I'm an investigative reporter for USA TODAY. I mostly write about law and criminal justice. I've helped get some people out of prison, and put others in. Here's my latest story, about the big racial disparities in arrest rates: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/18/ferguson-black-arrest-rates/19043207/

My proof: https://twitter.com/bradheath/status/535825432957190144

Comments: 551 • Responses: 45  • Date: 

atay47138 karma

Have you ever thought that maybe there is racial disparity due to one race having more people commit crimes than the other?

Brad_Heath123 karma

Sure. The problem is nobody really knows whether or to what extent that's true. We know who gets arrested for crimes, but there are a lot of crimes that never result in arrests. Take marijuana use as an example. We know from a lot of surveys going back more than a decade that white people and black people tend to use marijuana at about the same rate. But black people are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate four times higher than white people are.

dkinmn27 karma

What else do we know. Where are they arrested when they're arrested? Are the marijuana arrests coincident with other crimes being broken?

Brad_Heath7 karma

The FBI data aren't detailed enough to answer that question. But the reports are based on the most serious offense for which a person was arrested. So the disparity in simple possession arrests suggests that it isn't happening because police are arresting people for more serious crimes and finding pot in the process.

scienceQA85 karma

In your investigations, did you find that racial disparities in arrest rates significantly differ among police of different races? For example: was racial profiling more significant among white cops than black cops? I noticed in the article it only mentions arrested black people by white officers.

BGaviator1358 karma

Please, it wouldn't be story if it was about anything other than white officers and black people.

Edit: sarcasm disclaimer

Brad_Heath32 karma

The story's actually about arrests by all officers. We have no idea whether they're black or white.

Brad_Heath27 karma

We didn't have enough data to really look at that. The FBI gives you total numbers of arrests by race. It doesn't give you information about the race of the arresting officer. A lot of the departments we looked at in more depth (Dearborn, for example), mostly have white police officers. But we didn't have enough data to even try to correlate it at the department level.

iltl3220 karma


Brad_Heath20 karma

I FOIA'd some detailed arrest data from Dearborn PD. Let's say that what the department actually produced (a list of names) bore very little resemblance to what I requested.

Npenz58 karma

A Wisconsin police chief pushed back hard on the findings in the report and said the disparity here falsely suggests police bias. Why did you weight it by population and why did some chiefs across the country claim that's unfair?

Brad_Heath29 karma

Good question. I haven't seen that chief's comments (if you have a link, please share!), but I've heard that criticism before. It's a fair concern. The census counts you based on where you sleep, not where you are during the day. And people move around -- we go to the mall, we drive on the highway, etc. So it's not a perfect barometer. But it's the best one we have for looking across such a large number of departments that serve such different communities. We tried some other approaches, too, but after consulting with a bunch of social scientists and experts on racial profiling, this was the one that made the most sense.

Npenz28 karma

Thanks. The comments were made here: "Appleton chief says bias isn't factor in arrest rates" - http://post.cr/1Atd9W4

Brad_Heath17 karma

Thanks. I'll take a look.

maunoooh37 karma

What was the most shocking thing/fact you came upon?

Brad_Heath85 karma

I was surprised that, by the numbers at least, Ferguson, Mo. turns out to be pretty ordinary. We've heard a lot there from people who feel singled out by the police because of their race. But the disparity in arrest rates in Ferguson matches the national average almost exactly. It's much higher in many other cities, including some that are close by.

iidesune36 karma

To what extent do you think this disparity exists because blacks are always assumed in the worst possible light? I read your story, and it just seemed that police in Dearborn are willing to give whites the benefit of the doubt. "we can let the white girls off, but we're going to handcuff this suspicious looking black guy because he probably has a gun."

Speaking from personal experience, I have been stopped by police at least twice in my life. The second time was on my college campus because I was out walking late in the evening to check on a test score. A cop showed up and handcuffed me without telling me what was going on. I remained calm, but he eventually told me they were looking for a burglar. Apparently, I fit the description. Eventually, he let me off without incident. But what struck me is that he felt the need to handcuff me. I can only hypothesize that he thought the worst of me-- that I could have been armed.

