Black Americans have significantly less confidence in their local police departments than white Americans, surveys show, and it could be having some startling effects on crime.
A new study analyzing nearly 900,000 911 calls in Milwaukee found that emergency calls from majority-black neighborhoods dropped precipitously after the highly publicized beating of a black man by police officers. In the months after the number of emergency calls fell, Milwaukee saw an uptick in homicides — highlighting a potential link between incidents of police violence and an increases in violent crime.
The findings come as the latest FBI crime data released last week show a 4 percent uptick in violent crime and an 11 percent increase in homicides in 2015.
Despite the increases, overall crime rates remain at near-record lows, but notable spikes in several cities have left police leaders and criminologists looking for a cause and have prompted scrutiny of recent police violence and subsequent protests.
The study of 911 calls, done by faculty from Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities, looked at calls placed to police in Milwaukee between 2004 and 2010. It honed in on calls and crime rates after the widely publicized 2004 beating of Frank Jude, a black man, by several police officers. The incident had gone unreported for months before the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal broke the story in early 2005.
Controlling for factors such as seasonal ebbs in crime rates and weather, the researchers estimated that 22,000 fewer 911 calls were made over the following year after accounts of the beating hit the press — equating to a 17 percent drop overall.
However, calls from majority-black neighborhoods fell by 56 percent, while those from white neighborhoods had “a small decline.” In addition, the study found calls from white neighborhoods rebounded to usual levels much more quickly than those from black neighborhoods.
The study notes that publicized cases of police violence “not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement; they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.
“It is one thing to disparage law enforcement in your thoughts and speech after an instance of police violence or corruption makes the news,” the study notes. “It is quite another to witness a crime, or even to be victimized, and refuse to report it.”
The attack on Mr. Jude occurred in October 2004, when he, another black man and two women attended a party hosted by off-duty police officers. The group felt uncomfortable at the party and decided to leave, but before they could, several off-duty officers accused them of stealing a badge belonging to one of the officers.
The officers slit the face of the other black man, who broke free and ran away, but Mr. Jude was surrounded, restrained and beaten. Officers kicked him in the head, bent his fingers backward until they snapped, shoved pens into his ear canal, cut off his pants and at one point put a gun to his head.
When on-duty officers arrived, who had been summoned by the women who accompanied Mr. Jude to the party, at least one of those officers joined in the beating.
The other responding officers arrested Mr. Jude, put him in a police wagon and took him to a hospital. The missing badge was never found, and no charges were ever filed against Mr. Jude.
After the incident, none of the officers involved in the beating would talk to internal affairs investigators.
The Journal Sentinel reported the beating, accompanied by photos of Mr. Jude’s injuries taken in the hospital, in February 2005 — triggering a wave of protests in the city.
Nine officers were fired but had continued to draw salaries after they appealed the decision. Charges eventually were brought against three of the officers, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. A later federal investigation resulted in convictions of seven of the officers.
After the news of the Jude case hit the press and 911 calls began to drop, there appeared to be another possible impact — an increase in homicides, the study noted. From March to August 2005, 87 homicides were recorded in the city — the highest number reported in a six-month period during the entire seven-year analysis of 911 calls.
The study’s authors conclude that the drop in 911 calls “shows that in predominantly black neighborhoods, publicized cases of police violence can have a community-wide impact on crime reporting that transcends individual encounters.”
One of the authors, Matthew Desmond of Harvard, told the Sentinel Journal that the researchers could not definitively say the drop in calls caused the homicide spike, but “I think the pattern of homicide data does suggest the drop in crime reporting in the immediate aftermath of Frank Jude might have contributed to that spike in a major way.”
The ‘Ferguson effect’
The study, published last week in the American Sociological Review, comes as fatal police shootings of black men routinely are becoming national news. Such shootings in Charlotte, North Carolina; El Cajon, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Washington, D.C., have resulted in national coverage and local protests in the past month.
At the same time, a survey by the Pew Research Center finds that just 14 percent of blacks say they have a lot of confidence in their local police, compared to 42 percent of whites who say the same.
There are also wide racial gaps in how Americans rate their police departments on the issue of use of force. Three-quarters of whites say their local police do a good or excellent job when it comes to using the right amount of force for each situation. Only 33 percent of blacks share that view, with 63 percent saying police do a fair or poor job.
The disparate perceptions of police by whites and blacks, as well as recent protests over the treatment of minority communities by police, come amid the backdrop of an unexplained rise in homicides in several cities. Spikes in homicides in several cities last year — including Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — have left elected leaders and police officials struggling to explain the cause.
A controversial theory dubbed the “Ferguson effect” has been touted by some police leaders who say that publicity and backlash against police departments after highly publicized use-of-force incidents — such as the fatal shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — have emboldened criminals.
FBI Director James B. Comey has espoused a version of the theory, saying it may be possible that officers have become less aggressive in their patrols for fear of their interactions becoming the next “viral video” featured on the nightly news.
The universities’ study hints at the possibility that widely publicized incidents of police violence may be dampening the volume of 911 calls beyond city borders.
In addition to the Jude case, the study’s authors looked at emergency calls after several other highly publicized incidents of police violence against black men. One case involving the beating of a black man by a Milwaukee officer that came to light in 2007 also resulted in a significant decline in crime reporting.
Researchers found mixed results when they looked at the effects of incidents of police violence elsewhere in the country on Milwaukee 911 calls: The 2006 fatal police shooting of Sean Bell on his wedding day in New York did appear to decrease 911 call volume in Milwaukee. But the 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant on the platform of Oakland, California’s Fruitvale Station by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police officers did not correspond to any decrease in 911 calls.
“The effect of Frank Jude’s beating on citizen crime reporting matched the severity of the incident, but instances of police violence less extreme by comparison, as well as events that took place thousands of miles away, still appear to have had an impact on crime reporting in Milwaukee,” the study concludes.
• Andrea Noble can be reached at email@example.com.
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