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The High Cost of Responding to Low-Level Crimes

Racial justice and community trust should have police chiefs reconsidering how they enforce misdemeanor offenses, write Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President Jeremy Travis and Data Collaborative for Justice Director Preeti Chauhan in a USA Today oped.

People carry posters with George Floyd on them as they march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington. (Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)

Violent crimes and felony arrests make the headlines, but in reality the majority of policing involves responding to misdemeanors like disorderly conduct and drug possession. In an oped published this week in USA Today, Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President Jeremy Travis and Data Collaborative for Justice Director Preeti Chauhan argue that police chiefs need to reconsider the costs and benefits of misdemeanor enforcement.

As the nation debates policing reform and the recent spike in violent crime, it is becoming increasingly clear that overly punitive police responses to misdemeanor offenses can actually work to undermine public safety — especially for communities of color that are over-patrolled and under-protected. 

[Misdemeanor enforcements] constitute the daily interactions that can erode community trust, undermine cooperation in solving crimes, and damage the health and economic well-being of individuals and their communities,” write Travis and Chauhan. At worst, misdemeanor arrests can have deadly consequences.”

The Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice was launched in 2016 to study this oft-overlooked aspect of police work. While misdemeanors may be considered low-level crimes, enforcement impacts a broad swath of people and can have lifelong consequences for individuals and communities. 

George Floyd was allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill when he was seized by the police; Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes; Michael Brown died after a store clerk called 911 about shoplifted cigars,” write Travis and Chauhan. The national debate on these cases has appropriately focused on the police use of force. A related question also commands attention: Why were the police called in the first place? Was this the best use of police resources? How do we address the daily indignities and racial disparities arising from enforcement of lower-level crimes?”

In order to better answer these questions, Travis and Chauhan call on the nation’s police chiefs to dedicate themselves to transparency around misdemeanor policies. This includes making public the data on the volume and location of arrests, types of crimes involved, and the age, race, and gender of those arrested. With this information, law enforcement and the communities they’re dedicated to serving can better ascertain whether the costs of misdemeanor enforcement outweigh the benefits. 

Read the full oped here: Killed over a counterfeit bill: Data on misdemeanors can lead to racial justice in policing