, “black and Hispanic male defendants were significantly less likely to receive substantial assistance departures [reduced sentences] than white male defendants. This disparity remained even when the data was controlled for the severity of the offense, prior criminal history, and the specific district court’s sentencing tendencies.”
The UN also reports that, “even when cases were controlled for the severity of the offense, the defendant’s prior criminal history, and the specific district court’s sentencing tendencies, blacks [on average] received sentences 5.5 months [or 13%] longer than whites and Hispanics received sentences 4.5 months longer than whites.”
Human Rights Watch reports that although black and white American commit roughly the same amount of drug offenses per capita, blacks are arrested for drug offenses at a significantly higher rate than white Americans. In other words, most whites can get away with drug use, many blacks cannot. The higher arrest rate for blacks further distorts crime statistics.
We respect our police men and women who work diligently in risky circumstances to keep our communities. However, we will not turn a blind eye to systemic injustices. Biases have been demonstrated at every stage in criminal justice system – profiling, arrest, indictment, defense, conviction, and sentencing. Statistics corrupted by racial prejudices should not be blindly interpreted, as Houck attempts to do.
Watch the full video here:
Marisa completed her undergraduate degree in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in creative writing and media studies. She is an advocate of progressive policies and focuses her interests on gender equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.