While trying to catch a bus to school, Emilio Mayfield, 16, jaywalked. When he didn’t comply with a police officer’s command to get out of the bus lane, a scuffle ensued. Mayfield was struck in the face with a baton and arrested by nine Stockton, Cal. police officers. The arrest was captured on video by a bystander and the video went viral.
A police officer responding to a domestic violence call shot Jamar Clark, 24, in the head as he lay on the ground. He died the next day, sparking weeks of protests. A Minneapolis Police Department internal investigation later cleared the two officers involved in the shooting of any wrongdoing.
Devon Davis crashed his car and was running away from cops when they caught up to him. A witness says officers severely beat Davis in the legs before carrying him away. Police assert that Davis injured his legs in the car crash. Davis sued the city of Pittsburgh and six police officers.
These incidents — which all took place in 2015 — may have been on the minds of residents in these cities when they were asked to participate in a study of their views on the police.
The study, released Wednesday, reveals that while the majority of residents in high-crime, high-poverty areas have a negative view of the police, they also have great respect for the law and are willing to work with law enforcement to make communities safer.
The majority of residents surveyed hold a very negative impression of the police. Less than a third believe that the police respect people’s rights, “treat people with dignity and respect,” and “make fair and impartial decisions in the cases they deal with.” More than half of residents say that “police officers will treat you differently because of your race/ethnicity” and that officers act “based on personal prejudices and biases.” Survey respondents identified as black (66 percent), white (12 percent), and Latino or Hispanic (11 percent). The majority are female (59 percent). Most respondents live in extreme poverty, reporting a total annual income of less than $20,000.
Residents also expressed a firm belief in the law and a willingness to partner with police to improve community safety. Seven in 10 respondents believe that the “law should be strictly obeyed” and that laws benefit the community. More than half agree with the statement “the laws in your community are consistent with your own intuitions about what is right and just.”
And while only 38 percent of respondents say that they feel safe around the police or find them trustworthy (30 percent), they also say they would work with police. More than half are willing to attend a community meeting with police and close to half say they would volunteer their time to help the police solve a crime or find a suspect.
The Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., conducted the study in partnership with local organizations in six cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Stockton, California. The focus on households located in the highest crime, lowest income areas — with predominantly residents of color — is a marked departure from most surveys about perception of law enforcement which sample the general population.
Using data from the U.S. Census and crime data provided by police departments in the six cities, researchers identified the areas with the highest concentrations of crime and poverty in each city. Focusing their research in this way allowed them to survey the “people who live in the areas where trust may be weakest, but who may benefit the most from increases in public safety.”
“General population surveys often mask differences between groups,” the authors said. “Those who are white and more affluent are the most likely to respond to general population surveys and tend to have relatively favorable views of the police.” Researchers conducted surveys in person, instead of using the more common methods of mail or phone because residents who are low income, have less education, or are racial or linguistic minorities tend to be underrepresented in phone and mail surveys.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, of the six cities, the ones with majority black populations — Gary, Indiana (85 percent) and Birmingham, Alabama (73 percent) — had the highest percentages of individuals living in poverty (37 percent, and 31 percent, respectively).
Forth Worth, Texas, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh have majority white populations of around 60 to 65 percent. Roughly 20 percent of residents in these cities live in poverty.
Stockton is the only city in the study without a racial majority. Forty percent identified as Latino or Hispanic, 23 percent as white, 22 percent as Asian, and 12 percent as black. It also had the highest percentage of individuals reporting mixed-race identity (7 percent). A quarter of its residents live in poverty.
While there have been in-depth looks at disparities in various aspects of the criminal justice system (such as over-representation of blacks and Latinos in solitary confinement), little has been reported on the views of those most affected by heavy police presence in their neighborhoods. “The people most likely to experience high rates of violence and heavy police presence in their communities have limited resources, social capital, and political voice,” the researchers said.
“Quite simply, reductions in violent crime are not possible without meaningful representation of — and engagement with — the residents most affected by it,” the study concluded.