Brad_Heath33 karma

It's hard for me to generalize that way. But there are a few data points that might be probative. For example, the traffic-stop stats Missouri departments keep show pretty consistently that black drivers are stopped and searched at a higher rate than others. But those searches turn up contraband less often than they do when police search people of other races. I haven't seen a definitive answer to why that happens. But it raises a question about whether the police -- consciously or otherwise -- make a different probable cause determination before they search black drivers' cars.

kanooker20 karma

Do you think there is an inherent flaw in our system of media and journalism? What I mean is there is every incentive to make a mountain out of a molehill because ratings and money come first. What independent controls could we institute to keep the media honest? IE what is the media's check and balance?

Brad_Heath21 karma

Fair question. Our readers are probably the ultimate check. If you think we're blowing things out of proportion or being unfair, don't read us. Believe me, we notice. (On the other hand, if you think others are being unfair or blowing things out of proportion, stop reading them and read us instead.)

kanooker25 karma

Fair question. Our readers are probably the ultimate check.

I thought you might say that. Unfortunately media is about identifying a market and meeting it's needs ie fox news and msnbc. There really isn't an incentive to get to the truth because it seems most people are concerned with confirming their biases and media needs to satisfy it's shareholders. I think we need to find a more organic approach. Thanks for the reply.

Brad_Heath16 karma

FWIW, I know very few reporters who'd deliberately lie either for political reasons or to make readers happy. But that ideological segmentation you're talking about is a real thing. We'd all be better off if we read more things we disagree with. But nobody can make us do it.

kanooker12 karma

FWIW, I know very few reporters who'd deliberately lie either for political reasons or to make readers happy.

That's part of it, but it's more about reporters/journalists trying to make money and a name for themselves. They sensationalize and/or lie in order to take advantage of people's fears, biases and curiosity for page views. What's the control for that, because it seems once they put something out there it's hard to take back.

Brad_Heath21 karma

You are. Isn't the whole point of Reddit that you can call out BS in public?

I can only speak for my little corner of the media world, but trust is a better long-term business model.

ArbiterOfTruth10 karma

I honestly believe that the generic media answer of "If they didn't want this, we wouldn't be providing it to them" is the greatest flaw of "journalism" right now. People by and large aren't educated enough to judge what they see. Thus it becomes incumbent upon the journalist to seek the objective truth, regardless of whether it agrees with the emotions of the viewers or not. A harsh truth is better than a soft lie.

Brad_Heath6 karma

That's my job description in a nutshell. I wouldn't have it any other way.

mahmudkipz-1 karma

So basically you guys think it's OK to exaggerate and sometimes lie until you lose readers? That's messed up.

Brad_Heath7 karma

No. I don't think it's OK to exaggerate or lie ever. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone at USA TODAY who'd disagree. Trust is what we're selling. If we lose that, we're dead.

radicalracist15 karma

How often do white racists give you flak for doing work like this? You may have noticed the flood of racists here in this thread pontificating about the horrors of black culture and blacks as a threat to western civilization (yeah, people get out of hand).

How often do you experience this when out doing your investigative work? I know the internet brings out the worst, but do you see this when investigating as well?

Brad_Heath20 karma

You should see the e-mails. Usually readers don't take the time to look me up. (Inmates are the exception. I now have more friends on Corrlinks than on Facebook.) One guy called me yesterday to say he liked the story, though. That was cool.

TheShittyBeatles10 karma

Hi Brad. Thanks for taking the time to do this, and thank you for all your great work on criminal justice issues here in the US. My own background is in public policy and planning, so I view all government work as a well-balanced application of "Five Es": engineering (i.e., technology and process), education (formal or informal), encouragement (incentives), enforcement (disincentives), and evaluation (learning from and acting on past mistakes and successes). Your stories are very effective at showing what happens when these areas are not administered appropriately or in the right proportion. I'm interested in your thoughts on where and how we got off track and the path toward a more just system of policing.

In relation to these categories--or your own--where, specifically, are US police departments failing in the administration of their duties, and what area(s) do you think offer the most hope in getting these police agencies back on track?

