After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the 504th and 508th people killed by police officers this year, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement issued a set of demands for lawmakers.
“Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people,” the missive read. Calling for an end to unjustified deaths at the hands of cops, the group also argued for independent prosecutions of offending officers, outside the internal disciplinary systems that often exonerate fellow police. The influential activists also want to do away with the punitive enforcement of minor crimes, making it clear that they do not trust patrolmen to handle even routine busts fairly and safely. When the killings of Sterling and Castile were followed by the assassination of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Black Lives Matter leaders quickly and strongly condemned those murders, even as members continued to step up the pressure for police reform through acts of civil disobedience around the country.
On July 21, while another police shooting stirred fresh outrage — a black caretaker in North Miami was struck in the leg as he laid on the ground with his hands up — Chicago recorded its 2,224th total shooting victim of the year. With 2016 barely half over, 361 people have been killed in the city, the majority of them black men who died from gunfire. The city of Baltimore has lost 106 black men to gun violence this year so far. African Americans comprise only 12 percent of the nation’s population, but comprise up to 60 percent the nation’s gun homicides. The journalist Farah Stockman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing on racial politics, is among the observers who have wondered whether the focus on police killings crowds out an opportunity to reduce everyday shootings.
“Why do black lives seem to matter most when they are taken by white police officers?” she wrote in a column last year. “Is a death at the hands of a gangbanger with bad aim any more acceptable?”
But protesting law enforcement misconduct and addressing the outsize number of gun homicides that claim black lives are not mutually exclusive. In fact, years of research indicate that police mistreatment of African Americans helps to create the conditions for spiraling gun violence. A cop who shoots an innocent person, in malice or in haste, makes it harder for other officers to maintain the community trust necessary to manage violent crime. By extension, any police reforms — such as those that form Black Lives Matter’s platform — that might repair the relationship between officers and African Americans could also bring down shootings.
Academics talk about African Americans’ loss of trust in law enforcement in terms of “police legitimacy,” a concept that describes a community’s faith in the police to keep it safe. “Where police legitimacy goes down, crime goes up. It’s also true that where legitimacy goes up, crime goes down,” says Amy Crawford, deputy director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Events such as the deaths of Sterling and Castile are the most visible examples of racially oriented policing practices that come in other forms. Law enforcement officers shoot African Americans at a rate 2.5 higher than whites in part because African Americans are over 20 times as likely as whites to be involved in a police interaction where an officer draws a weapon, be it a gun, a taser, or a baton. Officers are significantly more likely to manhandle African Americans than whites and more likely to pull over black drivers.
At the same time, communities of color note the absence of police at the times and in the places where they are needed most. A 2011 New York Times analysis of Chicago police staffing showed that patrol officers were disproportionately deployed to safe neighborhoods at the expense of high-crime areas. Arrest rates for serious crimes in violent areas are low and police take longer to respond to emergency calls made by nonwhites.
The stinging combination of over- and under-policing erodes law enforcement’s legitimacy in minority neighborhoods. When criminologists asked young African Americans and Hispanics in Philadelphia why they didn’t trust the police, the top two reasons cited were negative personal interactions with the police and a belief that the police were ineffective. One respondent in the Philadelphia study summed up this mix perfectly:
I got pulled over in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago cause the cop, a couple of blocks from my house, said I rolled through a stop sign. And I said “No I didn’t! You just pulled me over.” In my neighborhood, for rolling through a stop sign? And someone’s getting shot down the street?
Data indicate that such stories can be found nationwide: Over half of black youth interviewed by researchers last year reported being harassed or knowing someone who was harassed by the police, while under half said they trust the police. Another survey, from last June, showed confidence in police plummeting to historic lows after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore capped a year of highly publicized police killings of black men. A CBS / New York Times poll from around the same time found that only half of black respondents said law enforcement made them mostly safe. Forty two percent said police made them feel mostly anxious.
