Race, Ethnicity, and Police–Community Relations
Race, Ethnicity, and Police–Community Relations
- Jennifer H. PeckJennifer H. PeckDepartment of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida
- and Richard L. ElligsonRichard L. ElligsonDepartment of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida
The relationship between race, ethnicity, and police–community relations can be traced through the historical development of the United States. Through the eras of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and, most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, police–community relations with racial and ethnic minorities are a complex and complicated area of inquiry. Although research has shown that Blacks hold the most negative perceptions of police, followed by Hispanics and then Whites, understanding race relations between minority citizens and law enforcement is tied to numerous issues. The individual and combined effects of disadvantaged neighborhood characteristics, personal and vicarious experiences with police, and media exposure to high-profile incidents of police–citizen encounters are only a few of the factors that relate to differences in police–community relations across racial/ethnic groups. To mitigate the negative effect of media exposure of high-profile incidents related to police perceptions and behaviors, organizational justice is one component of law enforcement that may offer some perspective.
Additional issues that are correlated with police–community relations for Blacks and Hispanics are greater levels of mistrust between minorities and the police, over- and underenforcement in minority communities, and negative perceptions of police legitimacy and procedural justice held by minorities. Problems surrounding police culture, cynicism, and misconduct (e.g., use of force) are further areas that connect to police–community relations and are more salient for minority residents than for their White counterparts. Practices such as the use of evidence-based policing, invested partnerships between social services and law enforcement, the fair and effective use of authority and force by police, and understanding the specific needs of minority communities may provide promising areas for the enhancement of police–community relations with minorities.
- Race, Ethnicity, and Crime
History of Race, Ethnicity, and Police–Community Relations
The relationship between racial/ethnic minorities and police has been characterized throughout history by high-profile incidents, civil unrest, and calls for reform. Issues surrounding police mistreatment of minorities have been a perennial problem across the United States, highlighted within the last decade by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. However, the current state of police–community relations with Black and Hispanic communities cannot be fully understood without a brief overview of how race and ethnicity are intertwined with the history of policing, legislation, and high-profile events.
Although the first modern police departments in the Unites States were established in the mid-1800s, informal policing mechanisms can be traced back to slave patrols in the southern part of the country. The authority of patrollers was wide-ranging, from moving slaves across plantations to physically punishing runaways (Bass, 2001). Even after slavery was abolished, police were tasked with enforcing civil rights statutes that were to the disadvantage of Blacks (i.e., the Black Codes) and often resulted in violence and prosecution (Williams & Murphy, 1990). Though the newly formed policies were considered race neutral (Bass, 2001), violation of the Black Codes resulted in various forms of punishment for minorities, including fines, chain gangs, and forced labor. After the Civil War, segregation was widespread in the northern part of the United States, while the South was identifiable by Jim Crow laws and political disenfranchisement. Police officers were the primary mechanism of social control against minorities (as police were responsible for enforcing the laws), resulting in continued negative interactions between Black citizens and law enforcement.
Unrest between minorities and law enforcement continued during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, as Black demonstrators and protesters frequently collided with the police. Media depictions of the Civil Rights movement are documented through images of police–citizen violence as well as the symbolism of the White officer–Black citizen dyad during this era (see Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). The Civil Rights movement specifically brought attention to police use of deadly force as a response to uprisings in minority communities, emphasizing the deaths of residents at the hands of police (Fyfe, 1988). The use of force was also evidenced by public portrayals of riots, images of police officers using hoses and dogs on Black protesters, and other explicit illustrations (Brunson & Gau, 2015). These historical accounts continue to have relevance for current racial/ethnic tensions with law enforcement. At the end of this era, criticism of the police was extensive across the United States, and law enforcement recognized that the police had lost legitimacy in Black communities.
The intersection of antiwar and antisegregation movements coupled with urban race riots resulted in an increase in research about citizens’ perceptions of the police and overarching police–community relations, especially among minorities. As a result of the growing concern for improving police relations, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 were implemented. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was also tasked with funding research on police–community relations. Results from the final report of the President’s Commission provided 200 recommendations about crime and safety in general but also highlighted that the rights of a citizen (regardless of race) should always be exercised, as race relations were reported as the most frequently mentioned problem by the general public (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967).
Furthermore, in light of the history of race relations in the United States, as well as the disproportionate amount of minorities who reside in disadvantaged communities, the report highlighted the expectation of resentment toward authority (e.g., the police) by minorities (e.g., Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans). Responses from certain cities indicated that most police–citizen encounters with minorities are nondiscriminatory and include cooperation from both groups. Other findings revealed physical and verbal mistreatment of minority citizens, which subsequently contributed to resentment toward law enforcement and strained police–community relations (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967). Further results suggested that the underrepresentation of Black citizens in law enforcement was also due to both external issues such as a general distrust between police and minority communities (e.g., noncooperation of minority witnesses), and internal issues (e.g., officer attitudes, practices, and policies) (Skogan, 2018). Both these internal and external concerns directly relate to the overarching problem of strained police–community relations with minority residents.
Furthermore, the riots that occurred during the Civil Rights movement highlighted the fact that law enforcement cannot control crime or protect communities without legitimacy or support from its citizens. In other words, “the price of having a police department backed only by the power of the law” (Williams & Murphy, 1990, p. 3) resulted in only a greater division between minorities and law enforcement until the shift toward political progressiveness and entry into an era that focused on community policing. The increase in resources during this time was tied to a new mindset that police–community relations are vital to the success of law enforcement and crime control and are specifically needed in minority neighborhoods. However, some have argued that even though this era brought about increased sensitivity to community relations (Strecher, 2006), the link between race, ethnicity, and police–citizen encounters continues to be visibly pessimistic.
Kelling and Moore (1988) disaggregated the advancement of U.S. policing by designating political (early 1860s through early 1920s), reform (early 1920s through 1970s), and community policing (late 1970s through early 1980s) eras. Historical events within each of these eras can be applied to why police–community relations with minority groups have wavered over time. For example, during the political era, minority communities were both socially and politically powerless and did not receive the benefits of policing and protection compared to more powerful groups (i.e., Whites) (Williams & Murphy, 1990). During the reform era, minorities were unable to meet new hiring and promotional standards of law enforcement, even though they were beginning to meet the criteria needed for employment that were set during the political era. In other words, minorities were obtaining the credentials needed to become a police officer, but due to changes in standards during the reform era, minorities were again shut out of this line of employment.
The reform era also coincided with the Civil Rights movement, where the election of White and Black progressive mayors and appointments of police chiefs with similar visions resulted in changes to the advantages of minorities. The political empowerment of Black citizens during this era (among other successes) translated to greater equality in law enforcement, such as respect for individual rights, equal opportunity for minorities in police hiring, dissemination of police services across White and minority communities, and decreased use of deadly force (Williams & Murphy, 1990). Police agencies across the United States have increased the presence of racial/ethnic minority officers throughout the last 40 years; however, disparities in representation still occur when comparing larger cities to other geographical areas (Skogan, 2018).
Although the community-policing era emerged in the 1970s, this decade also brought about the introduction of crack cocaine and violence in urban centers. The resulting “War on Drugs” is another historical example that hindered police–community relations with minority citizens. Sting operations, no-knock warrants, raids on crack houses, and other military tactics were considered drug war policing that disproportionately impacted minorities (especially Blacks) compared to Whites (Bass, 2001; Chambliss, 1994). Certain state-level policies introduced in the 2000s further stalled positive police–community relations with Blacks and Hispanics, such as Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act and New York’s stop-and-frisk program (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Legislature, 2010).
Unfortunately, the police force in the United States today faces critiques and criticisms similar to those since its inception almost 200 years ago. Within the last decade, the killing of unarmed Black men by White police officers and the increased media attention of these high-profile incidents have resulted in peaceful protests as well as violent riots throughout the country (Cobbina, 2019). Various organizations demanding racial and social justice have surfaced, one example being the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin (M. Anderson, 2016). In response to the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a White police officer, as well as the resulting unrest and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the overall increased hostility between minority communities and law enforcement, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force was charged with identifying evidence-based practices (EBPs) and recommendations to strengthen community policing, enhance trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and highlight the importance of collaborative relationships between the public and the police. These goals are particularly relevant concerning race, ethnicity, and police–community relations, especially since racial tensions and adverse police–community relations with minority residents have continued over time.
