Drug Law Abuse in Onondaga County, New York

By Edward M. Shepard, PhD.
Chairman of the Economics Department
Professor of Economics
Le Moyne College

In recent years statistical studies have documented significant differences in number and rates of arrests for African Americans, as compared with those for Caucasians in Syracuse, NY. Differences have been especially pronounced for drug possession and public order offences.

The Syracuse Common Council sponsored studies in 2004 and 2006 to obtain information in order to address concerns about possible racial bias or racial profiling by Syracuse Police. The Syracuse Police Department has a formal policy prohibiting racial profiling and participated in data collection activities to provide needed data on stops and arrests for researchers. The studies were performed by faculty at Le Moyne College in 2004 and later at Syracuse University in 2006. Prior research relevant to this question was also undertaken by the Syracuse Newspapers in 2000 and 2002 and by Syracuse City Auditor Minch Lewis in 2003. These studies also provided evidence relevant to this question and raised concerns about possible racial profiling by Syracuse police.

With the Le Moyne study (2004) Professors Chin and Stuccio analyzed data on police-citizen encounters along with demographic information about the Syracuse population and found that “ a vast majority of citizens arrested (75.9%) are African American, disproportionate to their presence in the population”. They note that “only about 25 % of the general population of the city is African American.” However, Chin and Stuccio concluded that while “the data analysis points to patterns that could be called racial profiling…ultimately these results could not be considered conclusive” because of insufficient data. Specifically, the arrest data provided by the Department did not allow researchers to identify incidents (i.e. citizen encounters with police) that were initiated by a complaint or call. It is necessary to separate these incidents from other incidents initiated by officers, (i.e. “on-view” or resulting from officers observations, not from a dispatch). Without more comprehensive data, evidence from a statistical analysis of police encounters to address racial bias questions is inconclusive. Therefore, Chin and Stuccio recommended further study and the collection of more comprehensive data, among other recommendations, to overcome these methodological shortcomings.

A follow-up study was performed in 2006 by Horrace and Rohlin at Syracuse University. Researchers were provided more comprehensive data on “discretionary Police-Citizen encounters”, including stops and arrests, citizen race, and whether the incident involved a search or frisk. Findings from this research provide stronger and very significant statistical evidence of “differential police treatment” in Syracuse of African Americans compared with Caucasians. As with the prior study, data were collected by the Syracuse Police. However, the use of information on discretionary Police-Citizen encounters allowed researchers to overcome the shortcomings of the previous study. In addition, Horrace and Rohlin use more sophisticated “outcomes-based analysis” models which are favored by many economists for racial profiling studies.

Using these models, researchers can control for other explanatory variables (for example, propensities to commit crimes among different groups) that can complicate or muddy the interpretation of statistical results (Knowles, Persico, and Todd 2002). Statistical evidence of racial bias or “differential police treatment” of African Americans is much stronger, in comparison to results obtained using alternative “benchmarking” models. The statistical results obtained by Horrace and Rohlin are consistent with those obtained in prior studies; data on arrests and stops find that “African-Americans were consistently stopped at a rate above their population percentage, and Caucasians were consistently stopped at a rate below their population percentage in all areas of the city”.

Using the preferred models, they find significant statistical evidence of racial bias with police-citizen encounters in Syracuse. The results show a clear and consistent pattern of “over-frisking of African Americans” based on their statistical analysis of conditional arrest rates- arrests that are conditional on a frisk or search taking place- for African-Americans compared with those encounters involving Caucasians. Most strikingly, these statistical results hold for each area of the city, including high crime areas, low crime areas, predominantly black areas, and predominantly white areas. For each of these areas and for the city as a whole, “African-American citizens were searched or frisked without arrest more frequently than Caucasian citizens, regardless of the crime rate or racial composition of the area of encounter.” There are other findings in their report that also provide additional evidence of “differential police treatment” of African Americans compared with Caucasians in Syracuse.

