Racial Disparities in Policing and a Call for Change

by Hannah Sohn

As a nation founded upon the words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the United States promises “liberty and justice for all.”  These ideals intended to transcend beyond parchment are meant to apply as a way of life for all American people. Yet because of certain public policy decisions,, practices aren’t equally distributed to all, and their benefits are only reaped by a select few. In the year 2021, the U.S presents progress towards achieving a more “perfect union.” However, racist notions continue to influence present-day society. In an attempt to mend race relations, there needs to be changes and policy amendments in order to address racial disparity in police enforcement. Only then can the virtue of America’s founding and fundamental principles render true.

The modern American law enforcement system helps to maintain racial inequalities. This is particularly evident with the recent high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men. While the system was established during the Jim Crow era, racial sentiments of that time endure (Balko). An institution meant to protect the lives of all Americans, the policing and law enforcement system works conversely and threatens those of black Americans. We see such mistreatment of black Americans widely displayed through the racially biased actions of police, where instances of racial profiling have become harsh conditions of the black living experience. While black people make up roughly 13% of the total U.S population, black people make up 33% of our prisons (FWD.us). According to Frisk and Stop Data, only three percent of these encounters produce any evidence of a crime, while 97% of these people are getting punished solely due to the color of their skin (Balko). 

The government’s actions helped progress towards a fairer system but have not provided a solution. Leadership tactics adopted within the police departments include measures such as racial bias training and wearing body cameras.  As unarmed and innocent black people became victims of police misconduct, the issues of implicit bias within police departments have come to the forefront of the reform discussion.  In 2019, CBS News surveyed  more than 150 police departments in big cities across the country regarding racial bias (CBS News) . In the five years after unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer, 57% of the departments involved in the survey added implicit racial bias training .4In total, 69% of those respondents reported that their departments participated in them (CBS News).  However, only 90% reported that these training sessions demanded mandatory attendance by all officers (CBS News). According to 59% of these agencies, there is no way to measure success or failure (CBS News). Among states that logged data, most showed implicit bias training occurring only once annually and only for a few hours. 4While some locations find them to be helpful, other places say they have little impact. 

Further attempts to deal with the problem include mandating police officers to wear body cameras on duty (Cato Institute). Police cars are also equipped with cameras to record interactions (Cato Institute). Meant to hold officers responsible, their actions are recorded to preserve  evidence of conduct. However, this doesn’t eliminate hidden racial injustices. This practice has become a commonly accepted routine (Cato Institute).  In a report detailing policy debates regarding policing between black and white officers, it states that black officers are substantially more likely than white officers (71% vs. 46%) to say that body cameras provide a way to improve policing (Gramlich).  This represents an inconsistent debate on whether it makes officers more likely to act appropriately. 

As these efforts yield improvements, the problems of racial disparities and injustices of racial profiling arefar from being eradicated (CBS New). The system still functions as a way to repress black Americans through repeating statistics of police reports, prisoner population and more. Furthermore, while camera footage allows for more accountability, it has also sustained racial tensions (CBS New). This is illustrated through the Chicago police department having camera footage, yet still an officer shot unarmedLaquan McDonald, seventeen times in October of 2014 (Charles). Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city fought long to keep evidence of wrongdoing by officers hidden from the public (Charles). The effect of suppressing information led Emanuel to avoiding running for reelection (Charles). Although efforts meant to mitigate harm and prevent police racism were set in place, cameras did not provide a complete solution and have caused further attempts to hide the problem. 

 In order to create a fair system that does not provoke racial injustice, police departments need to address problems on a systematic basis, implicit bias training and cameras, the tools law enforcement departments have adopted to combat racial inequality don’t account for the injustices hidden in the system. Dramatic and broadly dispersed racial disparities are not the product of personal prejudice or racism by individual police officers, yet overt actions of racism being addressed, isn’t the main problems within departments (Levine). Racial disparities draw heavily from the reality of institutional racism created and administered by policies that are inherently discriminatory against black Americans (Levine).  Police department practices work to uphold these racial disparities, and there needs to be structural policy changes to serve as a catalyst to address these problems. Over-policing and treatment of small crimes by the law enforcement system serve as a catalyst to these problems of racial disparities. 

The best solution to the problem would be to remove systemic practices. Black people will continue to be objectified by police actions as their patrols concentrate in neighborhoods where mainly low-income and black people live (Levine). In these neighborhoods, police stops and searches of vehicles to targeted individuals are more frequent (Levine). The increased police presence will, naturally, create more subsequent arrests As federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently determined from various stop-and-frisk cases, New York City top officials led to reports of these arrests showing statistical evidence of racial discrepancies (Levine). There needs to be less intense surveillance and fewer searches that occur in those neighborhoods. This would reduce fear, arrests and incarcerations and certainly, it would lower the rates of detentions (Levine). With measures of less concentrated police presence among neighborhoods, a direct correlation to fewer arrests within the black community could be drawn. Police departments should also work to evenly patrol their respective neighborhoods. While fewer police officers are patrolling middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, there are fewer arrests of white people (Levine).  There should be equal accountability reflected in all parts of the city and among all people.   police may focus on neighborhoods designated as “high crime” (Levine) their approach to crime needs to be curtailed. This is not to say that police should alleviate focus, but focus on immediate and more severe crimes. When communities are ridden with crime, then the government should provide policing along with social programs. Social programs prove to help eliminate the problems causing crime.9 There should be avenues of resources to encourage better standing within the communities.   