Police are tasked with maintaining social order; however, the historical ramifications of slavery, segregation, and discrimination resulted in collateral consequences surrounding police behavior that are different across racial/ethnic groups today. Although only illustrating a few examples here, Williams and Murphy (1990) argued that there are multiple interrelated problems concerning the history of race and policing: (a) throughout history, minorities have had fewer civil rights and liberties than Whites; (b) police were tasked with exerting social control and being a form of oppression over this population; and (c) law enforcement was not responsible for protecting Black communities from crime and disorder. Furthermore, issues surrounding feelings of uneasiness and distrust between minorities and the police have been a factor in the identity development of minorities (Lee et al., 2010), and strategies during police–citizen interactions are different for minorities compared to Whites (Williams & Murphy, 1990).
Overall, as policing has evolved in the United States throughout the last 200 years, minorities have not benefited from these changes as much as Whites, highlighting once again the difficulty in fostering positive police–minority relations. The history of police–citizen violence during times of civil unrest has resulted in personal and vicarious instances of trauma (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017), which then further complicate the ability of minorities to have constructive relationships with police. Some have also criticized the historical evolution of policing by not taking into consideration “how slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism have affected the development of American police departments—and how these factors have affected the quality of policing in the Nation’s minority communities” (Williams & Murphy, 1990, p. 1). The historical nature of police–community relations with racial and ethnic minorities, especially Blacks, has been characterized as authoritarian, contentious, and punitive with a focus on social control versus public service. Critical perspectives of policing, such as that by Vitale (2017), paralleled these concerns, stating that the police institution is founded upon norms that promote control over racial minorities. Vitale (2017) argued that if these fundamental flaws are ignored, reforms will be limited in their effectiveness, and the powers (e.g., political, economic, and social) that perpetuate racial/ethnic inequality will continue to be reproduced through officers. Thus, the complex function of law enforcement, within the context of powerful historical and political influences, has led to variation in the quality of police–community relations for White, Black, and Hispanic communities.
Sociodemographic Factors of Residents and Perceptions of Police
Perceptions of police vary along individual-level factors such as race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, and social class. An individual’s race and ethnicity have been consistent predictors of attitudes toward police, with Blacks having the most negative views followed by Hispanics and then Whites (Peck, 2015). Although less research has examined additional minority groups (e.g., Native Americans and Pacific Islanders), some studies have found that Asians perceive the police similarly to the way that Hispanics and Whites do (Wu, 2014). The literature surrounding other social and demographic factors has yielded mixed findings. For example, perceptions of police are expected to change as an individual ages. As adolescence and young adulthood are times when offending is most likely to occur, their exposure to police encounters also increases. If these encounters result in a negative outcome or experience, it can then influence attitudes toward police (Rosenbaum et al., 2005). Although some studies have supported the relationship between age and police perceptions, others have found that additional factors, such as education, social class, and direct police encounters, have more of an impact on understanding attitudes toward the police (Cao et al., 1996). Similarly, the direct effects of sex on perceptions of police tend to be inconsistent and weak. However, when sex is considered in conjunction with race and age, research indicates that young Black males tend to have the most negative views of police (Weitzer et al., 2008).
Social class is another factor that can shape minority perceptions of police. As racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the lower classes, these citizens may be exposed to a greater number of police contacts and police misconduct (Smith, 1986). However, empirical support for the connection between race, social class, and attitudes toward the police has produced divergent findings. For example, Weitzer (1999) found that middle-class Blacks and Whites shared similar views toward police, yet middle-class Blacks were more likely to report experiencing police misconduct when outside their neighborhood. Other research suggests that middle-class Blacks are more critical of police than are their lower-class counterparts (Weitzer & Tuch, 1999). Two explanations for these discrepancies include a resident’s level of education and exposure to disproportionate police contact (Weitzer & Tuch, 1999). First, because of their higher levels of educational attainment, middle-class racial and ethnic minorities may be more knowledgeable of social justice issues and proper and improper police practices, and they may have a greater sensitivity to police encounters that are perceived as racially/ethnically unjust. Second, middle-class minorities may experience disproportionate police contact when they are outside their community. The presence of middle-class minorities in either affluent or lower-class neighborhoods may be perceived as “out of place” or “suspicious” by police officers. As these middle-class minorities do not fit the stereotype of a typical resident in either area, the situation can result in negative police encounters. Some research also suggests that neighborhood-level social class may be a more important predictor of police perceptions than individual-level social class. For example, Schuck et al. (2008) found that middle-class minorities varied in their perceptions of police according to the level of neighborhood disadvantage. Middle-class Blacks who resided in advantaged areas had views similar to middle-class Whites, whereas middle-class Blacks in disadvantaged areas were more critical of the police.
The Impact of Neighborhood Context and Characteristics
Perhaps the greatest advancements in understanding police–community relationships with racial and ethnic minorities have been made by including measurements of neighborhood context. This line of research argues that characteristics of neighborhoods in which individuals reside may influence their perceptions of police and account for many of the individual-level differences in attitudes toward police found within and between racial and ethnic groups. Importantly, one of the most consistent findings in research regarding racial and ethnic minorities and police–community relationships is that residents of distressed urban neighborhoods (DUNs) are significantly more likely to have negative perceptions toward police (Reisig & Parks, 2000; Schuck et al., 2008; Weitzer, 2000).
DUNs are characterized not only by high proportions of racial and ethnic minorities but also by residential instability, poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment, single-parent households, and high crime rates (Sharkey, 2013; Wilson, 1987). What distinguishes DUNs from other areas characterized as low income is the concentration of the abovementioned factors. Residential segregation, absence of middle- and upper-class residents, and limited access to mainstream benefits of society in these areas lead to an intense concentration of poverty where all residents are similarly disadvantaged (Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1987). The creation of DUNs has been attributed to changes in the economy, the outmigration of middle- and upper-class members of society to suburban neighborhoods, housing policies that geographically isolate impoverished minorities, and the historical ramifications of racial segregation (Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1987). Finally, DUNs have been shown to persist over time, leading to intergenerational transmission of poverty and downward mobility of citizens (Sharkey, 2013).
Within DUNs, citizens are less likely to report high levels of collective efficacy, which in turn may impact their perceptions of police. Collective efficacy refers to the amount of trust shared between citizens, their willingness to intervene and look after one another, and their ability to mobilize community resources for action (Sampson et al., 1997). In areas characterized by structural disadvantage (unemployment, poverty, etc.), residents are less likely to report involvement in civic and local organizations, to trust other residents, and to engage in forms of informal social control (Sampson & Groves, 1989). Furthermore, lower levels of collective efficacy tend to predict increased fear of crime among citizens, and cynicism toward government services, including the police (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Nix et al. (2015) found that citizen perceptions of collective efficacy were positively associated with trust in the police, even after controlling for the nature of the encounters. Their research supports the argument that how individuals perceive their surrounding context conditions their evaluations of police.
Similar to collective efficacy, the prevalence of physical disorder, incivilities, and crime within neighborhoods also plays a related role in shaping police–community relations. Racial and ethnic minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods are exposed to high levels of disorder and civil incivilities, which can increase fear of crime and weaken collective efficacy (Skogan, 1990). Similarly, neighborhoods with high crime rates predict legal cynicism toward police and government (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Legal cynicism refers to the view that law or rules implemented by authorities are not legitimate or binding and therefore do not necessarily need to be obeyed (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). While the link between neighborhood quality of life and perceptions of police is still vague, it may be that minorities in these areas feel that police are responsible for neighborhood conditions, view the police as an arm of failing government, or believe police are incapable of creating safe conditions (e.g., cannot keep residents safe) (E. Anderson, 1999; Carr et al., 2007). While the causal nature of this relationship is still being researched, neighborhood quality of life has remained an important predictor of attitudes toward police, and it may be especially true for minority residents (Cao et al., 1996; Resig & Parks, 2000; Schuck et al., 2008).
