Vera’s Policing Team, Arrest Trends, and Every Three Seconds: Unlocking Police Data on Arrests
Vera Institute of Justice
Feb 7, 2019


I am extremely pleased to be able to share with you the new data tool from Vera’s Policing Team, Arrest Trends, and accompanying report, Every Three Seconds: Unlocking Police Data on Arrests. The tool provides access to valuable data on arrest trends nationwide for the last fifty years down to the individual police department-level, and the report outlines early insights on high rates of arrests and racial and gender disparities that fuel mass incarceration, including a staggering 10.5 million arrests each year, or one every three seconds.

This tool was developed with the goal of elevating America’s narrative around police over-reliance on enforcement generally and arrests specifically, when and why they are applied, and how they are applied in different communities. To achieve this goal, Arrest Trends brings together and visualizes decades of publicly available data on multiple policing indicators, so that users can easily explore how arrests affect their individual communities, and the country as a whole.

Early use of Arrest Trends has already uncovered important trends regarding drivers, disparities, and effectiveness of arrests, including:

  • Across the United States, an arrest occurs every three seconds. Today’s estimated total arrest volume—approximately 10.5 million arrests annually—has dropped to historic lows not otherwise seen since the early 1980’s, yet the number remains unnecessarily high The detrimental effects of arrests on mass incarceration, diminished public health and economic prosperity, racial inequities, and unwieldy levels of bureaucratic work for officers make reform an urgent issue.
  • Black people now make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but an estimated 28 percent of all arrests. The estimated volume of arrests of black people across the country rose by 23 percent from 1980 to 2014. In 2014, black people were an estimated 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for “drug abuse violations” than white people—despite the fact that research suggests that black people and white people use drugs at similar rates.
  • Only 5 percent of arrests are for violent offences. The majority of arrests are for low-level offenses such as “drug abuse violations” and “disorderly conduct”, which make up over 80 percent of arrests. The overreliance on arrests for low-level offenses may translate into issues of fractured police-community relationships and mistrust, further impairing police effectiveness and public safety as a whole.
  • Drug arrests increased by 171 percent from 1980 to 2016, and now account for over 1.5 million arrests annually—the vast majority of which are made for possession of marijuana. This stark increase suggests that policing practices remain largely punitive in nature.  In light of the rising opioid epidemic—and the abundance of research suggesting that justice system involvement exacerbates rather than solves substance use disorders—it is imperative that we question our response to what is fundamentally a public health problem.
  • Suburbs within metropolitan areas have the highest average arrest rates than any other area.  To date, there has been limited research on suburban arrest trends, making this finding particularly worthy of exploration. This is especially true given that a number of high-profile police enforcement-related events in recent years that resulted in deaths—of black people in particular—have occurred in suburbs such as Ferguson, MO, Falcon Heights, MN, and Balch Springs, TX.
  • Arrests of women increased from 1980 to 2014 by 83 percent, while arrests of men decreased 7 percent over the same timeframe.  In 1980, women accounted for an estimated 16 percent of all arrests, but in 2014 they accounted for 27 percent. Women are more likely than men to be arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses such as drug possession. These types of offenses are exacerbated by life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles that also disproportionately impact women.

We hope that this tool will prove helpful in advancing your organizations’ research, program, and policy efforts and look forward to engaging with you on any questions or feedback you have.

Be well!


Micah Haskell-Hoehl 
Senior Government Affairs Associate

Vera Institute of Justice

1111 14th Street NW, Suite 920

Washington, DC 20005
202 465 8902

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