The policing and carceral system in the United States is perhaps the most extreme and visible manifestation of structural racism. Despite having roughly equivalent levels of crime as white people, Black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate. There is greater police surveillance in Black communities, and Black people are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced more harshly than White people. In addition, Black people are much more likely to experience police brutality and to be killed by police officers.
The recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, have sparked protests across the country, and a nationwide introspection around issues of policing and race. While uprisings in 2016 and 2020 have led to increased visibility of the deep injustices of our justice system, these factors have been present as long as the systems existed. Indeed, modern American policing traces its history to efforts by capitalists and slaveowners to try to control their “property,” and the working class in general. They continue to fulfill this function today, whatever other duties they have been assigned.
As the ultimate force behind the law, there is little to no accountability when officers break the law, or when they enforce the law unequally according to their discretion. Police departments, unions, and courts are deeply reticent to prosecute, charge, or sentence their own. Of the criminal and civil cases brought against police officers, virtually none lead to discipline beyond administrative leave or transfer to other duties.
Here in Tompkins County, there are virtually no publicly available data regarding prison populations or arrests, and the Ithaca Police Department and Tompkins Sheriff’s Department are inconsistent in their reporting of those public figures. Of what is reported and publicly available, none is coded by race.
Nationally, in 2017, there were 745,200 inmates in local jails. 33.6% of these inmates were Black, though Black people made up only 12.7% of the national population. (Bureau of Justice Statistics). At the same time, there were 1,489,363 state and federal correctional inmates nationally. Of these, too, 33% were Black.
Although there aren’t local data to speak to criminal justice outcomes such as arrest, indictment, conviction, sentencing, and recidivism rates by race, there are anecdotal stories of local people of color experiencing discrimination by police. In 2010, a White police officer shot and killed a local Black man named Shawn Greenwood. The shooting took place during an attempted drug related arrest. Many of the facts of this case are in dispute, and there is substantial doubt in the community about the police version of the events. The officer involved in the shooting was never indicted.
In 2014, there was an incident that many in the community describe as racial profiling of two teenage boys who, on their way biking home from Cornell’s campus to the downtown area, were stopped, handcuffed, and questioned about a crime with which they were not involved. One officer pointed a gun at them.
In 2019, a young Black woman, Rose DeGroat, was on the Commons with some friends, when a white man began harassing her. When the woman’s friend, a Black man, Cadji iFerguson, intervened, the white man became threatening. Police arrived and saw an altercation, and, without any attempt to de-escalate the situation, tazed, handcuffed, and arrested the Black man. The young woman assessed her friend as being in danger, and physically tried to keep the police from hurting him, and she was arrested as well. The harassing white man, a visitor to Ithaca, was not questioned or taken into custody, but rather was invited to simply go back to his hotel. The police and District Attorney’s handling of the situation and the case that followed were clear evidence of racism in law enforcement here in Ithaca. It took a very strong community intervention to get the charges against both parties dropped, and according to the individuals themselves, this experience has had a lasting, very negative impact on their lives. The police officers were never reprimanded and the brutalized Rose and Cadji were never compensated for the extensive damage done to them.
Besides helping to acquit Rose and Cadji, the citizen campaign also focused on defunding and demilitarizing the police and making them more accountable to the community, issues that are especially prominent in the 2020 racial awakening.
To further address these systemic injustices, it’s important for city and county criminal justice organizations to both collect data on law enforcement outcomes and race and to make it available for all to access and review.