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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Craig Mason: Spokane needs a victimization survey

By Craig Mason

The nation in general, and the Spokane City Council and the Spokane County Commissioners in particular, is finally addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the application of the criminal justice system.

Shawn Vestal’s column, Judge Moreno’s editorial are on the side of the City Council. Our sheriff and prosecutor are less enthused. We lack the facts to competently address disparities in the application of the criminal justice system.

To avoid “FIRE, READY, AIM!” we must measure baseline rates of crime commission by the various racial and ethnic groups suffering disparate law enforcement treatment. If a group commits double “Crime X,” but is arrested at six times the rate for “Crime X,” then the racial disparity from the criminal justice system is not six times, but three times the expected arrest rate, given that group’s rate of crime commission.

Some disparity is from background “inputs” to the criminal justice system, and they are not “outputs” from the criminal justice system. In sum, if we blame all disparities in the criminal justice system outcomes on the criminal justice system, we will discredit the equity movement.

Crime victimization surveys are the best way to measure commission of crimes. Arrest rates are obviously self-fulfilling “measures” of crime commission – if the officers are biased, the arrest rates will be biased.

Only a local, high-quality crime victimization survey can establish the “expected” rate of various crimes for each group. If we compare expected rates of arrest with the actual rates of arrest, and the actual rates are higher-than-expected, then we have identified actual bias within the criminal justice system. Other disparities are due to social background factors outside of criminal justice.

Given all of the resources poured in to prosecuting and incarcerating our fellow citizens, a countywide victimization survey is a small price to pay to get equity right.

Growing up in Spokane and attending North Central High (Class of ’76), I saw the “oppositional” behavior of the white ghettos of Spokane. Among poor men everywhere, there is an “oppositional” set of behaviors and beliefs that form among some men who cannot succeed in the mainstream. These men then make a “virtue” of anti-mainstream behavior. Spokane’s oppositional whites were angry, surly, admired violence, hated cops, and the police hated them back. As elsewhere, police reactive violence was overbroad (recall Otto Zehm from 2006).

Moving away for some years, the ghettos in other cities had a racial aspect. As in Spokane, most people in the ghettos are striving for mainstream success, but significant numbers of oppositional men also develop hatred of the mainstream and its face (the police). Once you add race, all the same hostilities that I saw in Spokane’s class-based white ghettos were redefined in racial terms. Opposition to the mainstream took on racial overtones, even became a source of “racial pride” and the police became racist back at them.

In short, oppositional behavior is a matter of economic class, and once that becomes mixed up with race, the conflict is intensified by the group identities (including police identities) that form in the oppositional battle between the mainstream and those who reject it.

Certainly, once a person is entangled in the criminal justice system, then a criminal record can become predictive of greater temptation to subsequent crime – this is the criminal justice system “causing” disparities in outcomes as the original “inputs” get intensified as criminal justice outputs.

Police often feel beleaguered, because the general public is ignorant of the violent defiance police often face. More public understanding of the complexities of police work might reduce that “conspiracy of silence” problem (again, see Otto Zehm). Of course, police must be professionals who do not deploy violence in over-reaction or based upon stereotypes, nor lie for each other.

The Spokane City Council and Spokane County Commissioners should jointly fund a thorough and methodologically sound Victims’ Survey in our County. Only this can end the sterile debate we hear in our County that repeats: “We are arrested more often!” And the response of: “But you commit more crime!”

Spokane’s official equity movement should begin with Spokane separating “disparate inputs” (social factors) to the criminal justice system from the criminal justice disparities in “outcomes” that are produced by the criminal justice system itself. Only the latter is a criminal justice, not general societal, problem. The equity movement needs to separate causes of inequity.

A countywide crime survey would provide a baseline of facts beyond rhetoric.

Craig Mason is a local attorney and Spokane native who has taught at Columbia Basin Community College, WSU-Tri-Cities, EWU and Gonzaga.

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