Why Do Perceptions of Police Vary?
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people’s views on police performance vary based on race. Blacks were four times more likely to tell researchers that they have no confidence in police in their communities than whites were. Where does this vast disparity come from? Why does this matter?
Differing views on policing is a great example of how one’s social location—our history, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality, among other factors—shapes the way that we view the world. Social location is related to our literal location too, and how our experiences in that location impact our perceptions.
Like many white Americans who responded the Pew survey, I grew up in a community where the police were viewed as a protective force. (Seventy-eight percent of white respondents said that their local police do a good or excellent job protecting people from crime.)
I remember the police coming to our house only twice growing up. We had called them both times, and they arrived within minutes for what turned out to be false alarms about possible intruders. They were professional, courteous and polite both times. Because of these experiences, when I see a police car drive by in my neighborhood I feel protected, not threatened.
Not all people have had this experience; for those who grow up in a community where police surveillance feels threatening rather than reassuring, a police car can create a sense of anxiety, dread, and fear. Take the case of Frank Jude, Jr., an African-American man brutally beaten by off-duty police while attending a party in Milwaukee in 2004. After a friend called the police to report the attack, officers arrived and participated in beating Jude further. Approximately eight officers were involved in his beating.
Three officers were initially tried by the state and acquitted by an all-white jury. This decision led to public outrage and demonstrations, as well as to a call for federal charges, which were soon filed. While the officers involved would soon plead guilty or be convicted of federal charges, the incident and their initial acquittal served as reinforcement to those who might have had bad experiences with police officers who abuse their power.
According to the Pew survey, only one in three blacks surveyed thought that police in their community do a good or excellent job using the right amount of force (compared with three-fourths of whites sampled). Less than one in three blacks thought that departments do a good or excellent job holding officers accountable for misconduct, compared with seven in ten whites.
This disparity in perception has real consequences. Sociologists Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos, and David S. Kirk studied the effects of the Jude beating on the likelihood of Milwaukee residents to call the police. Their study, “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” involved an analysis of 911 calls made to Milwaukee police the year before and after the 2004 incident, as well as several other high-profile incidents from other parts of the country.
Using time series analysis and carefully controlling for possible intervening variables (such as changes in crime rates, neighborhood demographics, and poverty rates), the researchers found that:
[P]ublicized cases of police violence against unarmed black men have a clear and significant impact on citizen crime reporting. Once the story of Frank Jude’s beating appeared in the press, Milwaukee residents, especially people in black neighborhoods, were less likely to call the police, including to report violent crime. Both white and black citizens opinions of the police may drop after a high-profile brutality case against unarmed black men… but our study found that only people living in black neighborhoods altered their crime-reporting behavior for a significant period of time after the publication of such events. The dampening effect of the Jude beating on citizen crime reporting persisted for months, resulting in a net loss of more than 20,000 911 calls. It is one thing to disparage law enforcement in your thoughts and speech after an instance of police violence or corruption makes the news. It is quite another to witness a crime, or even to be victimized, and refuse to report it.
Desmond, Papachristos and Kirk’s findings remind us that police violence has an impact on more than just those directly involved, but mistrust of police can reduce the public’s willingness to cooperate with police investigations or to call police when a crime has been committed. For those that have experienced events similar to Frank Jude, calling the police may not seem like a good idea. When police are not seen as neighborhood protectors, citizens may take on this role themselves, leading to retribution and more violence.
While we might hear about police violence more now thanks to the social media and the ubiquity of cell phone video, this is not a new problem. As The Atlantic reported last year, concerns about police led to the civil unrest in cities across the country during the 1960s.
Following these events, a federal investigation studied the roots of the problem and published their findings in a 1967 book known as the Kerner Report. The report noted the pervasiveness of racial segregation and police brutality as key causes of civil unrest, and recommended that cities move away from the militarized policing that had begun in many of the poorest sections of America’s cities. Nearly 50 years on, we can see that the Kerner commission’s findings were not heeded, and the same issues that sparked uprisings in the 1960s are still with us today.
Understanding the concept social location can help us better understand why people might view issues like policing in a very different way. It is a useful tool for going beyond thinking our perspective is the only viewpoint, and instead one viewpoint among many.
What other controversial issues can the concept of social location help us better understand?