Understanding Structural Racism: Police and Jails in Washtenaw County

The Black Lives Matter movement rose up in response to the killing of Mike Brown by Ferguson police on August 9, 2014. Since then, the killings have continued across the country. Closer to home, on November 9, 2014, Ann Arbor police shot and killed Aura Rosser, a 40-year old black woman and mother of three. In this context, lots of folks have been talking about racism and the police.

Most of the time, these conversations focus on “bad apples”—biased individuals who act as if they were still living in the Jim Crow era. If we could get rid of these “bad apples,” some suggest, we could fix the problem. But focusing on individuals can make it harder to see the ways in which racist outcomes can be built into seemingly “neutral” laws, policies, and institutions.

All the police, lawyers, and judges involved in the criminal justice system don’t have to be “bad apples” for the system of mass incarceration to target black folks—who make up almost 60% of the Washtenaw county jail population but only about 12% of the population. That’s what structural racism is—it’s hard to pin down, doesn’t have a face, and can’t be prosecuted or punished.

Budgets express official priorities because they show what’s most important to the people who make them—they spend more money on the things they value more, and less money on the things they value less. Let’s look at our county’s priorities:

2014 Washtenaw County Expenses

Police and Jails

Social Services

Washtenaw County spent 3.6 times more on Police and Jails than on Social Services.*

Clearly our county spends more on policing and jailing black folks than providing social services. In Ann Arbor, specifically, policing is by far the city’s single biggest expense. The graph below shows the amount of money Ann Arbor has spent every year on the police, between 1986 and 2016 (requested). In the last two decades, the city’s police budget more than doubled, and until the financial crisis hit in 2008 it had nearly tripled.

Ann Arbor Police Department Expenses


These numbers are an attempt to “see” structural racism by looking carefully at the budget for policing and incarceration in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.

What the numbers reveal is that city and county officials here care more about policing and locking people up—and we all know that people of color and especially black folks are far more likely to be harassed, humiliated, arrested, beaten, and killed by police than white folks—than they do about supporting, protecting, or empowering them.

But what if these values were reversed? What if instead of spending more and more money on police and prisons, they valued programs that make it easier for black and brown folks to live better? Maybe instead of “solutions” that just transfer more and more money to the police, we should think about taking money away from them and transferring it to the things we care about. The question is: what kind of community do we want to live in?

*“Police and Jails” includes aggregated 2014 data from the following (ordered from biggest to smallest contribution to total expenses): Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and Jail, Ann Arbor Police Department, University of Michigan Division of Public Safety and Security, Ypsilanti Police Department, Pittsfield Town Police Department, Saline Police Department, Eastern Michigan University Police Department, Milan Police Department, Chelsea Police Department, Dexter Police Department. Social Services refers to the “Social Services” expenditure category in the Washtenaw County Budget.

—Researched and written by Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives

One comment

  1. Pingback: Who Killed Aura Rosser? | Radical Washtenaw


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