As disparities for Black inmates in Outagamie County Jail persist, a nonprofit is looking into why

Faith Roska, systems advocate with People of Progression, is spearheading a project on racial justice reform in the county's criminal legal system.

APPLETON – Despite making up just 1% of the county population, Black people account for 17.5% of the Outagamie County Jail’s population, according to a 2021 study.

In an effort to curb this trend, an Appleton nonprofit that offers support to Black residents has started a research project looking into how county law enforcement interacts with people of color in hopes of minimizing disparities before they reach the criminal legal system.

People of Progression‘s project is one of 25 underway nationwide as part of the Catalyst Grant Program, a collaboration between the Urban Institute and the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative that provides recipients with funding, data and technology to advance racial equity in the criminal legal system.

Faith Roska, systems advocate for People of Progression, is spearheading the project plans to speak directly with Black people who have interacted with officers in the county as well as review law enforcement’s traffic data and service calls. The hope is to figure out why these interactions are leading to arrests and jail bookings.

“We’re not trying to figure out if (disparities are) happening, because we already know it’s happening,” Roska said. “We’re trying to figure out why and where the bulk of these interactions are stemming from.”

Black jail population disparities seen statewide

Matt Richie, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh department of criminal justice, conducted the 2021 study on Outagamie County Jail’s population. He also compared the jail’s Black and white populations on one day in 2019 with the same date in 2021 to measure any changes.

Richie, who is partnering with People of Progression on the research project, found that Black individuals made up 17.5% of the county’s jail population in 2021 — a decrease from 22% in 2019.

The percentage of Black people in the county jail is significantly higher than the county’s Black population, where 1.6% of Outagamie County residents identified themselves as Black, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Those disparities correlate with statewide numbers.

Black people are jailed in disproportionately high numbers across Wisconsin, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin analysis of booking records from sheriff’s offices across the state.

Black Wisconsinites have accounted for 6% of the state’s overall population but 38% of all the people in jails and prisons, according to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that examines mass incarceration. 

Related:New committee to tackle staggering racial disparities in Outagamie County Jail inmates

Related:Nearly half of Black inmates in Outagamie County Jail are not county residents, according to survey

People of Progression’s project gives Black residents opportunity to share experiences with law enforcement

To get to the center of why there is a high percentage of Black Outagamie County Jail inmates, the group is looking at the disproportionate number of contacts between police departments and people of color.

“We’re trying to find what’s the common catalyst of these events in our community and trying to find ways to negate that,” Roska said.

The group will look into interactions Black people have with law enforcement before arrests or charges are made, which means looking at data from law enforcement service calls, as well as talking with people who have interacted with officers.

The project already has buy-in from all law enforcement departments in Outagamie County, as every department has provided the data for all calls for service in 2021 — meaning information related to more than 200,000 calls to law enforcement.

“All of the chiefs and the sheriff in Outagamie County all agree this was a very worthwhile project to participate in,” Grand Chute Police Chief Greg Peterson told The Post-Crescent.

As far as analyzing law enforcement data, the group is interested in looking into calls for “suspicious behavior,” which Richie said can often involve “nervous people that are worried about people of color in their area, and they don’t know what’s going on, so they call the cops.”

Richie said for many people of color, their first interaction with the criminal legal system is police response to suspicious behavior calls for their innocuous behavior, which makes Black people feel targeted in their own neighborhood.

Within his department, Peterson said, he’s witnessed these types of calls where the behaviors the person is describing aren’t necessarily suspicious but may be a byproduct of how they perceive the person’s race or ethnicity.

“I was intrigued by the research proposal because I thought here’s an opportunity to empirically demonstrate if that is, in fact, the case,” Peterson said.

But police data on service calls doesn’t specify race, so the group will triangulate department data with conversations with residents to hear about their experiences with law enforcement.

The goal is to learn if certain slices of the public are more subjected to these calls and determine if there are different ways police can handle suspicious behavior calls.

Throughout the fall, Roska and Jesús Smith, Lawrence University professor of ethnic studies, will conduct listening sessions, surveys and one-on-one conversations with residents to give them an opportunity to talk about their experiences. 

Minimizing police interactions to reduce systemic racial disparities

The goal of the project is to understand and reduce disparities in policing in the hopes of bringing long-term improvements to the criminal justice system.

“The thing about racial disparities across the criminal justice system is that those things trickle down,” Richie said. “If there are racial disparities in policing, they’re going to continue throughout the courts and correctional system and they just get worse.”

By December, the group plans to analyze the data and turn it into an educational tool for the public and law enforcement departments in the county.

This could look like recommendations for law enforcement on how to handle suspicious-person calls or change records to include the race of people officers interacted with, Roska said. Ultimately, the final recommendations will be determined by what her team finds through its research.

Any changes would require further buy-in from departments and systemic changes to policing based on any recommendations the group comes up with.

Peterson said he was eager to participate in the project to learn if his department is taking the best course of action in responding to suspicious behavior calls or if his department may need to find better ways of responding.

People of Progression’s Executive Director Kristen Gondek has more general goals for the research project as well — she hopes the project will bring the nonprofit insight on how to further empower the Black community.

“We want to use the tools from this grant to learn how we can be a more helpful organization,” Gondek said. “From there, we can educate stakeholders and community leaders on how to further empower the Black community in our area.”

Sophia Voight is a local government and political reporter with The Post-Crescent. She can be reached with tips and feedback at svoight@postcrescent.com.

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