Finally, research suggests that racial and ethnic minorities in distressed neighborhoods may subscribe to codes of violence, which not only contribute to increased crime but also deteriorate relationships with police (E. Anderson, 1999). Codes of violence refer to oppositional cultural adaptations that develop among minority communities because of structural barriers and rejection from the benefits and opportunities of mainstream society. Generally, these codes consist of a set of informal rules that govern social behavior and emphasize the maintenance of respect, gratuitous violence, masculinity, and self-reliance. Research has shown that codes of violence are a strong predictor that contributes to minorities’ negative attitudes toward police (Intravia et al., 2014). As codes of violence are oppositional and emphasize resistance to mainstream norms, acquiescing to police officers may be viewed as a violation of the code. Importantly, attacks on reputation, such as disrespect from an officer, cannot go uncontested if individuals wish to preserve their social image (E. Anderson, 1999; Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003). In DUNs, where codes of violence are salient, if a resident does not contest the authority of an officer (especially in front of peers), they will no longer be respected by the community because that individual will be perceived as weak and vulnerable. Moreover, cooperation with police may also be perceived as a violation of the code, which invites retaliation from other members in the community. Consequently, members of the street code may act with defiance when encountering police, which can lead to negative or violent interactions.
Personal and Vicarious Experiences With Police
The nature of direct and vicarious experiences with police encounters also plays an important role in shaping minorities’ perceptions of police and overall police–community relations. When officers treat individuals unfairly or unprofessionally or engage in misconduct, those individuals are significantly more likely to report dissatisfaction with police and view them as illegitimate (Tyler et al., 2014). Conversely, when police are polite, justify their actions, and allow individuals to voice their concerns, citizens respond favorably (Gau, 2010). These findings are particularly relevant to racial and ethnic minorities, who are disproportionately exposed to frequent police-initiated contacts and aggressive-order maintenance practices (Fagan & Davies, 2000). The frequency of these negative encounters can result in minority citizens reporting that they have been treated unjustly and are targets of police scrutiny, damaging their attitudes toward officers (Gau & Brunson, 2010; Tyler et al., 2014). Moreover, the consequences of these interactions may not be short-lived. A negative encounter with the police has a greater impact on perceptions of police compared to positive encounters. In other words, although a positive encounter may not harm attitudes toward police, it does not significantly improve them (Skogan, 2006). Therefore, negative encounters with police are particularly salient for racial and ethnic minorities, causing dissatisfaction and illegitimate perceptions of police that hinder police–community relationships (Gau & Brunson, 2010; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Tyler et al., 2014).
Whereas personal interactions with police can shape attitudes toward police, so can vicarious experiences. Though the majority of Americans do not have frequent and direct experiences with officers, they may learn about police encounters from other sources of information, such as friends, family, coworkers, media, and the Internet. These vicarious experiences from other sources can play a vital role in shaping how individuals perceive police officers and future interactions (Rosenbaum et al., 2005). Racial and ethnic minorities with no personal experiences with police may rely on their community’s general experiences to inform their perceptions. For example, Brunson and Weizer (2011) found that in disadvantaged communities, African American parents warn their children of the dangers inherent in disrespecting the police as well as the risks of being subjected to police misconduct. Importantly, if individuals develop a negative expectation of police encounters through vicarious sources, they may be predisposed to rate future encounters as negative (Rosenbaum et al., 2005). Vicarious experiences may be particularly influential for racial and ethnic minorities, who are more adversely impacted by negative portrayals of police by peers and media than are Whites (Dowler & Zawilski, 2007).
Racial/Ethnic Minorities and Perceptions of Police
As introduced earlier, research has consistently found a link between race/ethnicity and public perceptions of the police, although findings have depended on the specific racial/ethnic group included and the type of outcome examined (general attitudes, legitimacy, use of force, etc.) Non-Whites and African Americans often have the most negative perceptions of police, followed by Hispanics and then Whites (Peck, 2015). However, an absence of race effects when assessing attitudes toward police across racial/ethnic groups has also occurred (Jesilow et al., 1995). In certain situations, Blacks have been found to hold more favorable views than Whites. Specifically, positive perceptions held by Blacks have been tied to their increased likelihood of victimization and therefore their need for protective police services (Radelet & Carter, 1994). Another factor related to positive perceptions of police occurs when there is an increase in Blacks’ political influence and power in urban communities (Frank et al., 1996). Hispanic attitudes toward police are generally lower compared to Whites’ but higher in relation to Blacks’ (Lai & Zhao, 2010, Weitzer, 2002). There are instances in which Hispanics have been more critical than their Black counterparts by wanting to limit police power (Mirande, 1981), but they also have comparable or more positive views than Whites surrounding occurrences of police misconduct (Schuck et al., 2008).
To provide context to the above relationships, difficult police–community relations between minorities and the police have been tied to perceptions that police are a symbol of oppression to disadvantaged communities (Chamlin, 1989; see also Vitale, 2017). To illustrate, those who reside in communities identified by concentrated disadvantage (poverty, unemployment, racial segregation, etc.) are unable to influence power structures across governmental, political, and social constructions. Thus, cynicism and perceptions of injustice are widespread in these communities. Police, as the most visible arm of the government, are most likely to be the focal point upon which these frustrated emotions are expressed (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Therefore, disadvantaged neighborhood characteristics impact individual-level attitudes toward legal institutions, with one example being the police. Minority citizens may perceive the police as representatives or symbols of an oppressive power structure (Chamlin, 1989) that seeks to suppress and control rather than protect. The police are the most visible forms of authority and the legal system, and if minority residents are not satisfied with their community, employment situation, educational resources, and so on, their dissatisfaction will be more likely to foster negative attitudes toward the police and ultimately strain police–community relations.
The Impact of Police Deviance, Corruption, and Misconduct
Issues surrounding police deviance, corruption, unwarranted stops, and excessive force also impact police–community relations, especially in the perceptions of minority residents. As discussed earlier, media reports of high-profile incidents can influence citizens’ attitudes toward law enforcement, and research has documented that race is associated with views of police misconduct. Some research shows that minorities perceive that various forms of police misconduct occur frequently in their communities, with Blacks perceiving the most abuse, followed by Hispanics and then Whites (Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). There is a perception among minority residents that congregating in public spaces makes them vulnerable to potential confrontation, harassment, or injury by the police, paralleling research findings that non-Whites are also more likely to file citizen complaints against police (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017). Young Black men have also documented that although they have experienced aggressive police practices and misconduct, they perceive these encounters as normal encounters that occur between police and Black men in urban neighborhoods (Brunson, 2007). However, in neighborhoods that have implemented community policing efforts, minority residents may perceive that police corruption is not widespread. This is because past constructive and problem-solving interactions between minorities and the police have translated to perceptions that police abuse of citizens is not occurring. In other words, the nature of police–citizen interactions (especially positive voluntary contacts) is vital in the broader scheme of community policing but also can explain additional police-related outcomes (corruption, dissatisfaction, etc.)
Furthermore, while Blacks perceive that they are subjected to aggressive police tactics, they also believe that misconduct occurs when they do not receive equal protection from police in regard to handling crime or physical disorder (E. Anderson, 1999; Wu et al., 2009). Situations surrounding response times and calls for service have been shown to be divided across racial lines. For example, Bachman (1994) found that police had a quicker response time and put forth greater effort in searching and collecting evidence for robberies with an alleged Black offender and White victim compared to other racial dyads (White offender/White victim; White offender/Black victim, etc.) Police also put greater effort into reports of aggravated assault if the alleged offender was Black, the victim was White, and there was no victim–offender relationship (i.e., the offender was a stranger). However, police exerted less effort in Black offender/White victim aggravated assault cases of nonstrangers (Bachman, 1994). In a related manner, racial differences in police perceptions have also been contingent on victimization history. Depending on the study, prior victimizations have been negatively associated with attitudes toward police for Black victims (Priest & Carter, 1999) as well as for White victims (Apple & O’Brien, 1983).
