As Police Violence Increases, Civilians Less Likely to Call 911: Study

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A mirror created by the group Visual Black Justice, installed in front of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, where Derek Chauvin stood trial in the death of George Floyd. Photo by Lorie Shaull via Flickr.

Examining detailed data from eight major American cities, a new research study from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government  found that police violence reduces civilian trust and engagement with law enforcement.

In other words, as police violence and police brutality rates, and media attention increases, public trust plummets. As a consequence, communities stop relying on law enforcement for help. 

The researchers, Desmond Ang from the Harvard Kennedy School, Panka Bencsik from the University of Chicago, Jesse Bruhn from Brown University, and Ellora Derenoncourt from Princeton University, examined the ratio between 911 call data and the number of gunshot occurrences for Baltimore, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Richmond, and San Diego, before and after the high-profile police killing of George Floyd. 

By looking at 911 call data and observable information about gunshot occurrences through police logs and ShotSpotter, the researchers were first able to calculate the likelihood that a community will call the police, and compare that to the rate changes after May 25, 2020.  

“While gunfire spiked after Floyd’s killing, the total number of 911 calls dropped during the same period, resulting in a 50 percent decrease in civilian reporting rates,” the researchers wrote, noting that these effects are reflected until the end of 2020.

Focus on George Floyd’s Murder

While George Floyd’s murder was one of thousands of incidents where civilians died at the hands of law enforcement, the media attention that his case received sparked nationwide protests and renewed the debate about policing — allowing researchers to investigate the direct impact from the event. 

Broadcast footage of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation became a nightly occurrence, with nearly every news cycle covering an aspect about the case and the implications. The violence erupting during the protests also triggered an increase in gunshots detected by ShotSpotter technology. 

However, many communities stopped calling the police. 

Even though 911 call rates were down following the national COVID-19 emergency declaration, average emergency calls for the 8 cities dropped nearly 25 percent in the weeks after Floyd’s murder. Looking at the data simply for the day following Floyd’s death, the number of 911 calls dropped roughly 50 percent below the average.

Put another way through a firearm lens, the researchers detail that average citizen crime reporting dropped from 207 calls per gunshot in the week prior, to less than 90 calls per shot in the week after Floyd’s murder. 

“While law enforcement agencies are locally-governed institutions, our findings suggest that citizens may view them as part and parcel of a larger criminal justice system,” the researchers note.

“As a result, highly visible acts of police violence, like George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, may fuel distrust of local law enforcement agencies even among residents living in geographically and politically disparate areas.”

See Also: One Year After Killing of George Floyd, Problems and Frustrations Remain

Neighborhood Racial Composition

Even the relationship between police use of force and officer bias remains unclear, existing data suggest that white communities are more likely to approach the police or seek help for a medical emergency, the researchers said. 

They used this information, as well as geo-coded 911 and ShotSpotter microdata to compare it to the census demographics and calculate the call-to-shot rates among racial groups.  

The researchers first found that George Floyd’s death “significantly reduced crime reporting across a wide range of communities, even those with the highest existing trust and engagement with law enforcement.” 

The researchers also found significant decreases in 911 calls and civilian cooperation in majority-Black, majority-Hispanic, and majority-white neighborhoods. 

To that end, the decline in cooperation is largest in white communities — highlighting a shift that national surveys have uncovered, suggesting that the murder of George Floyd had a large impact on white people’s perceptions of the police.

See Also: Whites’ Favorable Views of Police Drop 11% In a Week June 8, 2020

Can Police Accountability Help?

To further the study, the researchers explored whether the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the Floyd murder, would swing the pendulum by giving civilians more faith in police accountability. 

President Joe Biden hailed the guilty decision as a “giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” while the Floyd family attorney called it a “turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement,” — creating a rare opportunity to test whether visible officer discipline could repair civilian trust.

Unfortunately, the televised conviction didn’t change opinions or develop community trust, the researchers found.

After plotting trends to 911 calls to firearm shot ratios in the weeks before and after the verdict was announced, the researchers found “little evidence that the decision increases civilian crime reporting.”  

Because of this, the researchers fear that local communities may view issues of police accountability as “too endemic to be repaired” with a single conviction, no matter how high-profile, the authors detail.

“…Police use of force may not only incite additional violence but also erode the mechanisms for curbing future crimes, as citizens become less likely to provide assistance or information to law enforcement,” the authors conclude.

“Together, our results point to the lasting damage that police violence may have on civilian trust and cooperation with law enforcement, thereby undermining the institution’s role in public safety and the dispatching of emergency services.”

Desmond Ang is an applied economist and assistant professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Panka Bencsik is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Crime Lab. Her research interests include the economics of crime, health, and mental health. Jesse Bruhn an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brown University and an affiliate of the Annenberg Institute. Ellora Derenoncourt is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a member of the Industrial Relations Section of Princeton Economics.

The full study can be accessed here.

Additional Reading: The Mental Health Risks of Secondhand Exposure to Police Violence


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