Over the course of a year, a Black person in Spokane is over five times more likely to be arrested by Spokane police than a white person, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of recently released data.
Of those who were arrested in the last five years, Black people were also about twice as likely to experience police use of force. These findings come from arrest data and use-of-force records released by the Spokane Police Department and 2019 census estimates.
“For those of us who have been dealing with this all of our lives, this is not new news,” said Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. “This is the manifestation of the structural oppression and inherent racism we’ve been talking about the entire time. This is some of the proof behind it.”
The disproportions aren’t news to the SPD either, but it’s difficult to tease apart why they exist, said Terry Preuninger, Spokane Police Department spokesman. The human factor involved in arrests means each one is nuanced. But Black repeat offenders are likely a “huge factor” inflating Black arrest rates, he said.
Outside of rearrests, he said disparities probably stem from a combination of implicit racial bias in police that local African Americans are committing crimes more often than whites, which could be related to socioeconomic status.
To address racial bias, Preuninger highlighted the department’s implicit bias training, community outreach programs and data collection. He said an individual officer would be flagged if their arrests showed a large disproportion of African Americans.
“Spokane isn’t like other cities,” Chief Craig Meidl said in an email. “We have worked very hard over the last four years to be a beacon of what law enforcement relationships with the community of color should look like.”
Meidl pointed to a 25% reduction since 2017 in the ratio of Black people who were arrested compared to Black people who experienced force. Compared to 2017, 72 more Black people were arrested in 2019 and two fewer experienced a police use of force, reducing the overall ratio by 25% over two years.
Still, disparities are stark, even with a glance at the raw arrest numbers. Spokane’s Black population is a small fraction of the whole, but arrest rates are what City Council President and former director of the Center for Justice Breean Beggs described as “disturbing.”
Spokane’s Black population is about 4,700 people. Over the course of five years, Spokane police made 4,300 arrests of Black people. By comparison, Spokane’s white population is about 186,000 and in five years Spokane police made about 32,500 arrests of white people.
Those rates mean a Black person’s likelihood of being arrested in the city during a year is about 1 in 5, while a white person’s probability is about 1 in 30. In Beggs’ eyes, that means a Black family of five can expect a member to be arrested.
“Odds are, a white person won’t even know a friend who’s arrested,” Beggs said.
Preuninger said leaders in the department pay attention to national arrest data, and racial disproportions in arrests are a problem across the country.
Police in the United States arrest Black Americans at about double the national Black population rate, based on 2018 arrest estimates from the Office of Justice Programs . In Spokane, police arrest Black people at five times the city’s black population rate.
Robinson said he believes the high rate of Black arrests in Spokane “is why they resisted making these numbers easily available to the public.”
When Robinson started work with the Spokane Racial Equity committee, he said the group repeatedly requested demographic data through the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council and were “stonewalled time and time again.”
The SRLJC underwent a “grueling process” to get data from the county and the Burns Institute, which were “difficult to urge” to release data to the community, said Angel Tomeo Sam, a bail disruptor at the Bail Project.
The SRLJC, through collaboration with organizations like the Spokane Community Against Racism and the NAACP, brought in the Burns Institute and led efforts to collect and disperse data to community organizations, said Carmen Pacheco-Jones, chair of the Racial Equity Committee and sole person of color on the SRLJC.
Data they received in 2018 confirmed what many community members already knew, Robinson said. There were disparities across the system – in arrests, in sentencing, in reentry.
“Imagine how that builds up in an entire community that experiences that all the time,” said Sandy Williams, creator of local newspaper Black Lens News. “I’ve been at this for almost four decades. You get tired of saying the same thing over and over and over again, and nobody wants to listen because they don’t want to hear it. Because if they hear it – really hear it – then they have to do something.”
Others find that the department has set an example by collecting data and releasing it. In 2012, SPD asked the Department of Justice for recommendations to reduce uses of force. According to an SPD report , the department met all 42 DOJ recommendations, which included making all officers wear body cameras and increasing officers’ interactions with the community.
Edward Byrnes, a professor studying criminal justice at Eastern Washington University, said SPD started collecting arrest data by race voluntarily in 2014. Around the same time, the Seattle Police Department had to be “dragged into court” to collect similar data, he said.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s office responded to a records request with arrest data that did not include demographics of people arrested, saying race arrest data would cost several hundred dollars to put together.
A Sheriff’s office report for the month of may showed 9% of major crimes arrests were of Black people, over four times the Black population rate in the county. Deputies arrested 10 Black people and 96 white people for major crimes in May, according to the report.
‘Quicker to draw’
Byrnes’ 2017 report found that Spokane police disproportionately stop Black, Native American, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander residents. Recent data analyzed by The Spokesman-Review showed Native Americans were about four times more likely to be arrested than whites in a year.
Bias is at play, according to Lois James, an assistant professor at Washington State University who studies implicit bias.
In a simulation lab at WSU’s Spokane campus, James has monitored the neural and physiological responses of “hundreds and hundreds” of police – mostly those in local departments – and compared their responses to the general population.
Local police tend to have stronger implicit racial biases than members of the general population, James said.