Use of force as a form of police coercion is another tactic that is directly and indirectly related to race, ethnicity, and police–community relations. Although Blacks are less likely to support the use of force by police compared to Whites, they are more likely to perceive unequal application of force (D. Johnson & Kuhns, 2009). Hispanics have also reported a lack of confidence in law enforcement’s ability to be impartial and use appropriate levels of force (Weitzer, 2014). However, perceptions surrounding the use of force (whether through personal or vicarious experiences) also depend on neighborhood factors and the location of police–citizen encounters, especially for minority communities. The statement that police “act differently in different neighborhood contexts” (Smith, 1986, p. 339) is evident in prior research, especially once the racial/ethnic background of police–suspect interactions are taken into consideration. For example, police officers have a greater likelihood of using higher levels of force when encountering a suspect in neighborhoods characterized by disadvantage and high crime rates (Terrill & Reisig, 2003), yet the effect of the suspect’s race on the use of force is mediated by neighborhood conditions. In other words, it is not that a suspect’s race directly relates to the use of force by police but that certain neighborhood conditions have more of an impact. Specifically, the race of a suspect does not predict the use of force, but community-level aspects such as racial composition, poverty, and high crime rates where the police–citizen interaction occurs influence force decisions (Smith, 1986).
An additional confounding factor surrounding police use of force and police–community relations more generally is the racial/ethnic composition of the officer and the suspect. Some studies have shown that White officers are more coercive toward Black suspects, but no racial differences in force occur when the officers are Black (Paoline et al., 2018). Officer race does not seem to impact resistance by Black or White suspects during an encounter; however, Black citizens have reported that Black officers are less professional when interacting with their own racial group (Weitzer, 2000). Although it has been argued that the hiring of minority officers can encourage positive police–community relations because of the increased ability to connect with members of their own racial/ethnic group (i.e., enhance community accountability), results are mixed on the effectiveness of these expectations. This is because “many Black citizens believe that officers of all races are ‘blue’” (Paoline et al., 2018, p. 56). In other words, the socialization of police through their training may negate any preacademy individual differences among officers, leading to similar treatment of racial minorities across officer races. Minority residents perceive that Black officers both exert more force on citizens of their own race versus other racial/ethnic groups (Weitzer, 2000) and fail to account for the fact that police–citizen problems are deeply rooted in disadvantaged areas (Brunson & Gau, 2015). Thus, issues of police deviance, corruption, and misconduct in the perceptions and experiences of minorities are additional factors that add to the complexity of police–community relations across different racial/ethnic groups.
Racial/Ethnic Minority Juveniles and Police–Community Relations
Regardless of race/ethnicity, adolescents tend to perceive the police in a less favorable manner compared to adults, although some studies have found that juveniles are indifferent in their attitudes toward police (Taylor et al., 2001). In the 1960s, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice conducted surveys on police–community relations, which also included information about police–juvenile interactions (Janeksela, 1999). However, after the 1970s, less became known about juvenile perceptions of the police compared to adult populations. Of studies that have been conducted, some have found that non-White juveniles (which include Black and Hispanic youth) have more negative attitudes toward the police than Whites do (Brick et al., 2009; Wu et al., 2015). White and Asian youth have reported the most positive attitudes, followed by Hispanics and Native Americans and then Blacks (Taylor et al., 2001). When examining variation within ethnicity, Cuban and Black youth have had similar attitudes yet viewed the police in a more negative manner than Whites (Sullivan et al., 1987). As with the previous literature about minority perceptions of the police, racial/ethnic differences in police perceptions by minority youth also depend on what racial/ethnic groups are included and the specific type of outcome examined. Community context also plays a role in understanding police–community relations with minority juveniles.
Similar to studies on police–citizen encounters with adult residents, negative perceptions of police held by minority youth have been based on prior police contacts that are perceived as adversarial or harassing. Minority youths’ contact with police has been documented in the literature in the forms of racial profiling, harassment, arrest processing, and neighborhood surveillance, where Black youth come to expect negative police behavior (Brunson & Miller, 2006). When positive police contact does occur, it is less effective in mitigating unfavorable attitudes toward police for Black youth than for Whites (Rusinko et al., 1978). Research has found that Black youth have a greater likelihood of police encounters, yet Latino youth have been documented as reacting negatively to encounters compared to Blacks (Hagan et al., 2005). Furthermore, images of law enforcement have been classified in some research as “impartial guardians of the public order” or “bullies in uniform who exercise power for malignant motives” (Waddington & Braddock, 1991, p. 31). White and Asian juveniles viewed police as either a guardian or a bully, but Black youth perceived police only as bullies. Reasons for these classifications are complex, and, as discussed earlier, perceptions of the police by minorities are intertwined with socioeconomic location.
Thus there is support for a contextual effect on attitude development, especially for minority youth, where neighborhood context impacts subcultural values for juveniles and subsequently translates to perceptions of police. This process is similar to what occurs with adults (Leiber et al., 1998). Police–juvenile relationships can be contentious, especially in urban minority neighborhoods (Friedman et al., 2004); however, there is evidence that minority youth who reside in areas of concentrated disadvantage and high crime still support the presence of police in their communities even if they have had prior negative encounters with law enforcement (Carr et al., 2007).
Police–community relations are particularly difficult for lower-class minority boys who reside in urban areas. Contact with law enforcement in these communities with this subpopulation of residents has involved negative outcomes such as restrictions or sanctions versus voluntary prosocial interactions (Janeksela, 1999). Minority youth are at greater risk for being arrested compared to their White counterparts, especially for less serious crimes where police discretion is greater and often depends on the youth’s socioeconomic status (Tapia, 2010). However, adverse responses by these youth are not always directly related to the specific encounter. To illustrate, minorities are overrepresented in arrests for violent crimes and therefore are subjected to greater police surveillance. Minorities also engage in certain offenses in public versus private environments (e.g., drug sales), which results in greater police pressure to decrease crime and public disorder in these communities. This increased surveillance can be perceived as unjust, harassing, and discriminatory by minority residents, which can then result in greater hostility toward the police. As parents of lower-class minority youth feel like they have little influence in the power structure of communities, frustration toward law enforcement coupled with feelings of alienation transforms into multiple adverse outcomes. Some include negative perceptions of the police, disproportionate processing of lower-class minority males in the juvenile and adult criminal justice system, and strained police–community relations (see also Piliavin & Briar, 1964).
Police Perceptions of Racial/Ethnic Minorities
As with minority attitudes toward the police, police perceptions of the general public and specifically Blacks and Hispanics are multifaceted. For example, prior studies indicate that police officers hold negative attitudes, do not trust, and are suspicious of citizens (regardless of race/ethnicity), but these perceptions vary depending on the type/style of the officer (Muir, 1977). As minority perceptions of the police are based on a multitude of factors, similar processes and events also occur when police officers are constructing their own perceptions. Therefore (as one example), personal and vicarious interactions with police impact Blacks’ and Hispanics’ perceptions of the police, and the same encounters influence the perceptions, beliefs, and subsequent behaviors of police toward minorities.
To illustrate, prior research has documented the presence of racial stereotypes across different types of criminal justice decision-making, where minorities, and especially Blacks, are perceived as dangerous, violent, and aggressive (Quillian & Pager, 2010). In combination with past personal or vicarious experiences with minorities, police officers may perceive a greater threat of violent behavior during encounters with Black citizens and may act in a racially biased manner. Also, implicit racial/ethnic biases in the perceptions of police officers may be present, which can then translate to negative outcomes for Black citizens compared to those for Whites. As such, both overt and covert biases on behalf of police officers may work to the disadvantage of minority residents (Fridell & Lim, 2016).
Other research has argued that officers may respond differently to citizens based on their differing perceptions of White and Black worthiness for procedural justice. Procedural justice occurs when individuals feel like they have been treated in a fair, neutral, and respectful manner, regardless of the specific outcome. In other words, if officers hold racial stereotypes against Black citizens, they may believe exercising procedural justice toward this specific racial group is not important. As a result, police–citizen interactions with minority groups may end more aggressively and negatively (Nix et al., 2017).
