Skip to main content

Race & Justice News: A Visual Double Standard in Media Coverage of Opioid and Crack Epidemics

August 21, 2017
Media coverage of the opioid epidemic—which largely affects suburban and rural whites—portrays it as an outside threat and focuses on treatment and recovery, while stories of heroin in the 1970s, crack-cocaine in the 1980s, and other drug problems that impact urban people of color today have focused on the drug user’s morality.

Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Disparities in Settling Complaints Against Police in North Charleston, SC

new report by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, prompted by then-officer Michael Slager’s fatal shooting of Walter Scott, found that civilian complaints against police in North Charleston, South Carolina were less likely to be substantiated if they were filed by blacks than whites, reports The Post and Courier. Using records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD), the study analyzed 343 citizen complaints filed between 2006 and 2016.

According to the report, the NCPD concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support only 31% of complaints from blacks but 50% of complaints from whites. In complaints involving use of force, whites were seven times more likely to have their claims confirmed. Advocates are calling for a more transparent review process, with the police department posting yearly complaint summaries to its website. The report notes that these findings also underscore the need for the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) to complete and release its pending assessment of the NCPD.

Las Vegas Civil Asset Forfeitures Target Poor and Racially Diverse Neighborhoods

new report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) reveals that the majority of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s (LVMPD) civil asset forfeitures were conducted in neighborhoods with high levels of low-income residents and people of color, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In “Who Does Civil Asset Forfeiture Target Most?,” Daniel Honchariw matched the Nevada Attorney General’s 2016 report on seizures and forfeitures with geographic data received through public record requests. He found that two-thirds of the LVMPD forfeitures were made in ZIP codes where 42% of residents were people of color and the average poverty rate was 27%. In contrast, Clark County, covering Las Vegas, is 36% non-white and has a 16% poverty rate. Given that the majority of forfeitures involved less than $1,000, most people affected by this practice find no recourse given the high legal cost of reclaiming their assets. 

The report recommends abolishing civil asset forfeiture and adopting a criminal forfeiture system with the same due process protections afforded to criminal defendants. Short of that, NPRI recommends requiring criminal convictions for forfeitures and redirecting forfeiture proceeds to the county’s general fund, rather than to the police department. Senate Bill 358, which would have adopted some of these recommendations, was blocked this year by law enforcement. 

Racial Disparities in Classifying Civilian Homicides as Justifiable

The Marshall Project found that police label the killings of black men by white civilians as justifiable eight times as often as in all instances of homicides. Reporters Daniel Lathrop and Anna Flagg examined FBI data on 400,000 homicides committed by civilians (rather than police) between 1980 and 2014 to identify the proportion that were labeled justifiable, denoting that someone killed a victim who was committing a felony or in self-defense.

Across this period, the police classified 2% of all homicides committed by civilians as justifiable. Yet 17% of cases in which a white civilian killed a black man were categorized as justifiable. Lathrop and Flagg suggest that disparities in the initial categorization and the eventual outcome of murder cases may be due in part to implicit bias which can be overcome by trainings to help police officers, prosecutors, and juries acknowledge and account for their bias.

Racial Bias in Media Coverage of the Opioid and Crack Epidemics

“There is a clear double standard in the visual framing of the opioid crisis,” writes Michael Shaw in the Columbia Journalism Review. Media coverage of the opioid epidemic—which largely affects suburban and rural whites—portrays it as an outside threat and focuses on treatment and recovery, while stories of heroin in the 1970s, crack-cocaine in the 1980s, and other drug problems that impact urban people of color today have focused on the drug user’s morality.



Above: “A sub-theme of opioid crisis coverage: Many stories showcase children who have been saved by loving grandparents.” Photo from The New York Times, 2016.
Below: Drug stories about black families in cities present a “narrative of broken homes, addicted babies, mothers depicted as unfit, the engagement of state agencies, and children routinely placed into foster care.” Photo from The Washington Post, 1989.

Photos of the opioid crisis depict well-lit spaces, stress domesticity, and emphasize close-knit communities. In contrast, pictures of urban drug problems have depicted nighttime scenes on seedy streets or portrayed individuals interacting with the police, courts, or jails—often using starker black and white photography. In sum, Shaw argues, “Elected officials, the criminal justice system, and the American media have adopted a ‘kinder and gentler’ tone around the opioid crisis.”

Four New York City District Attorneys to Vacate Old Warrants for Minor Infractions

Four of New York City’s five District Attorneys will vacate 750,000 arrest warrants issued during the height of “Broken Windows” policing, report DNA Info and NY 1. Warrants that are at least ten years old and were issued when people did not appear in court or answer a summons for a minor infraction, such as drinking alcohol in public or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, will be vacated. Currently, police officers are instructed to give a civil violation or a warning for such minor offenses. The District Attorneys believe vacating these warrants—which were largely issued to low-income blacks and Latinos—will increase trust between law enforcement and residents. Michael McMahon, the District Attorney of Staten Island, said his borough would not implement this reform because it “sends the wrong message.”

Black Girls Viewed as More Adult-Like, Less Innocent

Black girls, particularly those between five and 14 years of age, are viewed as more mature and worldly than their white peers, perhaps leading to their harsher discipline and punishment in the educational and juvenile justice systems, according to a new report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. In “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia González surveyed 325 Americans online, asking two randomized samples about white and black girls’ maturity and responsibility at different ages. Respondents who were asked about black girls were more likely to see them as independent, knowledgeable about sex, and taking on adult responsibilities as compared to those asked about white girls. The project echoes Philip Goff and colleagues’ finding that black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than their white peers. Adultifying black girls could help explain why they are more likely to be pushed along the school-to-prison pipeline for similar behavior as their white peers.

Related Posts
July 20, 2022

Comment on Home Confinement Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The Sentencing Project's Executive Director Amy Fettig submitted comments to the Office of the Attorney General on behalf of The Sentencing project regarding the United States Department of Justice’s proposed rule on CARES Act Home Confinement.
July 27, 2022

Comments to the Food and Drug Administration on the Proposed Ban of Menthol Cigarettes

The Sentencing Project submitted comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the proposed Tobacco Product Standard for Menthol in Cigarettes.