Police departments must also address their treatment of minor nonviolent offenses, such as marijuana possession. In many departments, officers can show productivity by stopping and searching near the end of a shift and making marijuana arrests (Levine). Police officers in New York use the term “collars for dollars” while referring to the practice of making these arrests to earn overtime pay (Levine). The system should not reward officers for this practice. This practice affects black communities who have a stronger police presence. Officers should be discouraged from making random searches in black communities for these minor offenses. Rather, searches should take place only if  a marijuana problem is directly brought to police attention. There could possibly be measures put in place to change the severity of these offenses, perhaps just a warning or a chance to remove the criminal record. This would decrease patterns like those seen in Chicago; despite studies showing that white and black people use marijuana at similar rates, whites constitute 45 percent of the population but only five percent of those arrested for possession (Levine). While the system should not target black neighborhoods and rewards police for arresting small crimes, black people remain the victims of these racial disparities. 

Law enforcement should intervene in the community in positive ways. Punishments of small crimes should mirror practices such as those of The Restorative Justice Community Court in Chicago which offers people charged with misdemeanors another way to address criminal wrongs (Kunichoff). This holistic approach to confronting crime and furnishes agreements between the accused and accuser, along with reparations in the local community, and allows for a more favorable tactic in how to deal with the problem and that eliminates criminal charges (Kunichoff).This also allows the offender to give reasons as to why they committed certain crimes (Kunichoff).  What follows are opportunities for repayment to their offense; they take part in activities that caused them to rethink committing the crime (Kunichoff). If the problem is due to the accused selling drugs because of a need for income, the court could offer to help the accused  land a job and a better direction for finding employment (Kunichoff).  Counseling and other treatment could be provided to promote healthier habits in someone charged with recreational drug use (Kunichoff). This response addresses the crimes committed and provides for solutions that make amends, rather than immediate punishment, which further represses and prevents progress into society.

It is also imperative  to shift the police perceptions of the black community and vice-versa.  The divisive nature of the issues of racial disparities have created a sense of hatred among both groups. In black organizers’ plea to have “black lives matter”, police communities responded by saying “all lives matter” in a diversion to address failure of the system’s protection. The collective will of both groups in resolving these issues is necessary for any progress to be made. They need to be willing to hear the voices of others and see the value of the lives of their fellow-human beings. 

As of the recent coronavirus pandemic, the  realities of these issues have been unwavering. Black people in the United States are more likely to have jobs without health insurance,  more likely to have low-wage jobs that continue to expose them to the virus but less likely to be treated when ill (FWD.us). These existing disparities are maintained in law enforcement systems, as high rates of death and infection among black people have become higher as the virus spreads into jails and prisons (FWD.us). This widens the already disproportionate number of fatalities from the viruses within the black population. 

The U.S needs to rectify inequalities, but fixing the law enforcement system will not solve these patterns of racial inequality in our country. These structures of inequality are certainly exacerbated by a discriminatory law enforcement system. The United States cannot move towards real equality without a system where justice prevails for all. 


Balko, Radley,”There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.” Washington Post, September 18, 2018 

“Racial Disparities in Incarceration and Coronavirus.” FWD.us, 14 Apr. 2020, www.fwd.us/news/coronavirus-disparity/.

“We Asked 155 Police Departments about Their Racial Bias Training. Here’s What They Told Us.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 7 Aug. 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/racial-bias-training-de-escalation-training-policing-in-america/.

Gramlich, John. “Black, White Police Officers Differ in Views on Key Issues of Job.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 Jan. 2017, 

Levine, Harry. “How Police and Politicians Profit by Destroying the Lives of Young Black People for Tiny Amounts of Pot.” Alternet.org, 15 Nov. 2013, www.alternet.org/2013/11/how-police-and-politicians-profit-destroying-lives-young-black-people-tiny-amounts-pot/.

Kunichoff, Yana. “Can This ‘Restorative Justice’ Court Keep Chicagoans Out of Jail?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 May 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/chicago-restorative-justice-court/524238/.

Charles, Sam. “Laquan McDonald Changed Everything for Mayor Rahm Emanuel – and the Police.” Times, Chicago Sun-Times, 17 May 2019, chicago.suntimes.com/city-hall/2019/5/17/18628153/mayor-rahm-emanuel-chicago-police-department-changes-laquan-mcdonald-cpd.

“Police Body Cameras.” Cato Institute, 6 Dec. 2016, www.cato.org/policing-in-america/chapter-4/police-body-cameras.

Also published on Medium.