Blame Obama For Racial Tensions With The Police?

Blame Obama For Racial Tensions With The Police?
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A lot of President Obama's opponents have said that he is inciting racial tensions with the recent wave of high profile police shootings of young black men, and subsequent retaliatory shootings against police officers. I disagree. President Obama openly talks about these issues. He is basing his arguments on years of empirical research on the issue. Not talking about the role of race in the criminal justice system would be to ignore a glaring problem in American.

I used to work in jail in Philadelphia and in Prison in Massachusetts. While in the Philadelphia jail, I used to walk to my office in the inmate intake quarantine section. Everyday, I would walk past 100 new inmates, almost all of whom were a person of color.

Based on a 2011 scholarly research article in the academic publication "Prison Journal", the ACLU notes that "racial disparities result from disparate treatment of Blacks at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, arrests, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials and sentencing." There are more than enough examples to back up what academic researchers find in practice. And just because a reader of this column doesn't observe a racial bias going on, it doesn't mean it is not going on.

The Death Penalty Information Center cites research that shows that:

  • Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. (Prof. K. Beckett, Univ. of Washington, 2014).
  • In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. (Pierce & Radelet, Louisiana Law Review, 2011).
  • A study in California found that those who killed whites were over 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over 4 times more likely than those who killed Latinos.(Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005).
  • A comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. (Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah, University of North Carolina, 2001).
  • In 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both. (Prof. Baldus report to the ABA, 1998).

Before you criticize academic journal publications as liberal in bias, good academic research is a published transparent measurement of the real world that can be replicated by others. It is not liberal or conservative. Good research is methods driven, not driven by outcomes.

None of this justifies violence against police. It seems that this recent wave of violence against police may be a crisis of the perception of police legitimacy. With the increase of the use of social media circulating videos that bring awareness to police killing black suspects, the legitimacy of the police has been called into question by citizens. Police legitimacy is one of the most important variables in crime prevention. When people don't view the police or government as legitimate, they take matters into their own hands. No police officer should be targeted no matter what. Grievances against police have a legitimate appeal process. Targeting police officers undermines the very fabric of a civilized nation.

It is pretty clear to any observer of American history that there have always been race problems in America. The criminological and sociological research has been clear for years that there is a racial bias in the criminal justice system. Books, scholarly articles and research by academics are full of incontrovertible data to support that there is a racial bias in the criminal justice system. To suggest otherwise is akin to suggesting that men and women are paid the same for the same work when, in fact, in high level professional jobs women are paid about 80 percent what men are paid. Moreover, people of color are paid 60 percent for the same work of what white men are paid for the same work.

The research and real world experience is very clear: there is a racial bias against people of color in our criminal justice system. President Obama talks about the real world. To not do so would be negligent. President Obama has condemned attacks on police and encouraged patience in investigating cases of alleged police abuse.

Overall, statements made by critics of the President of the President probably reflect more about their own attitudes towards the President and possibly their own complicity in an imperfect criminal justice system than anything than the President has done or anything he is promoting.

Paul Heroux is a Massachusetts State Representative on the Joint Committee for Public Safety and Homeland Security. He has experience working in jail and prison and holds a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania. Paul can be reached at

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