Addressing the Perceptions of Law Enforcement Prejudice

Jan. 27, 2015


By Sheryl Estrada

The perception of biased policing and mistrust of police officers has been prevalent in many Black and Latino communities in the U.S.

The shooting death of Michael Brown, the choking death of Eric Garner, and the protests that followed were the tipping point.

To examine policing policies around the country, President Obama signed an Executive Order on Dec. 18 establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

By March 2, the 11-member task force will provide a report and recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust, and also foster collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.

Co-chairs are Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia Police Department, and Laurie Robinson, a Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University.

Through multiple listening sessions, open to the public, the task force will gain input and expertise from stakeholders. The first listening session was Jan. 13 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., with the topic, “Building Relationships and Legitimacy.” Tom R. Tyler, Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale University, was a subject-matter expert during the session. In a prepared statement, he recognized the relationship of public perception and policing.

“The issue of respect has been particularly central to recent public controversy regarding the police, with people believing that the police treat members of the public, especially those belonging to minority groups, in demeaning, discourteous, and disrespectful ways,” he wrote. “The public perception of and reaction to what the police are doing has become an issue in and of itself, beyond actual police actions.”

Data compiled from a Reason-Rupe public-opinion surveyindicate the difference between whites and members of underrepresented groups in the perception of abuse and bias in law enforcement:

(Data in percentages)WhitesBlacksLatinos
Have a positive view of the police 805251
Believe police are too quick to use lethal force348272
Believe police only use lethal force when necessary591623
Believe the number of excessive-force cases is increasing387367

In addition, while 53 percent of whites believe the system treats all racial groups the same, 83 percent of Blacks and 62 percent of Latinos say whites are treated more fairly under the law.

From Aug. 2024, the Pew Research Center andUSA TODAY conducted a national survey of 1,501 adults by landline and cellphone. They found differences in how Blacks and whites assess law enforcement nationally, and especially locally.

Perception of police departments nationally (in percentages):

Treat ethnic and racial groups equallyBlacksWhites
Poor job7025
Excellent or good1038
Holding officers accountable for misconduct BlacksWhites
Poor job7027
Excellent or good1037

Perception of police local departments in 2014:

A great deal or fair amount of confidence in police treating Blacks and whites equally%
Blacks36
Whites72
A great deal or fair amount of confidence in police not using excessive force on suspects%
Blacks36
Whites74

Regardless of the actual extent of bias in policing, perception alone can be harmful.

Mara Teresa Kumar, President and CEO of Voto Latino, also participated in the task force’s first listening session. A key part of her testimony was results from The State of the Latino Family national survey, released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundationin November.

The survey found real concern about unequal treatment by local police, border patrol and other law enforcement:

  • 68 percent worry authorities will use excessive force against Latinos;
  • 26 percent believe they treat Latinos fairly most of the time;
  • 18 percent have Latino friends or family who were victims of police brutality;
  • 59 percent said there are things they would change about their local police.

The study, Insecure Communities: Latino Perceptions of Police Involvement in Immigration Enforcement, was conducted in part by PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity.

It includes the viewpoints of 2,004 U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos who live in the counties of Cook (Chicago), Harris (Houston), Los Angeles and Maricopa (Phoenix).

Interesting statistics were found on police perception. When asked how often police officers stop Latinos without good reason or cause, 62 percent said very or somewhat often.

According to the study, “The findings presented here indicate that the greater involvement of police in immigration enforcement has significantly heightened the fears many Latinos have of the police, contributing to their social isolation and exacerbating their mistrust of law enforcement authorities.”

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Professor at Harvard Law School and the Founding and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, was also a subject-matter expert at the listening session. An opinion piece he coauthored with David Harris discusses a need for “community justice” or shifts in the design and delivery of public services.

This includes eliminating and replacing incentives in the justice system, such as federal funds encouraging police departments to focus on marijuana possession, for example. (Although white and Black Americans use marijuana at equal rates, according to a 2010 ACLU report, Blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.)

“These incentives create the conditions under which police view entire communities with distrust or worse, and community inhabitants feel like they are under the rule of an occupying army, together fueling a cycle of incarceration, isolation, and alienation,” the article stated.

The next Task Force on 21st Century Policing listening sessions will be Friday, Jan. 30 (Policy and Oversight) ,and Saturday, Jan. 31 (Technology and Social Media), at the University of Cincinnati.

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