Police Culture as a Component of Police–Community Relations
Police culture is a contributing factor to police–community relations and has direct implications for minority citizens. In general, police culture refers to the shared norms and values among officers as they confront the strains of the job (Paoline, 2003). Cultural norms are transmitted to new officers through formal and informal training, in which they come to learn the day-to-day routines of working the street and their role in the department. Some components of the occupational police culture include handling job stress, solidarity and loyalty among officers, maintaining authority during citizen interactions, avoiding supervisor scrutiny, and presenting a “crime fighter” image. Police culture also encompasses differences across ranks and organizational structures. For example, some departments may prioritize law enforcement functions, while others prioritize provisions of social services. Importantly, police culture can contribute to an “us vs. them” mentality, as officers seek solidarity with one another to cope with strains from the work environment and socially isolate themselves from citizens.
On the one hand, Paoline (2003) stated that police culture often has a negative undertone, with prior research indicating that culture has been affiliated with the misuse of police authority and force (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993; see also Harkin, 2015; Manning, 2008), investigations being thwarted due to a “blue wall of silence,” and an inability to implement certain reform efforts (Skogan & Hartnett, 1999). On the other hand, police culture has also been shown to buffer the strains and stresses of being a police officer and to facilitate the learning of new recruits from experienced officers (Brown, 1988). Taken together, “officers collectively confront situations that arise in the environments of policing, and subsequent attitudes, values, and norms that result are in response to those environments” (Paoline, 2003, p. 200). Thus, although positive aspects of culture in American policing have been documented, the adverse elements of culture may disproportionately impact minority communities more than White communities.
One outcome of police culture that influences police–community relations is cynicism on behalf of officers. Some have argued that police cynicism can be attenuated through continuing education, mentors, preventative social services, positive recognition, and effective community policing (Graves, 1996), but cynicism has also been considered an inevitable outcome of police work. Cynicism is considered a survival tool to work in the field of policing (Caplan, 2003), but a pessimistic and suspicious outlook on the job itself, citizens, and society as a whole can impact police personality and police community relations, especially for minority residents. For example, Klinger (1997) constructed a theoretical perspective on the variation in ecological environments and police behavior. The theory posits that officers who are assigned to patrol high-crime communities will be less vigorous in their calls for service due to having (a) a high degree of cynicism, (b) perceptions that crime is “normal” in these communities, (c) beliefs that victims are less deserving of police attention and investigation, and (d) an inability to dedicate equal time across calls. As racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to reside in communities with poverty, unemployment, and high crime rates compared to whites (Reisig & Parks, 2000; Weitzer, 2000), the framework posited by Klinger (1997) can be applicable to tense police–community relations in minority neighborhoods.
Different work-related factors and communities’ perceptions of law enforcement impact officers’ own attitudes and beliefs of the neighborhoods they patrol, even though police academies include training on police–community relations. As such, the effect of negative perceptions of the police held by minorities is reciprocated through police cynicism and adverse attitudes, which then makes positive police–community relations more difficult to achieve. In other words, cynicism is another barrier between police and minority communities.
Police Misconduct in the Eyes of the Police
The dangers that police officers face on a daily basis are both real and perceived. These experiences coupled with strong solidarity among officers ultimately translates to an “us vs. them” mentality and cynical attitudes toward citizens. Police cynicism has been considered a precursor to police dishonesty, coercion, and misconduct (Caplan, 2003), which are all components of police culture. Types of police misconduct can range among sleeping on duty, forging documents, receiving kickbacks, protecting illegal activities, engaging in excessive force, participating in criminal activities themselves, and various other behaviors. For example, officers have defended the practice of writing false police reports, stating that filing a false report can be acceptable because it is less severe than planting evidence or arresting an individual without cause, or it is necessary to ensure that justice is received. Stops without reasonable suspicion or probable cause have also occurred because individuals look “out of place” based on race, type of car being driven, or refusal to make eye contact (Goldschmidt & Anonymous, 2008).
Furthermore, police who have had more experience (i.e., more years in law enforcement) have reported greater use of force in minority communities than have those with less experience, yet they were also less accepting of the use of force in general (Chapman, 2012). These types of interactions between police and citizens can hinder relationships with law enforcement regardless of race/ethnicity, but they have specifically been tied to race in some examples reported by police.
Some police officers have reported planting a weapon on a suspect, accepting a bribe, stealing property from a crime scene, and personal drug use as examples of serious forms of misconduct (Martin, 1994). However, racial profiling and speeding were reported by police as less serious forms of deviance. The perception that racial profiling is a lesser form of misconduct in the belief systems of police officers demonstrates the unequal importance of this issue to minority residents, and it has direct implications for police–community relations with Blacks and Hispanics. Similar values, goals, and orientations are needed for successful race relations between minority communities and law enforcement. Still, though, complications arise when racial stereotyping as a form of misconduct is not perceived as a critical issue in the opinions of police.
Also related to the link between race, ethnicity, and police–community relations, studies have shown that police are more likely to exert coercive authority in minority and racially heterogeneous communities (Smith, 1986), yet the use of force is not always based on the race of the alleged offender. Furthermore, police are less likely to file a report in communities with higher crime rates, which could be based on police perceptions of what “normal crimes” look like in certain communities compared to others (Smith, 1986). Stated differently, police may only report offenses that are perceived as more severe than “normal offenses” that typically occur in high-crime communities. Crimes against Blacks may be considered less worthy by police officers, especially depending on specific community characteristics (Bachman, 1994; Kane, 2005; Smith, 1986). As the link between race/ethnicity, social class, and neighborhood context has been discussed earlier, the perceptions held by police and their corresponding actions connect back to why police–community relations with minorities are complex.
However, it is important to note that some research shows that unless an individual assaults a police officer or another citizen, police perceive that anything more restrictive than a simple restraint or pain compliance would be unacceptable (Paoline & Terrill, 2011). Further research parallels this finding; although some argue that police would perceive misconduct toward a racial/ethnic minority suspect less serious than misconduct toward a White suspect, evidence has demonstrated that a suspect’s race does not predict perceptions of police misconduct (see Son et al., 1998). Stated differently, a citizen’s race did not significantly impact a police officer’s perceptions of the severity of various types of misconduct. It is more about the type of misconduct itself versus the race/ethnicity of any citizen involvement.
High-Profile Incidents, Media, and the Ferguson Effect
It has been argued that police in America are currently undergoing a legitimacy crisis (Nix & Pickett, 2017). Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a series of similar high-profile police incidents have occurred in major cities including Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. Generally, these events have involved the use of deadly force against unarmed Black males and have resulted in civil unrest, protests police, and riots. Importantly, these high-profile events are often followed by intense media scrutiny of police officers. As most Americans obtain their knowledge regarding police from the media, exposure to and awareness of negative police media can be influential in shaping citizens’ views of police, especially for minorities. In a systematic review of 42 studies, Graziano (2018) found that awareness and exposure to negative police coverage in the media were related to more negative attitudes toward police. The impact of negative police media may be particularly salient for racial and ethnic minorities, who report being exposed to negative media coverage of police at higher rates than Whites, such as incidents of racial profiling and excessive use of force (Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). Finally, negative media coverage of high-profile police encounters may also influence officer attitudes, behaviors, and their interactions with minority communities (Nix & Wolfe, 2017; Sharjback et al., 2017). Therefore, it is important to examine the impact of high-profile incidents and subsequent media scrutiny on community relationships between racial/ethnic minorities and police.
Research suggests that negative media coverage of police has a stronger impact on racial and ethnic minorities compared to the impact on their White counterparts. Although attitudes toward police drop similarly across Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks following highly publicized incidents of police use of force, the magnitude of change is often strongest among Blacks. For example, declines in attitudes toward the police were most pronounced among Blacks following the Rodney King incident (Lasley, 1994). Exposure to negative police media also significantly predicts negative attitudes toward police between Black and Hispanic minorities (Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). More recently, Kochel (2019) examined perceptions of the police before and after the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. While non-Black participants’ views remained relatively stable, perceptions of trust and legitimacy in police by Black participants significantly decreased. Therefore, although media scrutiny of police can negatively influence perceptions of police among citizens regardless of race, its effects are more pronounced among minorities.
