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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Out of Proportion Arrest Rates of African-Americans in San Francisco

Out of Proportion Arrest Rates of African-Americans in San Francisco
One report that reveals that African-Americans are involved in a disproportionately high number of arrests in California, compared with their population. According to this report the disparity is greatest in San Francisco where African-Americans formed 7.8 percent of the population in 2005, yet out of the total 17,495 arrests made in 2005, 8,803 arrests or 50.3 percent involved African-Americans. (Swaerd, 2006, p.9). This situation can be examined in terms of labeling theory, conflict theory, and briefly touch on other criminological that may apply. We also need to examine probable reasons behind the situation in San Francisco in terms of ethnic minority and low socioeconomic status and ask if they are more prone to be arrested. This also raises the question of whether increased focus on an individual or on an area by the criminal justice system has a criminogenic effect.. Does our criminal justice policy and our use of police resources focus more on individuals of specific minority groups or low socioeconomic status, and of so, is this justified?
We will begin with a brief examination of labeling theory, and attempt to apply it to the numbers we see in San Francisco. A summary of labeling theory is provided by Williams and McShane, “labeling is about the way in which people react to and label others.” (2014, p.110). Williams and McShane provide more detail, however; “Other classifications are more straightforward. Labeling is clearly a variation of conflict assumptions rather than being consensus oriented. From its refusal to treat definitions of crime as universal to its approach to explaining how reactions are distributed in society, the theory embodies cultural pluralism and value conflict. Finally, labeling is a microtheory. It focuses on the effects of societal reaction to the individual’s behavior. Even when there is discussion of the way in which authorities react to deviance, the emphasis is on the process of labeling individuals instead of on explaining how social structure creates labels.” (2014, p. 119) Finally, Williams and McShane delineate the 10 major points of labeling theory:
1 Society is characterized by multiple values with differing degrees of overlap.
2 The quality of any individual behavior is determined only by the application of values. The identification of a behavior as deviant occurs through a reaction to that behavior.
3 Deviance is a quality of the reaction and is not intrinsic to the behavior itself. If there is no reaction, there is no deviance.
4 Once behavior is perceived by a social audience and labeled deviant, the individual who engaged in that behavior is also labeled deviant.
5 The process of reacting and labeling is more likely when those labeled are less socially powerful than their audience is. Thus, deviance is more commonly ascribed to the less powerful in society.
6 Reactors (individuals, social groups, law enforcement agencies) tend to observe more closely those whom they have identified as deviants and therefore find even more deviance in those persons. Subsequent acts are reacted to more quickly and the label more firmly affixed.
7 The audience views an individual, once labeled, as being what the label says he or she is. A person labeled as a criminal is perceived to be first and foremost a criminal; other attributes that are not covered by the label may be ignored.
8 In addition to “becoming” a deviant for the audience, an individual may begin to accept the label as a self-identity. Acceptance of the label depends on the strength of the individual’s original self-concept and the force of the labeling process.
9 A change in self-concept results in an internalization of the deviant character, with all its attributes.
10 Further deviant behavior (secondary deviance) is a product of living and acting within the role of the deviant label, often as a part of a deviant subculture.
(Williams & McShane, 2014, p.120)
In essence, labeling theory suggests that the label of criminality on a person can have an affect on the way that the criminal justice system approaches a person or a neighborhood. Under these assumptions, we can see this theory describing the situation in San Francisco. “It works this way, Jacqua said: If a kid shoplifts in the Sunset District, police are probably going to call Mom and Dad and have them take their child home. "But if you shoplift downtown and your address is in the Bayview, then they will take you to jail." (Swaed, 2006, p.7) Police officers counter that they are fighting crime where the crime is, but labeling theory can be seen in this response, “Nichols, ex-San Francisco police officer, on the high black arrest rate: "It comes from the fact the majority of officers who want to take on criminals are in the Bayview and the Fillmore, which are heavily black. I don't believe it's racism. ... Officers have to pick and choose the severity of the crime they want to spend their time on, and officers who make a lot of arrests generally go after hard-core criminals." He also said black drug dealers are particularly visible: "How often do you see a group of whites standing on the street corner selling narcotics? Generally whites don't sell on the corner." (Swaed, 2006, p.8)
Although labeling theory has been defined as a variation of conflict theory, conflict theory in itself can give another perspective on this subject. Indeed, the close association between labeling theory and conflict theory can be seen in this example of labeling by the police by area residents. “Police Commissioner Marshall, who is African American, wrote a book, "Street Soldier," in which he described the deep-seated antipathy black people hold for police. "There's not a black person I know who doesn't see the police as an occupying force in the community. (Swaed, 2006, p.5) Conflict theory presents the view of “social issues almost as though they were fields of combat with opposing armies fighting to see who will prevail and rule the land.  “ (Williams & McShane,2014, p.129). Further, “Law itself represents a resource. If a group’s values are embodied in law, it can use that law, and its enforcement, to its benefit.  “(Williams & McShane,2014, p.129). Consider these terms of “opposing armies” and “occupying forces” though the perspective of one community view expressed as , “poor blacks are in the way of what this city wants to be, though the city won't admit it because 'we're liberal and believe in diversity.' But the city really doesn't want poor folks and especially poor black folks." (Swaed, 2006, p.7) Under this consideration, conflict theory can be used as a description of abnormal crime rates in San Francisco
But are these theories accurate in being the sole reason for the high arrest rates? Cultural conflict theory might suggest that some criminally defined behavior may not be seen as criminal acts within these neighborhoods, or within subcultures within these areas, such as drug use. Social disorganzation theory would explain the high arrest rates as a result of a lack of social cohesion on the neighborhoods, and fear builds up to the point causing the  “light of large numbers of middle-class black residents from the city in recent decades” (Swaed, 2006, p.7) Social learning theories may also partially apply; “In some neighborhoods, it's instilled from when kids are little that the police are the enemy." (Swaed, 2006, p.5) Unfortunately, none of these theories, including labeling theory and conflict theory, provide a conclusive explanation of issue on it's own merits.
And unfortunately as well, the data shows that minorities of low socioeconomic status are more prone to arrest. Does this have a crimogenic effect? Do the actions of the criminal justice system cause crime? “Public Defender Jeff Adachi said that he does not believe the department has a go-after-black-suspects plan, but he added that by focusing on heavily black neighborhoods plagued by crime and violence, police inevitably drive black arrest numbers up and often use those high numbers as proof they are in the right spots to catch the criminals. “ (Swaed, 2006, p4). From this statement, it is impossible to state which effect comes first, or even has a cause on the second at all. Labeling theory would suggest that the actions of the criminal justice system do in en effect create more criminals, but there is not enough evidence to suggest that this application of theory is more valid then interpreting the actions of police as a response to social disorganization.
Luckily, there are actions the police can take to mitigate the perception of being “at war” with the community. In fact, San Francisco police have taken some steps to build better ties with the community at large, such as “officers who do all kinds of good stuff for the kids, participating in community events, giving toys at Christmas, hundreds of turkeys at Thanksgiving." (Swaed, 2006, p.5). These types of efforts have had some positive results in that “many black people believe they often can "talk things over" with police in San Francisco when that wouldn't work in Oakland, Santa Clara or Daly City. (Swaed, 2006, p.4)
Swaed, S. (2006, December 17). High black arrest rate calls for inquiry. SFGate. Retrieved April 29, 2014 from http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/HIGH-BLACK-ARREST-RATE-RAISES-CALL-FOR-INQUIRY-2482118.php
Williams, F. & McShane, M. (2014) Criminology Theory (6th edition). Pearson

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