Further evidence is provided in a recent study by the Justice Policy Institute; researchers conducted a national study of incarceration rates using data from 198 large counties—counties with populations exceeding 250,000 and having about 51 percent of the national population. Their report (Dec. 2007) found that African Americans in Onondaga County have the second highest rate of admission to prison for drug offences among the 198 counties in their sample. Specifically, incarceration rates for drug offences in Onondaga County were found to be 99 times greater for African Americans than for Caucasians, a rate that is 10 times greater than the national average.

In this report further evidence is provided using County and New York State data. Specifically, drug arrest rates for African Americans and Caucasians in Onondaga County are analyzed and compared with rates in other similar counties in the region and with New York State as a whole. The estimated arrest rates are calculated by dividing the number of drug arrests by the relevant population information.

Data on drug arrests are from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics. Population data for New York State and New York counties are from the 2000 U.S. Census for New York State. Arrest rates, per thousand county residents, are calculated for white and black populations each year from 1995 to 2004. (Population values for years other than 2000 are adjusted for population change within the state and within each county.) This evaluation of racial differences in drug arrest rates in Onondaga County identifies surprising results that warrant further investigation.

Specifically, the ratio of drug arrest rates for black and white residents indicates that the chances of arrest are substantially greater for black residents than for white residents in Onondaga County. Further, the arrest rate ratios in Onondaga County are also higher than those of similar counties in the region and significantly higher than New York State as a whole.

Table 1 compares the arrest rates for black and white residents in Onondaga County for total drug arrests (excluding violations), and for several categories of drug arrests (narcotics, felony, and sales.) There is an unusually high arrest rate for black residents in Onondaga County compared with white residents. The ratio of arrest rates (black arrest rate divided by white arrest rate) shows how much greater the chances of arrest are for black residents compared with white residents. During the years of the study, the chances of being arrested for drug felonies or drug sales are 20 to 40 times greater for black residents. A comparison of these Onondaga County arrest statistics with statewide averages and with similar counties in close proximity indicates that these findings are unusual. According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, drug arrest rates for black residents within New York State as a whole are about 4 to 5 times higher than that for white residents.

Table 2 presents New York State data on black and white arrest rates for crimes, including drugs, from the 2001 New York State Uniform Crime Report. The unique nature of street drug markets n urban areas has sometimes been offered as an explanation by Criminologists for why minorities experience higher drug arrest rates than whites. Because there is statistical evidence that drug use patterns for these two racial groups are similar, higher arrest rates for black residents are not a result of higher rates of drug use. (See the Appendix to this report summarizing recent survey data on drug use from the SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2002).

Drug arrest rates and the corresponding arrest rate ratios are also estimated for several nearby counties with similar characteristics to provide comparisons. These arrest rates and corresponding arrest ratios are presented in Table 3 for Erie County and Table 4 for Monroe County. Although the arrest ratios for these two counties also exceed statewide averages, the corresponding arrest ratios in Onondaga County are significantly higher than the arrest ratios in Erie and Monroe counties and significantly higher than NY State as a whole. The higher arrest rate ratios for Onondaga County have persisted over the entire time period included in this evaluation (1995-2004). Unfortunately, the reasons for this outcome cannot be determined from the available data.

These findings are surprising and raise important questions, especially given the similar characteristics of the other counties included in this assessment—Onondaga, Monroe, and Erie all have a similar mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities. Further study, including inspection and evaluation of original arrest reports, would be an important step for determining the reasons for these different outcomes for black and white residents in Onondaga County.


City of Syracuse Police-Citizen Encounter Study, Horace and Rohlin, Center for Policy Research, Syracuse University, February 2006

Analysis of Syracuse City Police-Citizen Encounters, Chin and Stuccio, Le Moyne College, June 2004

Report on the Syracuse Police Department Activity for the year ended June 30, 2002, by Minch Lewis, City Auditor, City of Syracuse, 2003

Knowles, Persico, and Todd “Racial Bias in Motor Vehicle Searches: Theory and Evidence”, Journal of Political Economy 109 (2001), 203-29

The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties, Justice Policy Institute, Dec. 2007

(Here are the tables and data supporting the opinion).

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