At a drug policy summit last week at the Baker Institute, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt unveiled some arrests stats that have us here at Hair Balls scratching our heads a bit.
The figures had to do with the ethnic and racial breakdown of those arrested for narcotics violations in 2007 as compared to the city’s population.
According to Hurtt’s information, which was later verified by HPD’s public-affairs division, Hispanics make up the largest population in Houston but by far accounted for the smallest percentage of arrests. Conversely, African-Americans constitute a relatively small part of Houston and make up a majority of arrests.
According to HPD's stats, blacks make up 24 percent of Houston's population but accounted for 61.6 percent of the city's narcotics arrests; whites were 27 percent of the population and 31.4 percent of the drug arrests; Hispanics were 41 percent of the population but only 6.7 percent of the arrests.
As in less than seven percent. That can't be right, can it?
We were not the only ones stumped.
“Wow,” said Jerry Epstein, co-founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. “The past history has been that Hispanics have been over-represented. Not to the degree that blacks have, but more so than whites. So what you’re looking at there is a different figure than what we’ve seen in the past nationwide. I don’t even have a theory. However, I am surprised.”
Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino, who says he works in a predominantly Hispanic area, basically doesn’t believe it.
“I would take issue with that,” he says. “I just can’t believe it. It just doesn’t seem accurate. I’d have to look at that raw data, I’d have to look at those reports to see where did you get the Anglos, the Hispanics. That is not accurate. I’m not trying to say that our community has worse figures than other communities, but I know that 6.7 percent doesn’t seem to be accurate. I know that we do have a drug problem.”
HPD spokesman John Cannon says he thinks there’s a pretty straightforward explanation why the stats line up the way they do. Simply, for the most part officers are responding to and making arrests in the areas that generate the most calls for service and complaints.
“The majority of narcotics related activities are in areas of the city which we’ve designated as ‘hot spots,’” Cannon says. “And that’s a lot of where the activity is occurring, where there’s a lot of individuals on street corners because of the dense populations in those areas and because for police calls for service …. And individuals in those neighborhoods are of African-American decent in a lot of those cases. And that’s why the numbers are likely as high as they are.”
Cannon is clear to say that officers are in no way racial profiling.
“There is a high concentration of an African-America population in many of the ‘hot spots,’” Cannon says, “but that is not why they’re targeted. Those spots are targeted based upon citizen complaints and police calls for service.”
One of our first thoughts was that HPD was categorizing a lot of Hispanics as white.
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Both Epstein and Trevino agreed, wondering if the stats are skewed because of any difficulties officers or HPD computers have classifying a suspect as their correct race or ethnicity.
Cannon says no way.
There are some issues with the department’s computers properly classifying suspects, he says, but when asked if he thought it would greatly effect the overall percentages, he said, “No, I don’t think it would.”
-- Chris Vogel