There was nothing overtly biased about the way the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Township Police Department described a mugging on its Facebook page in 2019. The first post described a Black suspect who was alleged to have threatened a victim with a gun and demanded cash. Two later Facebook posts congratulated the police on catching the suspect. Two years before, when a white man had robbed a gas station at gunpoint and fled the scene, the police department’s social media response was different. There was no mention of the case on social media, says John Rappaport, a University of Chicago law professor who is studying racial bias in law enforcement social media accounts. “The crimes are quite similar,” Rappaport said. “[It undermines] any notion that crime severity is straightforwardly driving the department’s posting decisions,” reports Five Thirty Eight. This is part of a pattern of bias that Rappaport’s team found in nearly 14,000 Facebook pages off U.S. law enforcement agencies. Researchers found that police Facebook pages consistently overreport crimes by Black suspects relative to local arrests rates: Between 2010 and 2019, Black suspects were described in 32 percent of posts but represented just 20 percent of arrestees.
Whites overestimate the percentage of crimes committed by Blacks by as much 20 to 30 percent compared to the actual figures. nationwide. Only a few areas didn’t overrepresent Black suspects, relative to actual arrest. The racial disparity in posts compared to arrests differed by type of crime, but was present across a variety of serious offenses. Car theft had the smallest disparity. Overall, Black people’s involvement in violent crimes was overreported by law enforcement Facebook pages by 11 percentage points and involvement in property crime was being overreported by 8 percentage points. At a time when relationships between traditional media and police have become strained, social media allows law enforcement to regain more control over narratives of crime, said Sarah Britto, a professor of criminal justice administration at California State University. In decades past, researchers found evidence of traditional media overrepresenting Black people as perpetrators of crime and under-representing crimes committed by white suspects. That’s changed — newer research suggests Black Americans are now underrepresented as both suspects and victims of crime in cable and network news. Political science Prof. Nicholas Valentino of the University of Michigan says the more Americans perceive poor people to be overwhelmingly Black, the less support they have for social welfare policies aimed at helping the poor. Portraying Black people as more likely to be arrested for a crime than they actually are may have a similar impact on how people view crime policy.