Opinion: Letter to the Editor: A Different Way of Looking at the Data

The Gazette reports that “African Americans are often targets of strong-arm tactics” by the Alexandria Police Department, and that disproportionate growth of the Department’s budget over the last 20 years has “led many to question the allocation of public resources.” (“Disproportionate Use of Force”, June 11, 2020.)

Those shocking charges would be — and should be — matters of the utmost concern if further investigation were to bear them out; but the data reported by the Gazette do not yet meet that standard.

Far the more serious charge is that the Alexandria police choose African Americans as targets for the application of excessive force. The Gazette cites a report that “in 2019, 54 percent of the instances of use of force was against African Americans … significantly higher than the Black population in Alexandria, which is 23 percent.”

That comparison would be damning if, indeed, APD selected persons from among the population at large against which to use force. But that is not how the police operate. Some of those who come into contact with the police are persons whom patrol officers happen to observe in the course of what may be unlawful behavior; but far the greater number of police-citizen interactions are the result of calls to the police initiated by persons who fear that they may be the victims of criminal behavior.

If the use of force by police against a particular group were comparable to the proportion of that group among all of those who come into contact with the police (rather than their proportion among the population at large), that would not support a conclusion that the police deliberately “targeted” that group. Note, for example, that 19% of Alexandria’s population have a high school diploma or less, and 24% come from households whose income is less than $50,000. It is likely that both of these groups are substantially overrepresented among those with whom the police interact, and thence among those against whom force is used. But this is not because of conscious selection or “targeting” by the police, but because of the disgraceful economic and educational disparities which too often condemn their victims to disproportionate engagement with law enforcement. Those social pathologies are not the “fault” of the police: we should look to all of ourselves for blame, rather than to others to scapegoat who in fact fall far short of the capacity to correct the underlying societal failures.

The proposed FY2021 budget for the police was 103% larger than the approved FY2001 budget. Meanwhile, Alexandria’s estimated 2020 population is 14% greater than the 2000 Census.

It is not uncommon, however—and in fact is usually the case—that government budgets grow much more rapidly than the population. Most governmental functions are labor intensive, and the cost of personnel typically increases somewhat more than the increased cost of living, rather than in proportion to the rate of population growth. If Alexandria’s budget had increased by only 14% over the past 20 years—the rate of population growth—that would have been truly remarkable, in fact almost unimaginable.

In fact, the police budget as a share of the total has declined by one third over that period, from 7.7% in 2001 to 5.1% today. While the police budget has barely doubled (+103%), the rest of the City budget—including such community-serving functions as public education, housing, human and social services, public transportation, and environmental services—has more than tripled (+218%), as has the budget as a whole (+209%).

These trends do not support a conclusion that the amount, rate of growth, or proportion of the police budget over the last 20 years has been accomplished at the expense of social services and should “lead many to question the allocation of public resources.”

Michael E. Hobbs

Alexandria

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