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Disproportionate Minority Contact: It's Tricky

Derek Mueller and Kort PrinceIt was a Tuesday morning with Dr. Kort Prince, interim director for the Utah Criminal Justice Center (UCJC), and Derek Mueller, Utah Criminal Justice Center senior research analyst.  The topic of the day was DMC—that is, disproportionate minority contact—in the state of Utah. 

UCJC had been contracted by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to analyze the ratios of contact at the arrest and referral stages with minority youth relative to white youth, adjusted for the population prevalence of both in each jurisdiction—more commonly referred to as relative rate indices (RRIs).  When modeled or graphed over time, these RRIs show whether minority youth and white youth are coming into contact with police at equal rates.  The numbers are helpful in understanding whether parity exists, but they wanted to know more.  Specifically, they wanted to know why and how: Why does parity exist or not?  What factors influence changes over time?  How do officers in each jurisdiction explain the numbers on the page?

Their research plan included two primary data collection points.  First, they sent out a survey for individual police officers to fill out anonymously, showing them the RRI trends in their jurisdiction and asking them questions about how they explained the trends shown.  Second, they conducted semi-structured interviews with officers who were knowledgeable about DMC and how it functioned in their individual jurisdictions.  Dr. Prince explained their rationale: “We saw this as giving officers a voice—who knows better?  They’re the ones who deal with the youth.  They’re the ones who deal with the parents.  They’re the ones who deal with the schools.  But,” he explained, “most of them didn’t see it that way.”

Instead, a majority of the officers viewed the questions coming from the Utah Criminal Justice Center as an attack, a way of making race an issue when—from the officers’ perspectives—it wasn’t.  Dr. Prince explained, “It’s a tricky situation for us as researchers because we have to ask ‘Does race matter?’  There’s no way to argue race is not a self-reported factor among officers unless we specifically ask about race in some fashion.” 

Mr. Mueller confirmed, “The term DMC was definitely seen as a pejorative.  By asking the question, officers felt we were calling them racist.  A lot of what we saw was officers shutting down.”

Ultimately, the numbers did show that there is considerable disparity in the state of Utah—present in every jurisdiction at most points in the data reviewed.  Although officers said race wasn’t a factor in the arrest decision, many did say that minority youth were more likely to offend.  Mr. Mueller explained that this is a common theme in research around DMC. 

“If you internalize a belief that minority youth are more likely to be in a gang, or more likely to be violent, that’s going to shape your interactions,” he said.  “If you come into contact with certain youth or see certain characteristics of youth over time, it shapes your perceptual shorthands—what you rely on as a quick and fast way to inform decision making.  And these sometimes have built in biases or can be based on factors completely unrelated to public safety.   Sometimes it’s factors that shouldn’t be related to the decision making process at all, but they end up shaping decision making.”

What CCJJ, Dr. Prince, and Mr. Mueller took from this, and plan to address earlier in their process in future projects, is the need to address the emotional climate surrounding DMC. Even though the state had a DMC coordinator—a person hired specifically to address DMC concerns state wide—most officers did not know that position existed, let alone remember what the coordinator had said.  This project highlighted the need for both researchers and community partners to address the view that DMC is a police-related pejorative in order to obtain an objective understanding of the police perspective on DMC.  “Because the police are the first point of contact, everyone tends to shift the blame back to them,” said Dr. Prince.  “But the thing is, DMC is not just about police; it’s about the system and how youth are handled throughout the entire criminal justice system.”

Mr. Mueller said that although there isn’t currently a wide body of research to show how effective different interventions are in achieving change, there are general guidelines for ways to approach DMC successfully.  Mr. Mueller had the following suggestions:

  • Using a top-down approach. “Once the administration of a department buys into the realization that DMC exists and wants to try to address that, it gets a better sense of buy-in from the officers who work beneath that administration.”
  • Generating awareness, particularly through the role of the state DMC coordinator. This survey showed many of the officers in the state didn’t even know this position existed. “It’s important to have someone that can use state level or agency-specific data to help inform officers on this issue and talk through it more, breaking down the barriers of resistance to the idea that DMC exists or the narrative that DMC is an attack on them specifically.  This is a larger problem than related to individual officers.”
  • Using a community policing strategy. “When you have officers in the community serving as mentors for youth, helping with sports and after school programs, the community is able to see that their jobs are more than large scale raids.  You’re showing that this is not just a brute force cop coming in to your community in search of making an arrest.  These people care about the community.”
  • Hiring officers that represent the communities they are serving. “Officers that represent the community have the most cultural insight into the community’s differences. How things operate across different cultures is important and someone from one culture won’t have that lived insight into another culture.  It’s a way of legitimizing the police to generate a more trusting relationship.”

In the end, Dr. Prince and Mr. Mueller say the most important thing that needs to be done is to promote understanding of what DMC is and isn’t.  “If you don’t have positive interactions with those doing research and those who are responsible for understanding the DMC training, you can’t tear down this wall that’s been built around this term being a negative.”  Dr. Prince continued, “This isn’t about finger pointing, it’s about problem solving, but that message isn’t getting out.”

Last Updated: 1/9/20