Explanations for why negative media coverage of high-profile incidents has a pronounced effect on minorities relates to the concept of group identity as well as the impact of accumulated experiences with police encounters. In line with the conflict perspective, minorities may view themselves as part of a group that has been historically and systematically neglected by law enforcement (Kochel, 2019). In a sense, the minority community may feel that they do not receive the same benefits of police protection and treatment than Whites. In turn, minority communities are dissatisfied with their treatment and may view police officers as illegitimate sources of authority. These sentiments are reinforced through media images representing an “us vs. you” mentality, such as police officers dispersing protesters through the use of tear gas, dogs, or other nonlethal weapons (Dowler & Zawilski, 2007). Furthermore, the impact of negative police media on minorities may be a result of accumulated experiences. As racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to experience negative police encounters, they may view high-profile incidents as confirming their negative bias toward police officers (Kochel, 2019; Rosenbaum et al., 2005). For example, while Whites tend to view high-profile incidents in isolation from routine police behavior, African Americans tend to believe that high-profile incidents reflect regular misconduct by police (Sigelman et al., 1997).
Media coverage of high-profile incidents of police conduct has a detrimental impact on minority attitudes toward police and police–community relations. In turn, such coverage may lead minorities to perceive future interactions with police as unjust, racially biased, or abuses of power (Rosenbaum et al., 2005). The damage to public perceptions of police resulting from high-profile incidents can be long lasting and harm any progress that police have made toward fostering better community relationships (Weitzer, 2002). Furthermore, communities that perceive the police as illegitimate also experience higher crime rates (Kane, 2005). Therefore, the impact of media on police scrutiny can erode support for police among minorities, which hinders the ability of officers and citizens to foster strong community relationships. Further complicating this issue, high-profile incidents and police scrutiny can also adversely impact the attitudes and behaviors of police officers. The occurrence of high-profile incidents along with increases in crime has led to speculation that police respond to negative scrutiny in a phenomenon coined the “Ferguson effect” (MacDonald, 2015). The Ferguson effect occurs when the intense scrutiny of police by the media and public results in depolicing certain communities, where officers have withdrawn from their duties due to fear of backlash, criticism, and liability (Capellan et al., 2020; Wolfe & Nix, 2016). In other words, being subjected to hostility from the public, media, legislators, and their own organizations, officers may become cynical and reluctant to engage in law enforcement behaviors, which subsequently present a risk of public criticism, termination, and or prosecution.
Overall, empirical support for the Ferguson effect is mixed. While studies have found that scrutiny of police is related to both depolicing and crime, it is unclear whether depolicing is responsible for increases in crime rates (Capellan et al., 2020; Wolfe & Nix, 2016). Examining crime trends before and after the shooting of Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots, Pyrooz et al. (2016) found no support for the Ferguson effect on nationwide crime. However, cities with higher concentrations of African Americans, unemployment, and sworn police officers were more likely to experience increases in crime, especially homicide and robbery. These findings are supported by additional studies. In the post-Ferguson era, there was a significant decrease in traffic stops and hit rates for contraband for departments in areas with larger African American populations (Shjarback et al., 2017). However, the depolicing behaviors of these departments did not impact crime rates. In addition, although police scrutiny has been predictive of depolicing, no evidence has been found for the indirect effect of depolicing on the relationship between police scrutiny and crime (Capellan et al., 2020). Cumulatively, these findings suggest that there is limited support for the Ferguson effect—that increases in crime have resulted from depolicing. However, consistent findings that police officers may respond to public scrutiny through depolicing (particularly in minority communities) should not be overlooked.
In minority communities, perceptions of underpolicing may already exist, where citizens feel that police are ineffective and unresponsive to crime and disorder. When officers feel threatened by the possibility of liability or violence in these neighborhoods, they may be less likely to engage in prosocial or proactive interactions. For example, using a sample of 8,000 officers, Morin et al. (2017) found that 86% of officers reported that policing had become more challenging due to high-profile incidents. Additionally, the majority of officers reported that their colleagues are hesitant to engage in proactive police practices, such as stopping and questioning suspicious persons. While revoking some of the aggressive police practices that minority citizens are disproportionately exposed to may alleviate police–community tensions (Gau & Brunson, 2010), too much restraint result may lead citizens to feel that there is a policing vacuum. Research suggests that when inner-city neighborhoods perceive police to be unresponsive, citizens may enact their own retaliation when victimized, ultimately promoting further violent crime (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003).
High-profile incidents may also have a negative impact on officer attitudes. For example, public hostility toward police has been associated with social isolation, work-group solidarity, cynicism, and coercive attitudes among officers (Marier & Moule, 2019). Additional empirical studies have found that after high-profile incidents, officer motivation, self-legitimacy, and willingness to partner with the community are negatively impacted (Nix & Wolfe, 2017; Wolfe & Nix, 2016). These negative attitudes can have important implications for police–community relations with minorities. For example, research has found that officer cynicism is associated with increases in procedurally unjust behaviors, police misconduct, and ignoring victimizations. This is particularly true in high-crime and minority populated areas (Kane, 2005; Klinger, 1997; Smith, 1986). In turn, these behaviors have been associated with decreased perceptions of officer fairness, satisfaction, and legitimacy among citizens (Carr et al., 2007; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). This evidence suggests that following high-profile incidents, officers may be less likely to engage with racial and ethnic minorities in a constructive way, while they are more likely to engage in negative interactions that can harm attitudes toward police. Moreover, officers may become cynical of department strategies that aim to foster better community relations with minority neighborhoods, such as community policing, in a time when such strategies are needed most.
Fortunately, some research has found that the negative impact of police scrutiny as displayed by the media may be mitigated through organizational justice. Organizational justice is a concept that refers to the degree to which employees perceive their organization to be fair and just in its managerial decision-making. In the policing field, organizational justice has been associated with increases in the use of procedurally just behaviors, decreases in officer misconduct, and less cynicism toward the public (Myhill & Bradford, 2013). In the context of public scrutiny of police following high-profile incidents, organizational justice may help officer’s cope with increased criticism. Wolfe and Nix (2016) found that while officers were less willing to engage in community partnerships post-Ferguson, this negative relationship disappeared once controlling for organizational justice and self-legitimacy. Those officers who felt that their organization treated them fairly were more likely to view themselves as legitimate and, in turn, were increasingly willing to engage in positive community partnerships. This research suggests that organizational justice plays an essential role in shielding officers from negative police scrutiny and promoting positive police encounters that can strengthen police–community relations with racial and ethnic minorities.
Police Strategies and Police–Community Relations With Racial and Ethnic Minorities
During the 1960s, the traditional crime control model of policing was criticized for its ineffectiveness, alienation of the community, and aggressive treatment toward racial and ethnic minorities (Reisig, 2010). Since then, a large amount of research has been devoted to determining the effectiveness of police practices. Overall, this research suggests that the most effective strategies for reducing crime are proactive, place-based strategies that seek to address specific forms of offending or disorder (Braga et al., 2019). Furthermore, a similar amount of attention has been placed on the importance of police working with community members to accomplish their crime control efforts. The community plays a vital role in assisting police work, considering that citizens report crimes, provide intelligence, assist with investigations, and provide a valuable source of informal social control. As a result, contemporary police strategies have sought to be proactive while maintaining close ties with the community. However, these two aims can be conflicting in practice. Proactive policing strategies may be perceived as invasive by some groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, who experience the brunt of these tactics (Braga et al., 2019). In turn, perceptions of the legitimacy of police in high-crime, minority neighborhoods may be harmed and may have a negative effect on police–community relations that are already fragile (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Gau & Brunson, 2010). Therefore, policing strategies that are both fair and effective can be challenging to implement. Consequently, it is important to examine how contemporary police strategies have influenced police–community relationships among racial and ethnic minorities, including those factors that may foster or harm the legitimacy of police.
One popular strategy that is considered foundational in strengthening police–community relationships within racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods is community policing (Braga et al., 2019). Although popular in the early 1980s, calls for implementing community policing have strengthened following the events at Ferguson, Missouri (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). Community policing is a multidimensional and broad philosophy that has been implemented in a variety of ways. The general aim of the strategy is to reduce crime, fear of crime, and disorder through police–community partnerships, cooperation, and problem-solving (Reisig, 2010). By working closely with citizens to address neighborhood problems, police hope to encourage citizens to hold one another accountable, take ownership of the community, and engage in informal social control. While empirical research on community policing has found that its crime control benefits are marginal, it can lead to improved perceptions of police (Gill et al., 2014). This is an important outcome, as police struggle to maintain positive community relations with racial and ethnic minorities, especially those living in high-crime and disadvantaged neighborhoods (Carr et al., 2007; Reisig & Parks, 2004). Three major elements of community policing strategies include addressing disorder, problem-solving, and community partnerships. Each of these elements has implications for police–community relations with racial and ethnic minorities.