With Black suspects, officers also tend to be quicker to put a hand on a weapon and “quicker to draw,” James said. But when it comes to the actual decision to shoot, local officers are “pretty neutral.” This restraint could show self-control in general, or a reaction to being watched by researchers, she said.
Byrnes said his data analysis raised more questions than it answered.
To capture officer decision-making, he and his colleagues only analyzed stops when Spokane police initiated contact, rather than when officers responded to calls. In those situations, disproportions persisted, but Black people were not as disproportionately represented as they were in the overall arrest rates newly analyzed.
This difference indicates that callers are reporting Black people at especially high rates, given the Black population.
“I think police are more visible, but this just reflects a much deeper and widespread social problem,” Byrnes said.
Ultimately, Byrnes said, Spokane shouldn’t need “an older white guy” like him crunching numbers to see a problem.
“The time for us to listen to narratives about racism from our brothers and sisters of color is long overdue,” Byrnes said.
‘What are they going to do about it?’
Cam Zorrozua, a former attorney for Spokane’s recently shuttered Center for Justice, said “probably very expensive reports” like Byrnes’ have been in front of officials on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council for years now, yet she doesn’t see much change.
That council’s members include Police Chief Craig Meidl, Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.
“It’s like they invite you to the table because they want to hear from you, you tell them, and then they walk away. That’s privilege,” Zorrozua said. “We all know. The question is, what are they going to do about it?”
Zorrozua referred to Spokane County Jail inmate data. On Spokane County’s official website, a slide presentation by the Vera Institute of Justice from May 2019 includes the average daily inmate population in the Spokane County Jail, broken down by race.
Black people in Spokane County were about six times more likely to be jailed than whites in 2019, according to the 2019 monthly jail population reports used in that presentation. Black people who were jailed also stayed about twice as long with average stays of 29 days for Blacks and 15 for whites.
On an average day, 15% of the Spokane County Jail population was Black, while 2% of the county’s population is Black. The average daily jail population was 70% white while 85% of the county is white.
“People want to find a justification for it and I understand that because you want to believe that a justice system is not this blatantly racist,” Zorrozua said. “But I think it’s time to look at these numbers and say, no, this is unacceptable.”
Despite years-old data and this month’s protests for police reform showing thousands of Spokane participants, Spokane’s Police Advisory Committee hasn’t seen many complaints, Rick Mendoza said.
Mendoza, a former commissioner on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, has sat on the Spokane’s Police Advisory Committee, or PAC, since its conception, representing the city’s Hispanic community.
Individual PAC members have brought complaints to the board’s attention but “not a whole flux of them.” When there are issues, he said SPD takes them seriously.
From May 29 to June 12, the department received 47 complaints and 180 commendations, said Brian Coddington, spokesman for Woodward. Coddington highlighted that in February 2019 the city voted at a 65% rate to hire more police officers and tax themselves more to do it.
That vote indicates the SPD has many supporters, Coddington said. He described a list of sources for this story, including Robinson, Byrnes, James, Williams, Zorrozua and Beggs as “the usual suspects who are critical of the police department.”
In truth, Coddington said, it would be hard to find another department that has invited the amount of scrutiny and outside investigation that the Spokane Police Department has.
“If you’re speeding and you get pulled over for speeding and you’re angry you’ve been pulled over, and you’re a person of color, it’s easy to say, ‘You’re pulling me over because I’m driving while Brown.’ But sometimes that’s not the case,” Mendoza said. “I always say, when you get stopped, it’s not your time. Do exactly what they ask you to do. Then when you get away, when you get your ticket, you can pursue your issues.”
To Williams, though, the idea that Black people are committing more crime than whites and blaming biased police is “incredibly frustrating.”
Williams points to studies showing Black people are more likely to be arrested for the same crimes white people commit.
For example, in mock trials , researchers find Black people get harsher judgments of guilt and punishment than white defendants in otherwise identical cases.
Spokane police arrest data did not detail for which crimes people of each race were arrested .
‘Trying to get real change’
Michael Cathcart, the City Council representative on the Police Advisory Committee, has seen SPD, which he calls “an incredible law enforcement agency,” make great strides.
But, Cathcart said, the ship hasn’t turned around. Cathcart sees an opportunity in recent unrest to speed up reform. He will push for the department to release all raw data, collect more detailed data and look into new technologies that help get body camera footage out to the public faster.
“It’s important that everyone is educated and that we’re all working off the same data sheet,” Cathcart said.
The city is hiring a staff person to manage equity and inclusion initiatives, and 74 people applied, Beggs said. The City Council has also funded the hiring of a person to specialize in civil rights in the mayor’s office.
Beggs also hopes Spokane will do what other cities have by adopting a racial equity lens in their budget and procedures, and he said that change can’t come soon enough.
While some protesters have called to defund the police, Preuninger said it would only hurt. With a tight budget, training would be one of the first things to go. Outreach programs like Police Activities League and Cop Talk that reach at-risk people in the community aren’t integral, he said, but do cost money.
But Robinson said the Black community will need bigger change.
“It’s been a continual battle trying to get real change implemented,” Robinson said.
“People have a right to be upset, they have a right to vent their frustration. We’re tired of being squashed on, stomped on by every aspect of this American system and then being blamed because we’re upset.”