Arresting America: Parsing the data behind our broken system of policing

Do police target citizens just for being black? Do they write tickets and entrap locals, even the homeless, to fill coffers instead of investigating violent crimes? Are children in the U.S. arrested for prostitution, even though by law they are victims of sex trafficking?

In our new series, “Arresting America,” Fusion answers these and other questions, offering a nationwide picture of police arrest activity—especially where police are failing vulnerable communities.

How are we doing this? By taking an unprecedented dive into FBI-collected arrest and crime data from more than 16,000 jurisdictions across the U.S. The data is publicly available, and other news organizations have reported on it, too. But Fusion has wrangled it into a searchable database for the public, and used some of its key insights to drive wide-ranging storytelling. (The data, which is self-reported, is notoriously difficult to navigate. It is also incomplete, which you can see when navigating our interactive map.)

With this series of stories we’ve noted places in the country that exhibit patterns similar to those seen in Ferguson, Missouri, of commonplace harassment from the police and arrests for minor violations, particularly by minorities.

One of those places, it turns out, is far worse than Ferguson.

It’s Gretna, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb where 6,566 adults out of a total population of roughly 18,000 were arrested in 2013. That’s more than one arrest for every three residents. Only 49 of the arrests were for murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. Forty-nine.

What were the other arrests? Mostly for vague “other offenses,” such as not showing up in court to pay a fine. The result is a community where residents, especially African-Americans, feel vulnerable to the caprices of a system that’s supposed to protect them. Fines and arrests of residents bring Gretna money—money that perpetuates the entire system of fines and arrests.

While black Americans suffer most from Gretna-style policing, they are not the only victims. There are departments in virtually every kind of jurisdiction—major cities, largely black exurbs, wealthy white suburbs, resort towns—that make plentiful arrests for minor violations.

To find out more, explore our interactive map and see how arrest rates compare across America. Find out what your chances are of getting arrested in different jurisdictions. And read more of our coverage of America’s dysfunctional system of policing. Finally, share your thoughts about this project—we want to hear from you.

This content was made possible in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation and produced independently by Fusion’s editorial staff.

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