Since the development of the broken windows theory, policing disorder has emerged as a priority among many police departments. According to the theory, addressing minor forms of disorder in neighborhoods should reduce fear of crime and more serious forms of offending (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). In other words, when officers address issues such as vandalism, loitering, incivilities, and public intoxication, citizens should feel not only safer but also less likely to engage in offending themselves. Furthermore, research indicates that citizen perceptions of disorder in their community are also related to attitudes toward police (Cao et al., 1996; Reisig & Parks, 2004). These relationships are particularly relevant for racial and ethnic minorities who reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods, as these communities tend to have high levels of disorder and lower levels of satisfaction with police (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). Therefore, by addressing minor forms of disorder, police hope to not only reduce crime but also foster improved attitudes with residents, which can strengthen police–community relations.
Importantly, police must be careful in their choice of tactics to address disorder. Some departments have adopted aggressive order-maintenance strategies, such as zero-tolerance policing, as a mechanism to combat disorder. At the core of these strategies is the use of aggressive policing practices to increase misdemeanor arrests for low-level offenses (Fagan & Davies, 2000). Such tactics have been criticized for their potential to discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities as well as their infringement on civil rights (Gau & Brunson, 2010). For example, studies of New York’s stop-and-frisk practices have shown that Blacks and Hispanics have higher probabilities of being stopped by police than do Whites, regardless of the crime rate and other neighborhood-level factors (Fagan et al., 2010; Spitzer, 1999). Aggressive practices, like stop-and-frisks and pretextual stops, can damage attitudes toward police by reinforcing perceptions of overpolicing and harassment (Brunson, 2007; Gau & Brunson, 2010). As minorities are exposed to the enforcement of seemingly minor offenses, they are likely to feel targeted based on race/ethnicity or neighborhood characteristics. For example, Gau and Brunson (2010) found that aggressive-order maintenance policing resulted in young inner-city men feeling disrespected, unfairly treated, and harassed by police. Minorities’ continued and repeated negative contacts with police can harm their views of police legitimacy and may create animosity and defiance when dealing with police in future encounters (Sherman, 1993; Tyler et al., 2014). Furthermore, the long-term consequences of increased arrests for low-level (i.e., misdemeanor) offenses can continue to weaken communities. With large numbers of young racial and ethnic adults incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses, the ability of minority communities to mobilize and establish collective efficacy may diminish (Howell, 2009). Such outcomes make it difficult for police to garner legitimacy and support among racial and ethnic minorities. Consequently, if not carefully implemented, aggressive-order maintenance strategies in disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods may damage the legitimacy of the police rather than foster police–community relations with minorities. Policing disorder can be effective in minority communities when focusing on specific types of disorder, such as prostitution or drug trafficking, within focused geographic areas (Braga et al., 2014). Using creative responses to address disorder, such as addressing environmental factors, is more effective and less likely to create tension between police and racial and ethnic minorities than relying on broad arrest practices (Braga & Bond, 2008).
Problem-solving is another important concept consistent with a community policing strategy. Police are encouraged to work with the community to identify and resolve underlying problems that may give rise to crime, fear of crime, or disorder (Reisig, 2010). One popular approach to problem-solving that can be incorporated within a community policing framework is problem-oriented policing. Problem-oriented policing is a stand-alone police strategy that emphasizes addressing crime and noncrime issues through rigorous analysis of problems, the development of creative solutions, and rigorous assessments of those solutions (Goldstein, 1990). Although problem-oriented policing does not require that officers work with the community to address identified issues, it is strongly encouraged. Research suggests that problem-oriented policing can be effective for reducing crime and disorder, especially when used to address crime hot spots (i.e., small geographic areas with high concentrations of crime) (Braga et al., 2014). As problem-oriented policing is likely to be used in high-crime neighborhoods where higher concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities may live, it is important to address the strategy’s implications for police–community relations.
Importantly, one of the limitations of problem-oriented policing that can impact police–community relations between officers and racial and ethnic minorities is the nature of the response. While problem-oriented policing emphasizes that creative, nontraditional police responses should be used to address identified community issues, there is still a tendency among departments to rely on familiar crime control tactics such as increased patrol, stop-and-frisks, and crackdowns (Eck, 2019; Goldstein, 1990). In other words, police tend to see different kinds of problems as nails and traditional crime control tactics as the hammer. Research indicates that these strategies are not only ineffective at causing a significant reduction in crime but can lead to negative interactions between officers and minorities, ultimately eroding legitimacy and relationships with police (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Eck, 2019; Tyler et al., 2014). Alternatively, focused deterrence initiatives show promise for reducing crime in disadvantaged and high-crime neighborhoods while not alienating racial and ethnic minorities (Brunson, 2015). Instead of relying on broad enforcement, focused deterrence strategies use crime analysis to narrow the focus of officers toward individuals and groups that are disproportionately involved in crime (Braga, 2015). This practice may help to prevent negative police encounters with minorities that may have little to no involvement in criminal offending. Moreover, the community also plays a major role in focused deterrence strategies, with citizens participating in the planning and execution of the initiative (Kennedy, 2019). This practice helps grant focused deterrence transparency in its implementation. For example, targeted individuals and groups are often warned of the future consequences of their offending and offered public services as a source of assistance. As a result, focused deterrence initiatives may mitigate some of the harm that proactive policing can have on police–community relations with racial and ethnic minorities by protecting police legitimacy (Brunson, 2015; Kennedy, 2019).
Building police–community partnerships is a key element of community policing and has been shown to increase the effectiveness of the other strategies mentioned previously (Braga et al., 2019; Reisig, 2010). By partnering with the community, police not only receive input on community expectations and concerns but also hope to encourage community members to hold one another accountable and take ownership of community problems. Examples of such partnerships include neighborhood watches, after-school supervision for children, and mentoring programs. Research suggests that community partnerships can be beneficial for police seeking to improve relationships with racial and ethnic minorities who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Gill et al., 2014). For instance, Reisig and Parks (2004) found favorable views of police partnerships among citizens in disadvantaged areas was associated with lower levels of perceived disorder and increased perceptions of public safety. These outcomes are essential, as they are also related to attitudes toward police (Cao et al., 1996; Skogan, 2006).
Additionally, community partnerships can help protect the legitimacy of the police, especially when police are engaged in proactive strategies. For example, Brunson et al. (2015) found that partnering with Black clergy provided Boston’s police department an important source of legitimacy while conducting initiatives to reduce youth violence during Operation Ceasefire. Not only did the partnership assist officers with operational intelligence for officers, but it also helped mediate tensions between Black community members and the police department. The authors argued that partnerships with urban minority communities can help create an umbrella of legitimacy for police officers while also strengthening police–community relations (Brunson et al., 2015). However, creating community partnerships can be a challenging task for police. First, middle-class citizens tend to be more engaged in police–community partnerships than residents of disadvantaged communities (Skogan, 2004). Police must be wary to not prioritize concerns of more affluent communities at the expense of disadvantaged areas, which may have higher concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities (Thatcher, 2001). Second, the goals of police and citizens are likely to be different. Research suggests that although police are primarily concerned with serious crime, citizens emphasize disorder (Liederbach et al., 2008). These disagreements can lead to conflicting expectations regarding the role of police. Thatcher (2001) argued that to overcome these challenges, police should focus on strategies that benefit the overall public as well as present crime analysis and data to residents in an effort to better understand the nature of crime and disorder in their neighborhoods.
Finally, fostering perceptions of police legitimacy is of key importance for establishing improved police–community relationships with racial and ethnic minorities (Braga et al., 2019). When citizens view police as legitimate users of authority, they are more willing to cooperate with police and comply with their directives (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). One strategy that has been advocated to help build legitimacy between police and minority communities is procedural justice (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). By acting in accordance with procedural justice, officers can increase citizen perceptions of officer legitimacy as well as their willingness to accept negative outcomes (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). In other words, how an officer treats a citizen during an encounter can be just as impactful as the outcome itself. Allowing procedurally just behaviors, such as permitting an individual to explain their actions, voice opinions, and participate in the decision-making process, can promote the officer’s legitimacy.
