Calhoun County Jail

inmates in the men's section of the Calhoun County Jail use telephones on Wednesday. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)

A report produced last month by the Anniston Police Department shows that African Americans represent a greater share of the department’s arrests, traffic stops and tickets than they do of the population the department polices.

According to the report, a memorandum based on data from the department’s records management software, African Americans represented 45 percent of the people arrested by officers in 2018, 47 percent of tickets issued and 46 percent of traffic stops.

That might seem about right for Anniston, a city where black people slightly outnumber whites, according to census figures. But the Anniston Police Department has jurisdiction in an area up to 3 miles outside of city limits that includes parts of Saks, Wellborn and other unincorporated communities. African Americans make up just 35.5 percent of the population of the combined area, according to the report. The report says the department doesn’t actively patrol the police jurisdiction, so most traffic stops were in the city limits, where blacks are a greater percentage of the population.  

Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said the data is one component of a regular annual review of the Police Department, itself a larger review by the city manager of all city departments.

Denham said race plays less of a role in who the department stops or arrests than other factors.

“What I mean by that is, we’re out there looking for bad guys. We don’t care if they’re black, white, yellow, green. It makes no difference to us,” Denham said.

Denham said that while the greater proportion of white residents in the police jurisdiction does have some effect on the figures, he said that most of the department’s activities take place within the city limits. He also noted that whites make up a majority of people involved in the three kinds of “citizen contacts” the department counted.

“Our stats make sense, because we’re policing more Caucasians than African Americans,” Denham said.

Critics of the Police Department and the area’s criminal justice system in recent days have accused police of harassing black people. Police officials have pushed back strongly against such accusations.

“If you’re almost 50 percent of the arrests but only 30 percent of the population, that’s a big problem,” Councilman David Reddick, who is black, said by phone Wednesday.

Councilwoman Millie Harris provided the report to The Star after Tuesday’s City Council meeting; she said Wednesday she provided it as a response to an event held Saturday by the county’s NAACP chapter, at which community members met to discuss racial profiling and air grievances about city police. Harris, who is white, said during the council meeting that she wanted residents to search for facts, rather than follow rumors.

“I think it’s important to look at the facts. I understand why people may feel they are being profiled and I understand that it has gone on,” she said by phone Wednesday, “but the statistics don’t bear that out, not in Anniston.”

In fact, the figures show at least some disparity between the racial makeup of the area’s population and those who have encounters with police, experts say. That disparity likely has many causes, of which any racial bias in policing is only one, but it’s important to investigate, according to experts consulted by The Star.

Erin Kearns, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said that if all else is equal, the demographic breakdown of arrests should reflect the population breakdown.  

“When that’s not the case, it raises questions,” she said.  

The crime breakdown could also be accurate, Kearns said, or there may be other, less obvious issues at work. The point, she said, is that the data is a signal worth investigating.

Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that data collection needs to be fair and accurate. She said that the purpose of tracking statistics like those Anniston’s Police Department examined is to improve interactions between law enforcement and communities, especially those that traditionally have mistrust of the police because of perceived misconduct. Numbers that are misrepresented, she said, can damage those relationships.  

“We need to contend with reality and there’s a strong level of distress that’s happening right now,” she said. “When something like this happens, the miscalculation we’re talking about, where a jurisdictional question happens, it can lead to mistrust.”  

Denham said he believes crime is influenced by poverty more than race.

“It’s a multi-faceted problem that really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with race,” Denham said.

Within the past year, Denham said, all officers went through anti-bias training conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“That’s one training that travels throughout the nation. That’s good training,” he said. “That obviously has been a hot topic for police departments nationwide, so it’s something that everybody is looking to make sure that their employees are trained on issues such as that.”

In addition to the racial breakdown of interactions with the public, the Police Department’s report examined the public’s complaints against officers in 2018. The department received 30 formal complaints about 31 of its members, the report said.

Three of the complaints were about racial profiling, of which two stemmed from traffic stops; one was filed by a victim against the investigator handling her criminal case.

According to the report, all three complaints were determined to be “unfounded” after police investigations into the claims.