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Do Cops Make Too Many Arrests?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 03/04/2019

Handcuffs This article includes a variety of sources regarding arrests and, conclusions are all over the map.

Some state that arrests have increased for younger people, or there are too many arrests, yet others suggest that arrests and proactive (self-initiated) contacts have decreased.

I think I got cranial whiplash while writing this article.

I think it’s safe to suggest that much of the discussion is based on ideology, advocacy, and politics. Part of the frustration of writing about crime and justice is a lack of a common understanding of issues.

The Intercept-Vera

Police arrests illustrate this conundrum. Some suggest that cops make too many arrests. There are people in high crime areas in cities (i.e., Baltimore) complaining that cops make too few.

An article (below) from The Intercept and The Vera Institute of Justice suggests that law enforcement makes far too many arrests, and arrests are used inappropriately.

It also states that arrests have fallen 25 percent over the last decade per the article.

Rand-Young Americans

Rand offers data stating that younger people are more likely to be arrested than in the past.

Americans under the age of 26 are much more likely to be arrested than Americans born in previous decades, with the increase in arrest rates occurring most rapidly among white Americans and women, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The rising rate of arrests and convictions is associated with lower probabilities of being married, fewer weeks worked, lower hourly wages and lower family incomes during Americans’ adulthood, according to the study.

The findings, published by the journal Crime & Delinquency, are based on the nation’s longest-running household survey that has followed families over generations to gather information about their work histories and earnings, Rand.Org.

The Opposite View

I just wrote, Are Cops Afraid To Make Arrests? based on data showing that officers are making fewer proactive or self-initiated arrests (see BJS data below). Some are suggesting that rising crime in many cities is due to the lack of police proactivity.

The number of violent crimes increased by seventeen percent since 2015 per the National Crime Survey, US Crime Rates.

Many attribute officer reluctance to the Ferguson effect or make reference to the indictment of police officers in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray plus a sense in the media that cops are behaving inappropriately or criminally. This perception is creating retention and recruiting problems. Families are insisting that cops get out.

Bureau of Justice Statistics Report

The portion of U.S. residents age 16 or older who had experienced contact with the police in the preceding 12 months declined from 26 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2015 per the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The number of residents who had experienced contact with police dropped by more than 9 million people, from 62.9 million to 53.5 million during the period.

From 2011 to 2015, the number of persons who had a contract that was police-initiated fell by 8 million, and the number of persons who initiated contact with police fell by 6 million.

Every form of police-initiated traffic and criminal stops (including arrests) fell considerably, Police Contacts.

Arrest Data-FBI

Based on recent arrests comparisons, and a five-year data set, it’s obvious that arrests are down considerably for most categories.

Based on five-year data, arrests for major crime categories as well as the quality of life crimes targeted by proactive policing are down, some by very large numbers, Are Cops Holding Back?

So Who’s Right About Arrests?

Is the question a matter of numbers or policy?

When I was a cop, we were encouraged to make quality arrests based on the premise that the courts would trust your judgment if you didn’t consistently bring them bull-poop arrests. Not making arrests for the small stuff also left you available for the bad auto accidents, robberies, burglaries or acts of domestic violence.

We sent people home in a cab for many alcohol and driving encounters where they had a beer or two and were marginally under the influence. We never arrested for marijuana unless there was accompanied by something more serious. When we made these arrests, the courts understood that defendants did something serious.

That changed with Broken Windows or philosophy embracing quality of life arrests. If you took care of the small stuff, the philosophy suggested, the big stuff will take care of itself. Mothers Against Drunk Driving also played a part by demanding DWI arrests.

I have been to a number of community meetings, many in high crime communities, where citizens demanded arrests of those causing trouble in the community. They weren’t particular as to how cops did it, they just wanted troubling behavior stopped. “Get them off the corner, I don’t care how you do it,” was a fairly common refrain.

Society wanted stops. Communities wanted arrests. They demanded it.

Cops Complied

Cops complied because that’s what they are supposed to do; listen to citizen preferences and respond. I’m not sure individual or collective officers were responsible for the change; everyone from mayors to city council people to community leaders wanted it.

I doubt that officers were overly enthusiastic about the new approach. Every stop involves risk to your safety and the person stopped. There is no such thing as a safe stop.

Politicians and community demands prompted arrests for an endless number of actions. Marijuana, drug use or sales, open alcohol containers, being loud and many additional actions prompted a cop’s response.

I know of several instances where friend’s children were arrested for marijuana because they and their associates were silly enough to park outside of someone’s house, play loud music, and drive under the influence. The police were called. They weren’t busted for smoking pot, they were arrested for being stupid.

So What Happens Now?

Society and communities need to come to grips with what they want. Cops do what they are told to do by politicians and the community.

This is not a law enforcement issue. It’s not up to cops to decide what constitutes an illegal act. Others set the priorities.

Communities need to take responsibility for their own safety by deciding what they want. The same holds for politicians. You can’t complain about troublesome people and at the same time condemn officers for taking action.

Communities and politicians, stop being cowardly. Say it loud. What do you want? What kind of law enforcement is preferred?

To put this discussion on individual officers is just wrong. Yes, officers have discretion, but they get their priorities through the chain of command and others.

This is not an issue of police accountability. This is an issue of community and political accountability.

Don’t want arrests for pot or drug sales or prostitution or open containers or disturbing the peace? Fine, just be prepared to live with the consequences.

I believe that individual police officers will welcome the changes.

It will free them up for crimes in progress. It will provide the time to talk to community members.

Just don’t blame cops for doing what you ask them to do.

The Intercept

SOMEONE IS ARRESTED in the United States every three seconds. While arrests are the first entryway into a criminal justice system most acknowledge is in dire need of reform, we know remarkably little about who is arrested, where, and why. Advocates and legislators have pushed in recent years for policy changes at various points of the justice process, from pretrial to sentencing, but arrests remain one of the largest and least scrutinized contributors to the country’s mass incarceration and policing crises.

In an effort to better inform conversations about criminal justice, a team of researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, took more than two years to combine eight different federal databases into a tool that allows users to analyze arrest trends at the national, state, and county levels against a series of variables, including offense types, demographic factors, and solved crimes.

That data shows that of more than 10.5 million arrests made every year, the bulk are for noncriminal behavior, drug violations, and low-level offenses. Since 1980, arrests for drug violations have increased by 170 percent, and racial disparities in enforcement have grown even more stark. Still, a majority of victims don’t report their experiences to police, and police solve only a fraction of the crimes that are reported, The Intercept.


Americans under the age of 26 are much more likely to be arrested than Americans born in previous decades, with the increase in arrest rates occurring most rapidly among white Americans and women, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The rising rate of arrests and convictions is associated with lower probabilities of being married, fewer weeks worked, lower hourly wages and lower family incomes during Americans’ adulthood, according to the study.

The findings, published by the journal Crime & Delinquency, are based on the nation’s longest-running household survey that has followed families over generations to gather information about their work histories and earnings, Rand.Org

Source For Some Articles: The Crime Report

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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