Racial Agreement on Police Discrimination

White and Blacks are in fact largely in agreement that police do not treat people of different races equally

John Buntin has an engaging piece in New York Times on how to prevent gang members from killing each other. David Kennedy, subject of a collective RBC wonk crush, describes how the long-term, prevalent use of stop-and-frisk tactics in minority neighborhoods has eroded community trust of law enforcement:

In high-crime neighborhoods across the country, community cooperation with police investigations has virtually stopped. It’s not simply that residents are afraid of retaliation, Kennedy says. “There is a strong and growing norm in many communities, especially poor black communities, that good people don’t talk to and don’t work with the police,” he says. So even while the sheer number of murders in most cities is dropping, the homicide clearance rate — the proportion of cases solved — is doing the same.

But John’s otherwise excellent article includes one false note:

A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that just 14 percent of African-Americans had a great deal of confidence in the proposition that their local police officers treated blacks and whites equally, compared with 38 percent of whites who thought so.

This is a common, but misleading, way to quote statistics that implies enormous disagreement between how whites and African-Americans perceive issues related to race. But if you stated these same statistics the other way, you would see that 86% of African-Americans and 62% of whites agree that local police do not treat blacks and whites equally. We ought to be worried not about so much about the level of White-Black disagreement, which is small, but the fact that people of different races largely agree that the police are engaging in discrimination.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Racial Agreement on Police Discrimination”

  1. My money is that a substantial chunk of the whites agreeing the statement think the police treat blacks better than whites. Cf Mark O’Mara’s comment that if Zimmerman were black he would not have been charged…

  2. I might have to eat my shorts on that previous comment. The Pew report’s other questions about discrimination against blacks suggests that recognition of discrimination against blacks is substantial among whites; only a quarter of whites say that there is little to no discrimination (in general) against blacks and only 9% of whites say that media coverage of blacks is “too positive”. http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/30/blacks-view-of-law-enforcement-racial-progress-and-news-coverage-of-race/

  3. This is one of those god news/bad news deals no matter how you cut it. It’s great that solid majorities agree on the fact of, not just discrimination, but really outright racism built into this system

    But then what happens? Do we have heroic individuals standing up in jury rooms all over the country saying, “You know what? I’m not going to send another black kid to jail for marijuana.”

    Sad to say, not yet, but give it time, because the polls also show most folks are now fed up with the war on marijuana. Government either trims its sails to match that sentiment or…

    Or they don’t do much of anything else for that matter, like vote for candidates who want to address such inequities. It makes [white] people feel good inside to recognize racism at work around us. But it doesn’t seem to motivate action. People always say that Americans waste a lot of the freedom we have. Racism is definitely an issue we have trouble figuring out what to do about. Think harder. There’s plenty that can be done. If you need a hand, check the ends of your arms.

    BTW, I’m white, I vote, and I have jury duty in the fall.

    1. “It makes [white] people feel good inside to recognize racism at work around us. But it doesn’t seem to motivate action. People always say that Americans waste a lot of the freedom we have. Racism is definitely an issue we have trouble figuring out what to do about.”

      There is a diffusion of responsibility amongst anyone privileged enough to not have to rely on selling drugs to achieve status/income. Effectively changing racial inequities would involve dismantling a much more elusive issue – classism. We can all feel good inside believing that we are compassionate, non-supporters of disproportionate human suffering. Meanwhile, our daily lives are spent engaging in operations that are in conflict of interest to the issues that we do not wish to support.

      The most immediate action we can make as subconscious, status-quo, status-seekers, is to desist asking the question whilst meeting somebody new: “…And, what do you do?”

  4. Thanks, Keith.

    The big story here – and John tells it beautifully, his piece is a shining example of what good journalism can be and do – is the transformation of the LAPD and its approach to gangs. It’s hard to convey how bad that used to be. What they’re doing now draws on the same core ideas as a number of new approaches that have been talked about here – Project HOPE, the 24/7 DUI intervention, my own homicide and drug market work. Focus on the core figures, focus on core behavior, engage them with respect, create and give notice regarding swift and certain – not necessarily severe – penalties, offer help and support where it is most needed, and mobilize the natural power of communities. LAPD has moved from a solo war on gangs to a heavily partnered drive to prevent gang violence. The way they’ve learned to work with ex-gang members and community figures is not only effective, but inspirational.

    Interesting things are happening here as unlikely parties see the underlying logic. At about the same time that John’s piece ran I published this on the fact that in the midst of the polarized stop-and-frisk debate about New York, NYPD has quietly brought homicide down another quarter while reducing stops by a full half:


    This is one of the core possibilities the new thinking provides: a new way to use authority that is more effective, more economical, and more legitimate.

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