Brad_Heath9 karma

Thanks for such a flattering question. It's actually a really hard one to answer. The police do a lot of things well -- my job tends to involve highlighting the things they don't. And a lot of those defy easy explanations. Racial disparities are a good example of that. I talked to a lot of police officers in reporting this story, and most of them said both that they would never take race into account, and that they don't know anyone else in their departments who would. But there could be more subtle issues at work -- where do police deploy their resource? Who do they stop for equipment violations? Etc.

CunthSlayer9 karma

In your recent article, it quoted the Dearborn Police Chief saying they were installing body cameras on officers. Do you think these, if used properly, can be effective in curtailing these disparities?

Great article, keep up the good work!

Brad_Heath8 karma


I don't think anybody knows whether they'll reduce or eliminate the disparities because we don't have enough experience with them yet. And we also don't know how much of the disparity is caused by overt bias. There's certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that cameras reduce allegations of police misconduct. (They also help settle a lot of unfounded complaints of police using racial slurs, etc.) But there will also be some trade-offs. I'm very interested to see how this all plays out.

DocWllk6 karma

Do you trust the numbers that are being reported? Isn't is possible that the reality is even worse than what has been reported? Do you intend to continue reporting on this issue? Thanks for your hard work.

I think the comment from zerowhiteguilt sums up the disparity as well as anything could.

"When are black communitys going to take responsibility for the actions of their own? Cops are not perfect but as a whole , blacks are a cultural dumpster fire that need a someone to blame so as to deflect the complete failure as race. I hope they riot and get smashed, and the local shop owners open fire. Trayvon got what he desrved, as did the big fatty who bullied a store owner then tried to do a cop. Whites are armed, whites are fed up , and whites are going to stand up and push back really soon."

As long as this is America's view of blacks, and it is, the situation will continue to get worse. I think it is already worse than is being reported.

Brad_Heath1 karma

Interesting question. I trust the FBI's crime reports about as much as I trust any data set that's stitched together from thousands of different agencies -- which is to say sort of. There have clearly been instances before of police agencies gaming their UCR numbers (see, e.g., Los Angeles and Milwaukee), though those have mostly had to do with trying to make the crime rate go down. And any data collection like this is bound to have some problems even if every agency really was trying to report honestly. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, which means there are probably about 25,000 different ways of keeping track of this stuff.

All that said, it's still the best data available. We just don't know what we don't know. (One of the things we know we don't know: anything about Florida. They haven't been reporting arrest data.)

DocWllk2 karma

In an answer to another comment you mentioned allocation of resources, do you believe there is any way quantify the amount of surveillance that goes towards blacks and if this constant observation is a form of entrapment of blacks and negligence in apprehending criminals of other races?

Thanks very much for the reply and again thanks for taking on such a difficult but important issue.

Brad_Heath2 karma

That'd probably be impossible to do at a national level, but pretty easy to do locally. Look at where the police are making traffic stops, where patrol cars are deployed, etc. Departments know that stuff.

For what it's worth, allegations of targeting go way beyond local police. E.g., http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/20/atf-stash-house-stings-racial-profiling/12800195/

guess_twat6 karma

In 2010 there were 12,996 murders in the US based on data from the FBI.

50.04% were black people being murdered or 6,503 despite making up only 12.61% of the population. 47.00% were white people being murdered or 6,108 while making up 72.4% of the population.

According to Politifact people are murdered by their own race 93% of the time. So it looks to me like the black murder rate is extremely higher than the white murder rate. It also looks like, according to the statistical data, that black people kill black people at an alarming rate.

With that being said, how does that factor into your theory that black people are unjustly targeted "profiled" for arrests? Do you not think that maybe there is a tendency for black people to be a little more violent and maybe thats why they are arrested at a higher rate?

Brad_Heath4 karma

Fortunately, murders make up a really small percentage of arrests in the United States. But assuming your assumptions are correct: Is there any particular reason to think that who's committing murders correlates with who's loitering, shoplifting, smoking pot? Those are the sorts of offenses that really drive the arrest rates.

TheOffTopicBuffalo4 karma

As an investigative reporter, how do you react to some of your college's who's "investigation" means simply running a quick Google search at best before writing their article?

