The Issue

The use of arrests can have a multitude of detrimental individual, community, and agency level effects. (See Table 1.) These disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities in ways that exacerbate existing structural disadvantages, lack of economic opportunity, and material insecurity.Robert J. Kane, "Compromised Police Legitimacy as a Predictor of Violent Crime in Structurally Disadvantaged Communities," Criminology 43, no. 2 (2005), 469-498; and Karen F. Parker, Brian J. Stults, and Stephen K. Rice, "Racial Threat, Concentrated Disadvantage and Social Control: Considering the Macro‐Level Sources of Variation in Arrests," Criminology 43, no. 4 (2005), 1111-1134. Although arrests are a necessary part of the justice system, police officers have discretion to take alternative, less invasive courses of action (such as applying de-escalation techniques or referring people to supportive services), which in many circumstances may be more appropriate for or beneficial to the individual person, community, officer, and agency.Rachel A. Harmon. "Why Arrest?" Michigan Law Review 115, no. 3 (2016), 307-364. Yet few formal alternatives to arrest currently exist.

Detrimental effects of arrests

Individual levelCommunity levelPolice agency/officer level
Financial challenges associated with underemployment, reduced wage growth, and legal and incarceration expensesGary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, "As Arrest Records Rise, Americans Find Consequences Can Last a Lifetime," Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2014,; Barbara Krauth and Karin Stayton, Fees Paid by Jail Inmates: Fee Categories, Revenues, and Management Perspectives in a Sample of U.S. Jails" (Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, 2005); MCL 769.1f,; RCW 10.01.160,; Shoshana Weissmann and Nila Bala, "Criminal Justice, Occupational Licensing Reforms Can Go Hand in Hand," The Hill, April 15, 2018, ; Bruce Western, "The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality," American Sociological Review 67, no. 4 (2002), 526-546; and Alexander Williams, Final Report of the Collateral Consequences Workgroup (Annapolis, MD: Maryland Collateral Consequences Workgroup, 2016), . Fractured police-community relationsHarmon, "Why Arrest?" 2016. Traditional policing practices are expensiveJennifer Bronson, Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts, 2013 – Final (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018),
Difficulty obtaining and retaining housingEisha Jain, "Arrests as Regulation," Stanford Law Review 67, no. 4 (2015), 809-867, 811, Perceptions of unsafety and police distrustIbid.; Tom R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); and Amanda Geller, Jeffrey Fagan, Tom Tyler, and Bruce G. Link, "Aggressive Policing and the Mental Health of Young Urban Men," American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 12 (2014), 2321-2327, Limited resources available for community and proactive policing purposesPresident’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015)
Diminished physical and mental well-beingFor examples of individual collateral health consequences of arrest see Joseph A Bick, "Infection Control in Jails and Prisons," Clinical Infectious Diseases 45, no. 8 (2007), 1047-1055,; and Andrea M. Burch, Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009-Statistical Tables (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011), Community members without direct justice system involvement also experience individual effects from proximity to arrest, see Abigail A. Sewell and Kevin A. Jefferson, "Collateral Damage: The Health Effects of Invasive Police Encounters in New York City," Journal of Urban Health 93, no. 1 (2016), 42-67, Minimal collaboration on public safety goals with police departmentsFor ways in which negative perception of police departments adversely affects community collaboration see Kane, "Compromised Police Legitimacy," 2005; Michael D. Reisig, Justice Tankebe, and Gorazd Mesko, "Procedural Justice, Police Legitimacy, and Public Cooperation with the Police Among Young Slovene Adults," Varstvoslovje: Journal of Criminal Justice & Security 14, no. 2 (2012), 147-164,; and Jason D. Scott, "Assessing the Relationship between Police-Community Coproduction and Neighborhood-Level Social Capital," Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 18, no. 2 (2002), 147-166, Risks of physical harm to officersFBI, "2013 Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted,"; and Lum and Fachner, Age of Innovation, 2008.
Legal risks, such as detainment, loss of child custody, and deportationJain, "Arrests as Regulation," 2015, 809-867; Strategies for Youth, Collateral Consequences of Arrest and Court Involvement (Cambridge, MA: Strategies for Youth, 2011),; and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, The Collateral Consequences of Arrests and Convictions under D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Law (Washington, DC: Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 2014), Civil unrest in response to perceived unfairness of arrest practicesConor Friedersdorf, "The Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore," The Atlantic, April 22, 2015.; Elise B. Sargeant, "Policing and Collective Efficacy: The Way Police Effectiveness, Legitimacy and Police Strategies Explain Variations in Collective Efficacy" PhD dissertation, University of Queensland (2012). Poor officer morale, which can result in overuse of sick days and recruitment challengesJustin Fenton and Justin George, "Violence Surges as Baltimore Police Officers Feel Hesitant," Baltimore Sun, May 8, 2015,; Justin Nix, Scott E. Wolfe, and Bradley A. Campbell, "Command-level Police Officers’ Perceptions of the "War on Cops" and De-Policing," Justice Quarterly 35, no. 1 (2018), 33-54; and John A. Shjarback, David C. Pyrooz, Scott E. Wolfe, and Scott H. Decker, "De-policing and Crime in the Wake of Ferguson: Racialized Changes in the Quantity and Quality of Policing Among Missouri Police Departments," Journal of Criminal Justice 50, no. 1 (2017), 42-52.
Risk of harm to innocent bystandersBrian Reaves, Police Vehicle Pursuits, 2012-2013 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2017), 6,, and Cynthia Lum and George Fachner, Police Pursuits in an Age of Innovation and Reform: The IACP Police Pursuit Database (Alexandria, VA: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2008),

Researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike need information on the dynamics of policing to better understand how the overreliance on arrests drives mass incarceration and deepens other social inequities. But unless one knows how to navigate the multitude of public datasets available, there is no easy way to find and interpret data on the basic components of American policing—such as how often people are arrested, who police are arresting and why, or whether community members collaborate with and report crimes to the police.

Although police agencies and the federal government invest significant time and resources into collecting policing data, the data is not easily accessible, centrally located, or available in a user-friendly format.To date, several resources exist to aid in the analysis of policing data, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrests and National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) calculators; the FBI’s Persons Arrested, Clearances, and Offenses Known to Law Enforcement Tables; and the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, among others. These tools are beneficial in that they are efficient, relatively easy to use, and often customizable, but they remain limited in the ways described above and most notably are decentralized. Files are often large and require a great deal of cleaning, restructuring, merging, statistical knowledge, and computing power to analyze. In addition, there is no simple way to compare data across locations, see information from agencies that only share partial data, or calculate arrest rates among specific demographic groups. For data-savvy researchers, this is technically possible, but time intensive.

For other stakeholders, such as police chiefs, advocates, the media, and community members—who may want to learn about how arrests affect their communities or how the implementation of a particular policy changed arrest trends over time—this is a much harder task. As a result, it can be difficult to lift the veil off policing practices for both community members and police practitioners alike. The result is that those who do not have the time or technical expertise to go through reams of data often only have access to high-level information—such as overall crime rates—to make decisions.

At a time when confidence in the police is low—particularly within communities of color—and in the wake of high profile incidents of police violence, increased transparency and access to information about police practices is more important than ever.Police Assessment Resource Center, “Seattle Police Department,; Jacey Fortin, “Jeff Sessions Limited Consent Decrees. What About the Police Departments Already Under Reform?” New York Times, November 15, 2018,; and U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2015), Moreover, access to good data is necessary in order to build an evidence-base for practices that are intended to make communities safer—including those that serve as an off-ramp from the justice system (and thus incarceration), as well as those that strengthen and improve trust between police and the communities they serve.