Research on procedural justice has received substantial support and suggests that a procedurally just model of policing can be effective for fostering legitimacy among racial and ethnic minorities (Donner et al., 2015). Some research has found that the benefits of procedural justice are similar across different races (Wolfe et al., 2016). Procedural justice has also increased perceptions of police legitimacy among racial and ethnic minorities, including those who reported high levels of emotional disengagement from police (Madon et al., 2017). As racial and ethnic minorities in urban areas have disproportionate exposure to police contacts, the nature of these encounters is important for shaping attitudes toward officers (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Fagan & Davies, 2000; Tyler et al., 2014). By employing procedurally just practices, officers may be able to prevent encounters from becoming negative experiences that erode trust in the police (Gau & Brunson, 2010; Tyler et al., 2014). Therefore, engaging in procedurally just actions is key for maintaining favorable police–community relations. By ensuring that contemporary police strategies incorporate procedural justice in routine officer interactions, some of the adverse consequences these strategies have on racial and ethnic minorities’ attitudes toward police may be reduced.
Directions for Future Research, Policy, and Practice
The existing literature on race, ethnicity, and police–community relations provides promising future research opportunities and implications for policy and practice for both law enforcement and minority communities. Factors such as disadvantaged community characteristics, adverse personal and vicarious experiences with the police, high-profile incidents illustrated in the media, specific beliefs held by minorities and the police, and additional issues have all contributed to strained police–community relations with minority residents. Thus, the task for researchers, policymakers, law enforcement, social service agencies, and racial/ethnic minorities is to understand the nuances of police–community relations and use available evidence and best practices to enact change.
First, a holistic approach to police–community relations is needed. Policing does not occur in a vacuum, nor can officers continue to be used as a response to the broader social issues and problems that are derived from racial inequality, which minority communities frequently endure. Collaboration is needed across the police, social services, educational outlets, and economic resources to help meet the needs of minority residents, especially those in communities with concentrated disadvantage. Universal tactics are necessary, which include coordination of care with collaborative crime control initiatives between law enforcement and the community. Social policies, such as investing in health, education, employment, and effective targeted interventions, can foster positive relationships between minorities and the police. It is not only about spending resources on law enforcement and using appropriate tactics to foster trust and cooperation with residents but also about increasing community knowledge and public programs to support urban communities where minorities reside (R. R. Johnson, 2017).
Invested partnerships between law enforcement and service providers are also important in enhancing police–community relations with minorities. Social issues in urban communities increase the demands of police officers, who often do not have the continued education or specific training in how to intervene and handle citizens in need. Police agencies can transition to being more reform-oriented and using EBPs to provide new directions to meet the needs of Black and Hispanic residents. These partnerships between police, community members, health and social services, and researchers can appropriately (and with fidelity) implement programs and policies to decrease these social issues and ultimately translate to more positive relationships and decreases in crime. Stated differently, there needs to be coordination of care between law enforcement and those who are directly related to agencies that can provide support in terms of mental health, substance use, social services, and so on. Decreasing crime in the first place is preferable to reacting to it only after it occurs, and approaches that can simultaneously address offending along with issues and matters that mean the most to minority residents are key. These strategies can also ultimately result in an increase in positive relationships and trust among minorities and the police.
Second, EBP should be adopted across police agencies, but especially those that police urban neighborhoods. This strategy includes using data, research, and scientific findings to inform police decisions and practice, as the purpose of evidence-based policing is to make policing as effective as positive (Sherman, 1998). Science should be a component that influences law enforcement’s decisions about tactics, strategies, and policies, and the use of data and research can complement police experiences and professional judgment (Cordner, 2020). Evidence-based policing should be used to determine what types of strategies (whether community-oriented policing, problem-oriented policing, or intelligence-led policing) may best fit certain communities compared to others. Simply because one type of policing strategy resulted in increases in positive perceptions of the police, greater legitimacy and trust, and overall gains in police–community relationships in one location does not mean that its implementation will automatically result in similar results in other communities. This is especially true due to the variation in racial/ethnic composition across geographic locations and neighborhoods, and police agencies need to understand the characteristics and needs of the communities in which they work.
Third, increasing trust within communities, especially between minority residents and the police, is crucial. Community trust is essential to police–community relations and effective policing. If Blacks and Hispanics believe that the police cannot be trusted, they are less likely to reach out and engage in community-based problem-solving. While community-oriented policing is considered less data-driven than other strategies (i.e., intelligence-led policing), its primary focus is on building police–community relationships to result in long-term decreases in crime. Future research is needed that specifically focuses on the outcomes of public trust and cooperation of minority residents after the implementation of community-oriented policing practices and addresses potential reasons for why certain initiatives might not have been effective. As minority juveniles and adults have more negative perceptions of the police compared to their White counterparts (Peck, 2015; Reisig & Parks, 2000), their beliefs can translate to considering the police not trustworthy and perceiving an inability of police to protect them (Brunson, 2015). As highlighted earlier, community members may then take matters into their own hands to combat neighborhood disorder, offending, and victimization versus utilizing the police as a resource (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003). Therefore, regularly assessing the level of trust, confidence, and perceptions of legitimacy that minority residents have toward the police is a practice that can identify potential community problems. This is especially true as findings from the data determine that certain police practices utilized in a neighborhood are harming trust and relationship-building for certain racial/ethnic groups compared to others.
Furthermore, racial and ethnic minorities are considered a vulnerable population and are at a higher risk for victimization. This is especially true if the minorities are also elderly, have mental health diagnoses, have substance abuse problems, or are in abusive relationships (Cordner, 2020). One suggestion to increase trust among this vulnerable population is for police agencies to track and analyze victim data not only to decrease future victimizations but also to demonstrate a dedication to and situational awareness of at-risk minority residents. Researchers can also collaborate with agencies to assist with developing patterns and trends in the data that are useful not only for officer decision-making but also for the safety of all individuals involved in calls for service.
The final suggestion is for police to use their authority and force in a fair and effective manner. High-profile incidents in the media of excessive use of force, personal and vicarious experiences with the police, and aggressive police tactics have all contributed to declines in minority–police relations and negative perceptions of the police by Black and Hispanic residents (Paoline et al., 2018; Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). The fair and effective use of authority and force should be components of policing, not the end result of police situations. Due to the amount of discretion that police officers have in citizen encounters, reasonable force is expected during situations of resistance or threat. However, there needs to be transparency, accountability, and legitimacy in police decision-making and authority. The collection and dissemination of data using standardized metrics above and beyond police shootings (searches that result in contraband, arrests using greater force than handcuffing, etc.) can provide a more complete picture if force and authority are used effectively. If racial/ethnic disparities are found across person and vehicle stops, frisks, citations, and other forms of police encounters, then the data need to be examined for the potential reasons these disparities occur. It is not only about identification and assessment of racial/ethnic disparities but also about intervention, evaluation, and monitoring the appropriate use of force and authority. Public access to the data and findings also has the potential for difficult but needed conversations between agencies and minority residents in regard to police–community relations.
Conclusions on Race, Ethnicity, and Police–Community Relations
The topics and areas of research discussed in this article have highlighted the intricacies of racial and ethnic relations between minority residents and the police. There is a dense history surrounding minority–police relations that relates to systemic structural barriers, cultural adaptations of survival, perceptions held by minorities and police, the impact of the media, and the degree of effectiveness of specific police strategies. Although the suggestions here for research, policy, and practice are only a handful of potential opportunities to improve relationships between Black and Hispanics and the police, the recommendations have focused on the important need for collaborations across a variety of groups and agencies. Although the relationship between race, ethnicity, and police–community relations is complex in nature, with several underlying factors that indirectly impact this relationship, the increased use of evidence-based policing is an encouraging data-driven step toward increasing the quality of life for both minorities and police. However, buy-in and a long-term commitment are necessary from minority residents, law enforcement agencies, researchers, and social service agencies to meet the visions and goals of communities.
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