Although the total number of stops, searches, and arrests have each steadily fallen in the United States, women make up an increasing percentage of those who have been subjected to such interactions with police, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative. And in the case of uses of force, which have jumped rather dramatically since the late 1990s, women have accounted for a startling portion of the increase.
In recent years it has become more widely known that women are the fastest growing population of incarcerated people in the nation. And a growing number of local officials and jails and prisons are responding with gender-specific policies and practices to address the larger issue and to meet the needs of incarcerated women.
We know less about stops, searches, and arrests–those first stages of contact with the criminal justice system and who they impact–than we do about jails, the court system, prisons, and other points of justice system contact, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Using arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, and the survey responses within the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Contacts Between Police and the Public” series of reports, PPI aims to shed light on women’s increased presence at these points of entry into the system.
The Data Speaks
Over the last 20 years, the nation’s arrest rates have dropped by more than 30 percent–from a total of 15.3 million in 1997 to 10.6 million in 2017. These numbers have corresponded with a drop in crimes nationally, which have hit historic lows in recent years.
During this time men’s arrest rates decreased by 30.4 percent, but women’s arrest numbers dropped a mere 6.4 percent. At the same time, women make up a growing portion of all people arrested in the U.S.
In 1997, women accounted for 21 percent of those arrested. In 2017, 27 percent of arrests were women.
Much of the increase can be attributed to the fact that women are increasingly being arrested for drug crimes. Between 2013 and 2017, drug arrests increased nearly 25 percent among American women, compared with 6 percent among men. (It’s worth noting that just 3.8 percent of women’s arrests in 2017 were for violent crimes.)
Not all police interactions result in arrests, either. There were a total of approximately 2.1 million arrests, but 12 million police-initiated contacts with women over the age of 16 in 2015. And while women accounted for 27 percent of arrests in 2015, they made up 44 percent of all police-initiated (non-voluntary) encounters.
Women also experienced a smaller decline in traffic stops than their male peers since 1999, according to the report. And women now make up a larger portion of those who are searched during a stop. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of stops that led to searches declined by half for men, but remained the same for women.
Not only have women made up a growing number of police stops, arrests, and other encounters, but they are also more often than ever on the receiving end of police uses of force.
In fact, the number of women who experienced police use-of-force jumped 353 percent between 1999 and 2015–from 55,181 to 250,200– while use-of-force incidents involving men doubled during the same period.
When researchers looked at the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ survey data, they found that police used force against black (3.6 percent) and Latino men (2.5 percent) more often than their white counterparts (.8 percent) during stops. Police used force against white and Latina women at similar rates (about .3 percent), but used force against black women at rates a little higher than that of white men (.9 percent).
Black women were approximately 17 and 34 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white and Latina women respectively–racial disparities that were more pronounced among women than among men. (Non-traffic street stops did not produce significant racial disparities among women.)
In the case of arrests following police stops, the racial disparities were more pronounced among women than among men, with black women experiencing arrest three times as often as white women and twice as often as Latinas.
“As women become a more visible presence in our criminal justice system, it becomes increasingly urgent that we understand their experiences within it, both to better meet their needs and to enhance our analysis of how justice works (and doesn’t work) in the U.S.,” PPI researchers conclude. “The policing of women, especially women of color, has received less attention than the policing of men; it’s even received less attention than the incarceration of women.”
And the dearth of trauma-informed and gender-responsive policing practices is an “oversight” that has “serious consequences,” according to PPI. “With 12 million women per year experiencing police-initiated contacts – many of which involve searches, use of force, and other traumatizing experiences – it is critical that law enforcement take seriously the need for more female police officers,14 protocols, and trainings that can improve police-public interactions and reduce the harms to women.”