Brad_Heath4 karma

I haven't run into that much. I work with a really good group. I can't imagine our editors would tolerate that. I wouldn't.

snorlz4 karma

I'm sorry to be so critical, but THIS was your big story? You really didnt report anything people didnt already know. The disproportionate arrest rates for blacks, and incarcertation rates which you did not mention, are common knowledge. You barely came up with any potential reasons for this, and much of that was focused on police bias which no policeman or department will ever admit to.

You also avoid the most obvious answer to the arrest rates- that blacks actually do commit more crimes. Im not being racist here; thats just what anyone not thinking about race would actually interpret from the data. You have section titles like "Large Gaps, No Easy Answers", yet you avoid the easiest answer? That the arrests are actually for the most part justified? You mention education and job disparities, but those are not direct causes of arrest rates. They are definitely factors that drive crime and are probably the root of the issue. This article was discussing arrest rates though and in what Im assuming was an effort to be PC, you beat around the bush and basically didnt say anything.

Perhaps you shouldnt be focusing on arrest rates. After all, you quoted Goff as saying arrest rates were just an indicator for the community. Perhaps you should actually look into the factors that matter and that would decrease crime- how to get kids to stay in school, the effectiveness of after school programs, etc. You work for one of the biggest news sites in the country. your articles are seen by tons of people. If you could investigate the root causes of social and educational disparity and offer solutions to combat this, your work could actually change the nation.

TLDR: This article says nothing new and offers no important insights into the issue. Maybe we should focus on the root cause of what drives people to crime more than the symptoms (arrest rates)

Brad_Heath14 karma

Let's assume every arrest was justified. That still doesn't get to a solid answer because we have no idea how many other people did something that would have justified arrest but weren't actually arrested. Take marijuana use as an example. We know from a lot of surveys going back more than a decade that white people and black people tend to use marijuana at about the same rate. But black people are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate four times higher than white people are.

I'll take the criticism that we didn't give the answer. That's true. And we've known for a long time that arrest rates (like stop rates, search rates, incarceration rates) are lopsided. But I think the geography of those differences is interesting. I didn't know that before I started looking.

Netprincess2 karma

Did you look into any of the issues in Albuquerque NM?

Brad_Heath5 karma

Not much. But my colleague Kevin Johnson has. I really like his work. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/09/10/cops-fatal-shootings/15277951/

Kingoftheloserss2 karma


Brad_Heath1 karma

No idea. My favorite stories are the ones that surprise me. So if I could guess what it would be, it wouldn't be one of my favorites. (Reminds me of a great Bloom County strip, though, about the stock market plunging down a well ...)

openGavin2 karma

How hard was it for you to access this data? To do the research you wanted to with it?

Do you ever give feedback on the data you use as to how the government might make it more useful for reporters?

Brad_Heath3 karma

The hardest part was matching the arrest data with the demographics for the communities the departments serve. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has a crosswalk file that's pretty helpful for that. It's old, so we had to do some manual updating. But my understanding is they're working on a new version.

BJS also publishes a lot of the arrest data. You can query here: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=datool&surl=/arrests/index.cfm#

Brad_Heath2 karma

Thanks for (almost) all of the interesting questions. I'll try to check back in later, or feel free to ask more on Twitter, http://twitter.com/bradheath.

Anonymoose152 karma

Aren't there more black people then white people in ferguson, so wouldn't that mean the black arrest rates would be higher anyway?

Brad_Heath6 karma

These are population-based rates (number of black people arrested per thousand black residents). They account for those differences.

Ltlmike2 karma

Question 1: There are still investigative reporters? I thought you get all your information from Twitter and Reddit..

Question 2: Did you find out anything new? Arrest rates have been known to be different depending on your skin colour.

Brad_Heath6 karma

1: There are. I work with some very talented ones, who've done groundbreaking work on airplane safety, gas pipelines, dietary supplements. I got my information for this story from the FBI, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and local police departments through FOIA. Plus lots of interviews.

2: It's definitely not a surprise that black people are arrested at a higher rate than others. What I didn't know before was just how much that disparity varies from place to place. In a few places, arrest rates are more or less even. In others, they're very lopsided.

Ltlmike6 karma

In which regions were they more even?

