Overview of: “Race, Place, and Drug Enforcement: Reconsidering the Impact of Citizen Complaints and Crime Rates on Drug Arrests”



Research Summary

Influential research has reported racial disparities in drug arrests in Seattle, Washington, that could not be explained by race-neutral factors such as crime rates or community complaints. Based on new data, measures, and methods, we reexamine racial disparities in drug arrests in Seattle and find contradictory evidence. Our analysis, using drug-related calls for service (CFS) as a benchmark, indicates that African Americans and Hispanics are either evenly represented or underrepresented among those arrested on drug charges in two drug markets examined. Similarly, this analysis reveals a moderate-to-strong association among drug arrests, drug-related CFS, and crime. These results provide support for the “deployment hypothesis,” which argues that as a result of differential police deployment patterns, officers are likely to have increased contact with minority citizens and thus have more opportunities to detect criminal conduct. Our findings demonstrate the importance of selecting an appropriate and conceptually sound benchmark to measure racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes and the importance of selecting an appropriate unit of analysis.

Policy Implications

Our study cautions against the ready attribution of police practices to racial motives and shows the need for more research, across contexts, into this ongoing policy issue. These findings suggest that racial disparities in drug arrests seem to be more structural in nature rather than based on racial animus and individual police bias. It is, therefore, unlikely that these disparities can be eliminated by popular interventions such as police training in cultural sensitivity or by efforts to monitor and punish officers. This result leads to a consideration of whether focusing police resources based on citizen complaints and reported crimes represents equitable policing and, if not, what would constitute a realistic policy alternative.