Police Reports and Race

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Police reports need to be descriptive. I think they try to include as much information as they can, and when they release information to the public they try to include as much as they have in order to aid anyone helping out the investigation. But when you have a report here or there of a robbery, and the only information the witnesses bother to give to the police of any consequence is that the robber was black, I have to wonder if it does more harm than good to include it in news reports.

Syracuse University regularly sends out notifications to the entire university community whenever a robbery or assault has taken place in my neighborhood. I don't get these anymore, but I used to get them several times a week. The reports usually described the suspect. They usually said something vague about the person's height, occasionally mentioned a not-very-distinctive aspect of the person's dress (e.g. wearing a hoodie, wearing a baseball cap). They almost always gave the person's race, which was usually black. They almost never described what the person actually looked like in any more helpful way. Often it was less than that, just the race and maybe an indication that the person was tall or something that's true of lots of people.

Knowing that some black dude robbed a house nearby recently doesn't do a whole lot more than knowing someone robbed a house nearby recently, in terms of safety and awareness, and it can foster racial stereotypes and lead people who have all the good will in the world racially speaking to suspect black people in their neighborhood dressed a certain way, which is unfortunate. Implicit bias has been demonstrated to occur in people who have zero racial prejudice in any explicit and knowing way, and all it takes to have it is merely knowing that there is a stereotype. It affects non-verbal behavior even among well-meaning people. It can lead to unconscious effects in how someone is evaluated.

I can understand how a description of a thief or assailant who is known to be currently roaming a neighborhood looking for victims can help people aid the police in finding the person, but it has to be actually descriptive to make a lot of difference. If it isn't, but it does include the person's race, we might wonder if we're doing more harm than good in notifying thousands of people the next day that the previous night it was a black guy who robbed someone's house two roads down. I wouldn't suggest leaving it out of police reports, but notifications sent out to a huge community that don't actually help in finding the person but include the person's race entirely on the ground that it might help someone find the person seem to me to be a waste of time while contributing toward some of the more hidden aspects of racial bias.

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