As conversations about racism and police brutality have spread to every corner of the country, including the Outer Cape, police data have been at the root of efforts to expose and end racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Black residents make up less than three percent of the population in each of the four Outer Cape towns, while black people account for 8 to 12 percent of the arrests, according to police records for 2019 reviewed by the Independent.
While some would argue this may reflect the lived experience of people of color on the Outer Cape, local police chiefs say that comparing year-round population data with arrest rates doesn’t provide the full picture.
In 2019, 90.6 percent of Provincetown residents were white, and the corresponding numbers were 97.4 percent in Truro, 90.8 percent in Wellfleet, and 92.7 percent in Eastham, according to towncharts.com, which uses data from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey.
Black people account for a small fraction of the communities of color on the Cape but make up a disproportionate number of those arrested.
Less than 2 percent of the populations of Provincetown and Wellfleet are black, but 9 percent of the arrests “on view” and based on “incident and warrants” in 2019 in both towns were of black people.
In Truro, just 2.2 percent of the population is black, but 12 percent of those arrested in 2019 were black.
Eastham, with 2.6 percent of its population being black, had the lowest proportion of black people arrested on the Outer Cape: 8 percent — still more than three times their share of the town’s residents.
The Independent also reviewed police dept. traffic data. In 2019, black people accounted for 10 percent of Provincetown’s motor vehicle stops, and 7 percent of Wellfleet’s motor vehicle stops. Eight percent of motor vehicle citations given by the Eastham Police were to black people in 2019. In Truro, blacks received 11 percent of the motor vehicle citations for the period January 2019 through June 8, 2020.
The population data don’t account for nonresidents, which the chiefs in Truro, Eastham, and Wellfleet argued makes for an unfair comparison with overall arrest and traffic stop rates.
“I think to draw any conclusions from this type of data you would need to take into consideration our drastic increase in population during the ‘in season’ months,” Eastham Chief Adam Bohannon wrote in an email to the Independent. While his department works to ensure safety on Route 6, Bohannon wrote, officers “are encouraged to strictly enforce traffic laws while treating all individuals that they encounter with respect and fairness.”
Truro Police Chief Jamie Calise agreed, writing that “the limited statistical information based on permanent residency does not account for other aspects of our population, such as the significant number of people who visit or pass through the town each day.”
The Wellfleet police “will see 30-35 arrests in July along with 400 motor vehicle stops but in January see 3 arrests and 100 motor vehicle stops,” according to Chief Mike Hurley. “The point here is that the population we are encountering and dealing with during these months have a chance more than likely not being from Wellfleet.”
Wellfleet began collecting data on race voluntarily about 15 years ago. Officers don’t usually subjectively determine someone’s race; it’s usually recorded on government identification, Hurley said.
Hurley said he believes that the Outer Cape’s biggest challenge is socioeconomic, not racial: “I see people with millions of dollars, to people who are struggling to live here,” he said. “Some people are living in the woods in tents. That’s a bigger area we struggle with down here than other parts of Cape or country.”
Still, Hurley has felt the shock wave from George Floyd’s killing, telling the Independent, “What’s horrifying in this event — there are always bad apples. But the fact that three other police officers stood by.”
While he felt the arrest data could be misleading, Hurley said he didn’t have “any easy solutions on how you could accurately capture all these moving parts.”
Racial disparities in arrests prevail throughout the U.S. In 2016, 26 percent of Americans arrested were African Americans, double their percentage in the U.S. population.
Like many other citizens, Hurley said a change in policing is needed. “The system is broken, from mental health, to the courts, to training, to laws,” he said. “I think it’s really time for a serious discussion on the whole criminal justice system.”
‘That’s the Legacy I Have’
“When all of this exploded it wasn’t because it was new,” said Panchita Peterson, addressing the uprising that has followed the death of George Floyd.
Peterson, who lives in Wellfleet, has been addressing racism on Cape Cod for about 40 years. She describes herself as a “dark-skinned Afro-Caribbean woman.”
“I have three sons,” Peterson said. “It’s been a fear of those of us with black children, black men especially, that they really could become the focus [of police] at any given time and be shot.”
Twenty years ago, on Feb. 21, 2000, Wellfleet Police Chief Richard Rosenthal pulled his gun on Mamadou Sow, a young man from Senegal who was staying with Peterson.
Rosenthal told the Independent that a fellow officer called for backup after noticing a man acting “suspiciously” on the bike path. Rosenthal arrived on the scene and confronted Sow.
“This guy’s wearing earphones and I’m yelling for him to stop,” Rosenthal said. “He jams his hand in his pocket. When a police officer sees someone jam their hand in their pocket it’s a very dangerous moment. If I can’t see your hands, I don’t know what you got. So, I pulled my gun on him.” He maintained that his action was not racially motivated.
Peterson remembered the encounter as Sow, a student at Cape Cod Community College, told it to her. She said he was walking to catch the bus to Hyannis, as he did each day.
“Every day he would be in his Senegalese robe and prayer shawl around his head,” Peterson said. “You couldn’t miss this tall black man in a robe.
“He was walking on the bike path. They called in the force, and they met him at our street corner on Route 6. They put a gun on him and asked him what the hell he was doing here,” she said. “I wonder what I could have said to his mom had he been shot. That sticks in my mind.”
Her own son, she said, was followed one night and stopped by the police.
“They wanted to know why he was, where he was, and what he was,” she said.
“I know the police chief now,” she continued. “He’s always friendly. The truth is I’ve only had those two difficulties told to me by two of my children, but, in a way, I have been forewarned. That’s the legacy I have.”
Sophie Ruehr and K.C. Myers contributed reporting for this article.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this week’s print edition went to press with an error in the second paragraph. Black people account for 8 to 12 percent of the arrests, according to police records for 2019, not 7 to 12 percent.