Catalyst Grant Program Insights Exploring Racial Disparities in Arrests among Native Americans in Flagstaff, Arizona
Olivia Stuart, Will Engelhardt, Wendy White
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Flagstaff police car crossing the railroad tracks in Flagstaff Arizona

A recently released study by the Southwest Center for Equal Justice examining racial disparities in policing practices in Flagstaff, Arizona, found that Native Americans were arrested at nearly 12 times the rate of white people, most often for misdemeanor “quality-of-life crimes,” minor infractions that, according to police, disrupt the quality of life among neighborhood residents and may lead to more serious future crimes. To work toward racial equity, police departments in Flagstaff and around the country should decriminalize quality-of-life offenses and provide culturally responsive resources for Native Americans. In addition, as police departments demonstrate accountability by publishing arrest data with information about race, advocates around the country can document similar injustices and make a stronger case for reforms.

There are 22 federally recognized Native American tribes in Arizona, several of which are near Flagstaff. These include the Navajo, whose tribal nation is the largest in the state, as well as the Hopi, Hualapai, Havasupai, and Southern Paiute. Flagstaff is known as a border town—a town on the edge of “Indian country” where Native Americans often come to work and shop off of the reservation. Border towns were established by settler colonialism, a system of power that normalizes settler occupation and exploitation of lands and resources and destroys indigenous cultures through displacement and genocide.

Historically, settler colonialism has enabled pervasive violence against Native Americans; 83 percent of Native Americans report having experienced violence in their lifetimes. These acts are significantly more likely to be committed by non-Native perpetrators. Border towns like Flagstaff often see high rates of violence committed toward Native Americans by residents and the local police. Native American women in particular face an epidemic of violence, including human trafficking and extremely high rates of missing and murdered women reported within and outside of tribal lands.

Native Americans, who make up just 2 percent of the US population, are arrested and jailed at disproportionately high rates. This largely reflects disparities for less serious, nonviolent offenses such as drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Aggressive policing strategies like the “broken windows” model are used to target low-level crimes to reinforce social control before those behaviors develop into serious offenses. This often results in the criminalization of circumstances like homelessness and poverty, which Native Americans experience at disproportionate rates. (Moreover, critics of broken windows and quality-of-life policing say they encourage racial profiling, increase distrust of police by members of vulnerable communities, and have little if any impact on reducing serious crime.) Native Americans are also more likely to be fatally shot by the police than any other racial or ethnic group, and the lack of reliable data suggests these numbers may be even higher than what is reported.

The US Commission on Civil Rights released a report in 1977 detailing the racially targeted overpolicing of Native Americans for misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes in Flagstaff, which remains standard practice in the city. Southwest Center for Equal Justice, a nonprofit organization in Flagstaff led by former public defenders, aims to identify and address such systemic issues of racial and class bias in the Arizona criminal legal system, from policing to sentencing. With funding from Microsoft’s Catalyst Grant Program, the center set out to determine how racial bias in policing practices disproportionately impacts the Native American community in and around Flagstaff. It analyzed publicly available data from the Flagstaff Police Department’s annual reports from 2014 to 2021 and obtained a random sample of 763 police reports from 2019 and 2020 directly from the department to understand the reasons for the contacts with the arrested individuals, the severity of their offenses, commonalities and differences between the offenses ascribed to Native American versus white suspects, and any other factors that could help explain the disparate arrest rates. Below are some findings from Southwest Center’s analysis.

Native Americans in Flagstaff were arrested at a significantly higher rate than white people, most often for misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes. Native Americans make up only around 10 percent of Flagstaff’s population but made up 40 to 60 percent of people arrested each year. In 2020, the arrest rate for Native Americans was almost 12 times that for white people. Native Americans were more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes, particularly drinking in public, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and low-level shoplifting. Southwest Center found no correlation between quality-of-life policing and a reduction in more serious offenses.

Disparities in arrests persisted even when controlling for people who recidivated, meaning the arrest rate among Native Americans was not driven by a small number of people arrested five or more times in a year (though people arrested five or more times were also disproportionately Native American). Controlling for people arrested five or more times in a year, Southwest Center found that 78 percent were Native American. Their analysis also found that even without including this group, the arrest rate among Native Americans was still 7 to 10 times that of the arrest rate among white people in Flagstaff.

The vast majority of people arrested by the Flagstaff Police Department’s Crime Suppression Unit were Native American. The Crime Suppression Unit consists of plainclothes officers who conduct walking patrols across the city to “special events, incidents, or targeted criminal activity.” According to Southwest Center’s data analysis, most of the arrests of repeat offenders made by officers in this unit were not in response to 911 calls from citizens or business owners but were initiated by the officers. Seventy-six percent of all arrests made by the unit were for drinking in public, but despite many arrests involving alcohol use, less than one-third of arrested suspects were described in police reports as appearing intoxicated. In its sample, Southwest Center found that 85 percent of people arrested by the Crime Suppression Unit were Native American.

Recommendations for Flagstaff and Other Communities

Although Southwest Center’s research sheds light on racial disparities in one community in the American Southwest, the following recommendations drawn from this work can have implications for communities across the country.

Reduce arrest disparities by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses and providing culturally responsive, community-based resources for Native Americans. By criminalizing behaviors that are often responses to a lack of resources (e.g., trespassing, loitering, drinking, petty theft), law enforcement perpetuates cycles of poverty without ever addressing their root causes. Rather than continuing to criminalize these behaviors in Native American communities, law enforcement and local policymakers should instead consider how colonization and historical and generational violence and trauma have exacerbated economic and health disparities in many of those communities. Investing in community-based resources and programs (e.g., community mental health, equitable and affordable housing, and substance use treatment) that address the problems Native Americans are being arrested for can help reduce crime and build safer communities. Such programming should be culturally responsive to address the community context of Native American clients, including by providing services in Indigenous languages, honoring traditions and rituals, and promoting trauma-informed practices that address the impacts of the historical trauma and continued systemic and interpersonal harm perpetuated against Native American communities.

Increase efforts for police accountability in data sharing and accuracy in police reports. Southwest Center made a public records request for all police reports documenting the arrests of repeat offenders in 2019 and 2020. But the Flagstaff Police Department has not set up its database to automatically hide confidential information and must manually review reports to redact information before releasing them, making the process onerous. The reports that Southwest Center did receive from the Flagstaff Police Department lacked crucial demographic information (e.g., ethnicities, addresses) and evidence (e.g., photographs of alcohol containers in cases where people were arrested for drinking in public).

Southwest Center’s recent findings show that, as in much of the country, Native Americans are arrested at disproportionately high rates compared with their community’s general population. By criminalizing quality-of-life behaviors instead of providing community-based supports, law enforcement perpetuates cycles of poverty without addressing their root causes. This does a disservice to Native Americans living in and around Flagstaff and the community at large.

The Catalyst Grant Program is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative to help nonprofit organizations use data and technology to advance racial equity and reform in the criminal legal system. Visit the Catalyst Grant Program Insights page for more resources and stories about the grantees.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Race and equity
Tags Crime and justice analytics Native populations Policing and community safety Racial and ethnic disparities Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Structural racism
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Research Methods Data analysis Research methods and data analytics
States Arizona
Cities Flagstaff, AZ