Fractured relationships between communities of color and law enforcement leave former more hesitant to engage with the latter. A study published in the October 2016 issue of American Sociological Review shows that 911 calls from black neighborhoods can drop dramatically in the months after highly public instances of police brutality against black men. In the year that followed the 2004 beating of Frank Jude by Milwaukee police, 911 dispatchers in Milwaukee received 22,00o fewer calls, a 20 percent reduction from a normal year. Homicides increased by 32 percent that summer.
When crimes do lead to police investigations, friction between law enforcement and minority communities can make cases harder to solve. Residents who live in areas where police legitimacy is historically low are hesitant to give witness accounts in criminal investigations. Hampered by such obstacles, the police departments of high-crime cities are often unsuccessful at arresting perpetrators.
Jill Leovy, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, describes in her book Ghettoside how detectives in that city spent decades trailing behind mounting homicide numbers, leaving clearance rates — the ratio of solved criminal cases to unsolved cases — tragically low. If police can’t secure the assistance they need to accomplish the first step of identifying shooters, the justice system cannot prosecute them. If murderers are never arrested, much less imprisoned, then closure remains out of reach for the families and friends of victims — some of whom will seek the justice that the state failed to provide.
In the policing vacuum created by widespread community mistrust, revenge shootings beget more revenge shootings, building to epidemic rates of urban gun violence. “When people do not trust the police, they take care of problems on their own — and this is the pattern that can result in extrajudicial shootings and cycles of retaliatory violence,” Crawford explains. After 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee was gunned down in Chicago by gang rivals of his father, the horrific nature of the case drove national headlines. But in the country’s roughest neighborhoods, violence against unpunished assailants can become routine. Between 1985 and 1995, 20 percent of the homicides in the poorest parts of St. Louis were retaliatory shootings.
The threat of retaliation further chills witness cooperation, making cases all the more difficult to solve. The few people who come forward to offer or corroborate evidence do so reluctantly. Criminologists in St. Louis found a homicide case in which the sole witness asked investigators if he could enter the precinct house through a secret tunnel.
Firearm ownership flourishes in these conditions. Community forums have found that guns come to be seen as a necessity in neighborhoods beset by violent crime. In places where wariness and skepticism toward law enforcement runs high, even criminal offenders arm themselves for protection. More guns provide the tools for more gun crime, and more anxious officers: Police, aware of the profusion of weapons, can become primed to anticipate danger. Officers might even find it ever more reasonable to respond to seemingly benign situations with lethal force. “The reasonableness standard,” as Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate after the Castile’s death, “becomes a race to the bottom.”
The cycle of violence that takes hold when police treat minorities aggressively while failing to curb the crimes that cause the most harm churns with such reliable ruthlessness that it’s possible to predict an area’s homicide rate just by looking at measures of police legitimacy. A study of New York City precincts between 1975 and 1996 found that increases in police misconduct and over-policing were directly linked to increases in violent crime. Police misconduct, in fact, was a much stronger predictor of violent crime than factors such as poverty or education levels. In Chicago, the neighborhoods with the least confidence in police and the legal system correlate with those that, unlike the rest of the city, have never recovered from the surge in violence recorded in the 1990s.
The clear takeaway — that just, effective policing matters most where crime is most likely to occur — is intuitively understood in communities of color, where supporting police and defending black lives is not an either-or. The state-perpetrated violence of police brutality has enraged a new generation of activists, whose members belong to all races. But as one criminologist told Vox, “Crime is also an injustice.” Earlier this summer, a survey of African Americans and Hispanics conducted by the Urban Institute and other nonprofit groups showed that those groups rank gun violence as a concern more serious than police misconduct or mass incarceration. At the same time, they also believe — in significantly greater numbers than whites — that better-behaved police, present in greater numbers, could make their neighborhoods safer.
Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, described to Frontline the balance minorities hope to strike: “We need police in our neighborhood. We just don’t want them to shoot us in the back while we’re running away in a traffic stop.”
[Graphic: Francesca Mirabile. Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images]