Surveys consistently show that many Black citizens lack confidence in the police. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that Blacks were only half as likely as whites to view local police positively.
According to Pew study, only 33 percent of Black respondents reported that the police “do a good job” patrolling their neighborhood, compared to nearly 75 percent of whites. Additionally, while 78 percent of whites expressed feeling safe from crime, only 48 percent of Blacks believed that the police were doing a decent job protecting them from criminal offenders.
In addition to expressing considerable dissatisfaction with police, Black citizens often report feelings of injustice and believe that they have been the targets of excessive police use of force. The publicized killings of unarmed Black citizens by police have further exacerbated this mistrust.
A detrimental consequence of possessing a negative perception of law enforcement is amplified crime levels.
Contrary to what the media often portrays, Black criminal offenders have a lower probability of arrest than white offenders for most violent crime types. We illustrate this relationship for six criminal offenses using data on 2,347 murders, 12,832 kidnappings, 24,493 forcible rapes, 31,053 robberies, 136,285 aggravated assaults, and 547,350 simple assaults drawn from the National Incident-Based Reporting System for 5,710 reporting jurisdictions in 38 states and Washington, DC.
Our study focused on these six offenses because it is in these crimes that the criminal offender confronts the victim. The victim and or witnesses can thus identify the offender’s race, notwithstanding whether police ever arrest the offender. Relative to the frequency of crime reported by crime victims, there is an expectation that the likelihood of arrest for Black and white offenders should be roughly equal.
If 10 percent of the robberies involving a Black criminal offender result in an arrest, then approximately 10 percent of the robberies involving a white criminal offender should also culminate in an arrest.
A visual examination of the figure depicted below readily shows that Black criminal offenders have a lower likelihood of arrest than white offenders for murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault.
The most likely explanation for this racial disparity is that the animus felt by many Black residents toward police makes them hesitant in assisting the police in the performance of their law enforcement duties.
Physical evidence is rare at most crime scenes. Thus, to link an individual to a specific crime, a police officer must observe the criminal offense or rely on citizens to furnish evidence against the alleged offender.
However, the police usually arrive too late to see the offender committing the crime. Accordingly, police officers typically need a victim’s testimony and or witnesses to obtain the required evidence to effectuate an arrest.
The problem is that people are reluctant to cooperate with the police when they believe that the police are biased against them. Many Black residents’ unwillingness to assist police officers lowers the probability of arrest, which in turn acts to amplify criminal activity by decreasing deterrence.
An unfavorable view of law enforcement can also escalate violence because citizens have an enhanced propensity to take the law into their own hands when they feel that the state is unwilling or incapable of furnishing them with adequate protection.
Hire More Black Police Officers
One practical way to improve Black residents’ trust in the police is to hire more Black police officers.
Although police departments today are more racially diverse than in the past, only about 9 percent of police officers are African American in departments serving populations over 100,000. Police departments in cities with large Black populations are also predominantly white. For example, while 26 percent of the Charleston, S.C. force, is Black, only 16 percent of its police force is African American.
The theory of descriptive representation argues that marginalized groups in society are more apt to view police officers as legitimate and trustworthy if they mirror the racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics of the community that they serve.
When a racial minority shares similar ascribed characteristics with a police officer, it gives the racial minority someone to identify with and conveys the impression to the minority that the police officer is sympathetic to their circumstance. Studies support this logic by showing that Black law enforcement officers working in an area improves Black residents’ trust in police and enhances their perception of police effectiveness.
A racially diverse police department may also be better suited to address problematic behavior and resident disagreements before they escalate into violence. Black police officers are more likely than white officers to know residents because they tend to reside in the communities they patrol.
Every day, the occurrence of violent crime shatters the tranquility of our neighborhoods. Violent criminal activity and the fear it engenders cripple our communities, threatens personal freedom, and frays the essential ties for healthy neighborhoods.
Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school alone. Youth hesitate to play in neighborhood playgrounds. The elderly lock themselves in their homes, and innocent residents of crime-riddled neighborhoods find their lives dramatically changed by the fear of crime.
A concentrated governmental effort to increase the number of Black police officers patrolling our streets can attenuate crime by improving relations between the police and members of the minority community.
Black residents, who once perceived the police as being unresponsive and non-supportive, will likely be more motivated to assist police officers in the apprehension of criminal offenders.
Stewart J. D’Alessio and Lisa Stolzenberg, Ph.D., are professors of criminology and criminal justice at Florida International University.