Data: Cops disproportionately target Black people in Ingham County

County prosecutor defends recent policy changes to curb systemic racism

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TUESDAY, Aug. 31 — Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon is still defending two recent policy changes designed to mitigate discrimination against Black people within the local criminal justice system. And this week, she brought data to the table to explain exactly why the reforms are necessary.

“This is why it’s so important to have the data,” Siemon said at a press conference today. “It’s really consistent with wherever data is being analyzed anywhere in the United States. The exact proportions may vary, but the disproportionalities are there pretty much everywhere.”

One of the newly adjusted policies in Siemon’s office directs her staff to deny warrant requests for possession of drugs, stolen property and illegal firearms during traffic stops initiated by police officers solely for minor, unrelated infractions like illegal window tints or broken tail lights.

The other policy shift dictates that those arrested in Ingham County for crimes that involve guns will no longer be charged with a separate two-year felony count for possession of a firearm in commission of a crime — except in “the most extreme circumstances,” according to the policy.

Both are designed to reduce the racially disparate impact that felony firearm charges have had on Black people in Greater Lansing. She said cops have been known to use low-level crimes— which she labels as “pretextual stops” — as reasons to pursue other charges unrelated to the initial stop. The policy calls those encounters “fishing expeditions” that have disproportionately targeted Black people. And about 80% of those sentenced for the companion felony firearm charge, which carries an additional minimum two-year prison stint, are Black, statistics showed.

Siemon said the policy shifts — which have triggered a firestorm of criticism from several white police chiefs led by Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth — will help curb inherent racial discrimination while also allowing prosecutors to focus on public safety and the more severe criminal charges that usually coincide with the companion charges of using a firearm in a crime.

At her press conference, Siemon also outlined preliminary data that showcases the reason for the changes.

Among the statistics:

  • In 2019, Black people in Ingham County were 5.1 times more likely than white people to have criminal charges requested against them by police. Black people were also 5.6 times more likely than white people to have criminal charges authorized against them.
  • Black people in the county are seven times more likely to face a felony than white people.
  • Homeless people have the largest proportion of warrant requests against them. Data shows that about 286 in every 1,000 homeless people had a case against them in 2019.
  • Prosecutors have the right to decline warrant requests from police. From 2015 to 2019, the proportion of declined warrant requests increased, but the increase was larger among white people and those living within the highest income areas in the county.
  • The income gap is widening. The proportion of all warrant requests that were denied for people living in the lowest income areas of the county increased from 18% to 23%, while the proportion for people living in the highest income areas increased from 18% to 31%.
  • In 2019, Black people in Lansing were 1.7 times as likely to be stopped by police and 3 times as likely to be searched after being stopped but the proportions of searches among Black and white people that yielded illegal contraband were statistically insignificant. This suggests there is no justification for the racial disproportionality.
  • In 2019, Black people made up 71% of all people charged with a companion charge of carrying a firearm in commission of another felony — like robbery, assault of drug sales. Further, about 80% of those currently sentenced for that companion charge are Black.
  • The number of criminal cases that included an enhancement for habitual offenders declined 98% between 2016 and 2020 due to another internal policy shift in Siemon’s office. Black people, however, still account for a disparate number of those cases — 61% of them in 2020, while only accounting for 11% of the population countywide.

Siemon said she has been trying to track down the data from this week’s presentation since she was first elected, noting that the statistics have been a key driver in her recent policy changes. A final report is expected to be released next year in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice.

“I knew there were racial disparities,” she said. “We started implementing different policies that I knew were related to racial disparities and mass incarceration, but as we get increased data, we have to look at the reason for the disparities. Then, we have to craft policies that address them.”

Siemon emphasized that underlying charges like robbery or home invasion have not been impacted by the policy changes in her office. Illegally carrying a concealed weapon is a separate criminal charge that will still be pursued. The key difference: Prosecutors don’t plan to tack on a felony charge that carries a mandatory prison stint beyond that of the initial crime.

Siemon said the companion charge is “overtly racist” in an interview with City Pulse last week.

“Maybe it wasn’t designed that way, but that’s the impact,” Siemon explained. “We need to develop trust so people are willing to talk to the police and share information. If you don’t trust the police, then you don’t talk to them. If it has been the policy of the police to just stop a lot of Black and brown young men and search their vehicles, allegedly with their consent, then that doesn’t help. The damage is that people don’t see police as providing for their safety.”

She added: “There’s no deterrent effect to that law. The idea is to toughen up penalties and then people won’t commit the crime. Well, that just doesn’t play out. That’s not how it works. Most people act impulsively or do not expect to get caught. Deterrence is a vastly overrated purpose for harsher penalties. In this case, it’s just totally ineffective in serving as a deterrent for crime.”

Wriggelsworth and other cops have plainly disagreed with Siemon’s assessment, arguing that an additional two-year prison sentence for anyone who brings a gun to a crime scene can be a natural crime stopper and those who choose to bring a gun deserve the harsher punishment.

“Criminals should be held accountable if they commit a crime and choose to bring a gun. Turning the cheek to felony firearm charges or ignoring them in most cases makes zero sense,” Wriggelsworth said. “The price of this policy comes in the form of bullet holes and body bags. We’re in the midst of a gun violence crisis in our community, and this is not a solution to that.”

Siemon said top cops were consulted before the policies were released. “We fully considered their concerns and chose not to adopt them,” Siemon explained to City Pulse in an emailed statement. “They were not ignored, but it is important to keep in mind that different parts of the criminal legal system can legitimately come from different perspectives.”

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