Brad_Heath3 karma

There's not really a regional distribution. Check out the map we published with the story - http://www.gannett-cdn.com/experiments/usatoday/2014/11/arrests-interactive/. The orange dots show departments that arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than the rate at which they arrested people who are not black.

[deleted]1 karma


Brad_Heath5 karma

Personally? Never. I can probably count my personal interactions with the police on two hands, and they've been unfailingly professional. But other people have had very different experiences.

kutchduino1 karma

As an investigative reporter, not including this article, were there any items you were investigating where some superior, or other individual(s)/organization(s), suggested you not pursue it any further?

If you did pursue it, were there any ramifications? Likewise, if you dropped it, were there any rewards?

Additionally, are there any topics that are generally seen as off limits to reporters like yourself, such as, but not limited to, UFO's, three letter government agencies, corruption in general (not limited to the US), electronic surveillance, or number of, and reason for, potholes in certain parts of the country?

Thanks! Enjoy this AMA!

Brad_Heath2 karma


There have been times when my editors have said they didn't think the story held up, or because they didn't think our readers would be sufficiently interested to justify the effort. Most of the time I think they're probably right. But I don't know of any topics or institutions that are off-limits. We cover surveillance and privacy, and I know my editors would love to have even more. (So if any of you three-letter types are reading this, my contact info and PGP key can be found at http://bradheath.org/contact.) We even investigate potholes: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-09-24-stimulus-roads_n.htm

johndeaux5881 karma

so is your hypothesis is that police ignore white crime and only focus on black crime??

Brad_Heath30 karma

No. In fact, nobody really knows why these disparities exist. It could be a product of biased policing. It could be a product of deeper economic and educational disparities. It could be a mix of a bunch of different things. There are researchers trying to figure this out -- a lot of police chiefs really want to know the answer -- but they haven't come to a solid conclusion.

HurricaneMeghan1 karma

Did you not do any statistic for DC? If so why is it that the nations capital always seems to be left out?

Brad_Heath9 karma

Because the Metropolitan Police Department didn't report its arrest data to the FBI. Same reason we had very few stats for Alabama and Illinois and none for Florida.

BBTaeKwonDo1 karma

Did you try to figure out whether the disparity was caused by people letting white people go while a black person would have been charged with the crime?

I'm asking because I've been pulled over three times for traffic violations in the last ten years. Each time, I've been given a warning. I've often wondered if I were black, would I have gotten a ticket?

Brad_Heath6 karma

Some police departments keep track of things like the percentage of stops that lead to searches, etc. (Blacks are searched at a much higher rate than whites, but a lower percentage of those searches yield contraband.)

But we don't have any data about whether the police let some people go for a particular type of offense while arresting others. This would actually be an interesting use of body cams, since it would presumably produce some complete record of how often an officer arrests someone for, say, loitering compared to how often he just tells the person to move along.

wellwrittenhate-3 karma

Why is your newspaper written for people who never finished high school? Do you turn in your stories written in crayon?

Brad_Heath7 karma

Crayons tend to gum up our CMS. `

Baba_OReilly-6 karma

Are you black or white?

Brad_Heath4 karma

White. See, e.g., http://twitter.com/bradheath.

sd5151-8 karma

What are your views on the whole news being bought allegations,where its said that,it is how information is.controlled and directed? Do you think that's over-rated,or is it valid?

Brad_Heath5 karma

Bought in what way?

Outlaw_Raven-11 karma

why do journalists feel the need to mass produce race baiting articles that give the African American population an excuse to not take responsibility for their actions?

(cant really call it investigative at this point as all of these articles are pretty much cut-and-paste. same findings just different cities)

Brad_Heath3 karma

I can't speak for anyone else, but this one was totally hand-crafted. (And we published it because it's both important and true.)

Outlaw_Raven-6 karma

just dont understand why its IMPORTANT to point out that blacks get arrested more frequently than other races. other than to cause more racial divide.

Brad_Heath8 karma

Because this disparity isn't lost on the people who are being arrested, their friends, or their families. That can translate into mistrust of the police. And that mistrust played a big role in how things played out in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed. That's one of the reason police chiefs are actually pretty interested in figuring out what's going on. Whatever's causing these disparities, they make the police's job harder.