Report: Colorado’s Blacks Are Arrested At Disproportionately High Rates

Chart: Colorado arrest rates

The arrest rate for blacks in Colorado is nearly three times higher than that for other racial groups, a new state report says.

The racial group makes up just 4.2 percent of the state’s population, but accounts for 12.4 percent of all arrests and summons made in 2015. The report also found that blacks were more likely to land in jail or prison. Whites had lower arrest rates than their population, while Hispanics had a slightly higher arrest rate.

The report from the state Department of Public Safety sheds light on a question Colorado lawmakers wanted answered in the wake of police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities across the country.

Where are the weak points in Colorado’s judicial system? That's what legislators wanted to know when they passed a law last year that requires the Department of Public Safety to issue reports each year with demographic data of all police stops, arrests, sentencing and parole.

This year’s report is the first and it confirmed the suspicions of Sen.-elect Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the companion House bill.

“We’ve known that for a very long time, that there’s over-policing in our community,” Fields said.

It also fits in with racial disparities seen in arrest trends nationwide, said Jeffrey Lin, associate professor of sociology and criminology at University of Denver. But the question of why blacks are arrested more often than other racial groups defies easy explanation, he said.

“A simple interpretation like 'black people offend more' or 'the police are racist' does not do justice to the true complexity of what we're looking at here,” he said.

One possible explanation is that in 2015 in Colorado blacks were more likely to be involved with violent crimes and other more serious offenses, said Kim English, a researcher at the Division of Criminal Justice who co-authored the report.

"Those are behaviors that are more likely to result in arrest,” she said.

And what begins with an arrest can have a domino effect throughout the criminal justice system, Lin said. If blacks are more likely to be arrested, then put on probation and tracked by probation officers, any illegal actions are far more likely to lead to re-arrest.

"These racial distortions exist throughout the system,” Lin said. “And moreover, these racial distortions exist throughout our whole society and our whole world. So are we so surprised that our criminal justice system reflects this kind of racialized politics that are present in the world around us?"

The report only included state-level figures, which doesn’t allow for closer inspection of how arrest rates may change from city to city. Most of the state's black residents live in three cities: Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs. But the law didn’t require localized results, English said.

"Disaggregating it any further would raise additional questions,” she said.

Fields, the lawmaker, said she wants police departments to use the data to change tactics.

"There are other ways that we can address some of the concerns that police are seeing that doesn’t involve a police encounter where someone’s incarcerated and sent to jail," she said.