Virtually all members of Rock County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council agree that more data can aid efforts to reduce racial disparities.
But some officials warned against getting stuck in an endless cycle of always looking for more numbers to confirm what has been studied and understood more broadly: There are racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
Continuing efforts to find more data, those officials said at a council meeting Thursday, could accompany more tangible actions to address systemic racism in Rock County.
“If you look at every decision point in the criminal justice system, I think you will find disparity exists,” said Ashley Morse, a local public defense attorney.
“If you are serious about making change in this county, if that’s the goal, you should assume that the disparity exists at your decision point and think about what you can do to change that,” she said.
Discussion on the topic started when Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore wanted to make a point about data the group studied earlier this year: disorderly conduct arrests (with domestic violence cases, which require arrests, removed).
The council chose that kind of arrest to study because officers have more discretion in that area.
The data from 2018 showed disparities by race. In Janesville, black people accounted for 26.8% of those arrests. In 2019, black people were about 2% of Janesville’s population.
But Moore said when he examined other offenses that required less discretion—battery, robbery, recklessly endangering safety and homicide—the disparities were roughly the same in 2018.
“I pondered this study. And while it’s something we certainly need to consider, I don’t know that it is the bellwether proof of bias that at least some think that it is,” he said.
Janesville’s police chief said it would be a “rush to judgment” to say arrests should parallel census data because that’s not how “crime presents itself.” For example, he said police arrest more men than women and more young adults than older.
And because the root causes of racial disparities run deep, he said that means they have an “awful lot of work to do.”
“Because it’s deeper than just discretionary police arrests,” Moore said. “I think that we probably need to look deeper into poverty and parenting and some of these other issues that I think we’ll find probably cause some of these things.”
Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said, “These issues don’t start with the police.”
“The police are the end result of many issues that have happened to a lot of these folks before we have arrest contact,” he said. “Socioeconomic issues, housing issues, educational issues.”
In response to a follow-up question from Morse, the public defender, Zibolski said there is racial bias throughout society—including in police departments. But like Janesville’s police chief, he cautioned against expecting the crime data to match demographic data.
Marc Perry, executive director of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties, said he does not disagree that aspects outside the criminal justice system should be examined. But there is still bias within that system, he said, and the council is tasked with addressing it.
Carol Wickersham, who teaches sociology at Beloit College, agreed with the importance of looking at multiple data points. But she also said she knows how long it took the council to pick disorderly conduct as a narrow lens to look through.
“In the meantime, it feels to me like there are some things that we can be addressing,” she said. “So I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of years of research.
“I just don’t want to spend years of researching and then come back to that and say we still don’t have enough data.”
She said it was a “wise decision” to look at disorderly conduct arrests.
Kendra Schiffman, a data analyst with Rock County Human Services, provided the disorderly conduct data.
She said she agrees that they should look at more decision points within the system to study bias, but it’s an “enormous” amount of work to study these variables over time, and the council needs to decide who does what and how.
“It’s a matter of setting priorities,” she said. “With all due respect, I believe that this group has had a hard time of setting those priorities. And when you have limited resources, you have to set priorities before expending those resources.”
She continued: “You don’t have to have all the pieces together to act,” adding that there is lots of data out there already.
Faun Moses oversees the state public defender’s office for Rock and other nearby counties.
Like others at the meeting, she said she doesn’t want to point fingers. But she sees bias against her office’s black and brown clients and thinks the council has a lot of work to do.
Beyond the discussion on the data, both chiefs agreed that there was work to be done on fixing bias in the criminal justice system.
“I can tell you that I’m not going to wait for CJCC to have me make changes,” Moore said to Morse, the public defense attorney. “There’s things I can change. We’re moving forward with that. I’ve got some ideas on those.”
“I would agree with that, as well,” Zibolski added.
The council decided not to meet in August, which members said is similar to what the group has done in past years.
Its next meeting will be in September.