There’s a long and complicated narrative of black communities in America finding ways to support law enforcement, even as the law is enforced unequally to their disadvantage. A unique new study from the Urban Institute provides a vivid portrait of how these conflicting feelings sort themselves out.
“How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police?” asks a difficult question, and comes up with some answers that many might find surprising. On one hand, large percentages of people living in the most challenging areas expressed an eagerness to work with police to solve neighborhood problems, the study found. Not only that, but most from these communities also hold the law in high esteem, and believe there should be consequences for not following it.
Alternately, however, many people from these same communities don’t believe that police are fair or just in how they apply the law, particularly when it comes to African Americans. The two charts below from the study illustrate the contrast:
What makes this study unique from the many other reports on how police are perceived is that this one focuses on the viewpoints of those who are most impacted by police activity. Urban Institute researchers spoke with residents who live on the streets with the highest levels of violent crime and poverty in six cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Stockton, California. The police departments in these cities are part of the U.S. Justice Department’s National Initiative on Building Community Trust and Justice, initiated by former Attorney General Eric Holder to heal police-related hostilities.
Other studies on this subject deal primarily with how the general public feels about police, which doesn’t account for the fact that not all individuals and communities share the same experiences when interacting with police. “Quite simply, reductions in violent crime are not possible without meaningful representation of—and engagement with—the residents most affected by it,” reads the Urban Institute report.
The other side of this picture: How police feel about their own work. That’s the focus most recently of a sprawling study from the Pew Research Center.
There is little common ground between the Pew and Urban Institute studies. For example, Pew found that roughly 70 percent of police officers believe that some or most of the civilians they regularly interact with share their values. Meanwhile, a little less than a third of Urban Institute’s respondents (32.8 percent) said that most police officers’ values reflect their own. Even less (31.9 percent) said that police stand up for values that are important to them.
The Pew study also found that 92 percent of police officers and 79 percent of the public believe anti-police bias is what’s behind all the recent street protests over police killing African Americans. However, roughly half of the Urban Institute’s respondents feel that police act based on their own personal prejudices; over half (55.5 percent) believe that police will treat them differently because of their race.
Together, the two studies show how the lived experiences of those most vulnerable to poverty and violence can get obscured by the primacy of the police and the general public’s points of view. Laws and policies end up mostly shaped around protecting the latter—the police/general public—and consequentially, poor communities of color get labeled disparagingly, often as a public threat.
The White House has ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere” they believe pervades “inner-city” neighborhoods. The Trump administration has avoided addressing massive corruption among large metro police departments, to hammer on what it calls a lawless culture overtaking cities.
“You can malign a community for having distrust of the police, but you can’t do that without looking at how police behave in those communities,” says the report’s lead author, Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Police practices such as stop-and-frisk do “very little to promote safety, and they create bigger rifts between the police and community members, because community members don’t feel like they are partners with police in that context. They feel like they’re guilty by association of living in a certain place that happens to have high crime.”
Our findings indicate that a majority of respondents support or believe in the law. Indeed, nearly three in four agreed that all laws should be strictly obeyed (74.3 percent), following the law ultimately benefits everyone in the community (72.9 percent), and people should do what the law says (73.8 percent). Yet a smaller percentage agreed that the laws are generally consistent with community members’ views on what is right and just (49.2 percent). Similarly, just over half (51.8 percent) agreed that it is hard to break the law and keep your self-respect.
These stats, combined with those showing a readiness to partner with law enforcement, do not add up to an anti-police environment—just an apprehensive one. It’s almost as if these communities just want to be treated fairly.
“I guess this surprising to some, but it’s not surprising to us, because we’ve done a lot of work in these communities,” says La Vigne. “The willingness to partner with police for various forms of public safety efforts—from calling in crimes to going to community meetings and serving as witnesses—these all demonstrate their commitment to the law.”