A recently published nationwide study by two University of South Florida professors indicates that blacks are five times more likely and Latinos four times more likely to fear police brutality than whites.
Criminology instructor Murat Haner and Melissa Sloan, associate professor of sociology, report In “Race and Worrying about Police Brutality: The Hidden Injuries of Minority Status in America” that while only 6.6 percent of whites “worry a lot” about police violence, some minorities experience much greater fear, with 32.4 percent of blacks and 26.5 percent of Latinos reporting they “worry a lot” about becoming victims of police violence.
Conversely, three-fourths of whites “do not worry at all” about officer violence, while only one-third of minority respondents “do not worry at all” about police brutality.
Haner and Sloan, researchers at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, conducted the study with four other professors over three months in 2018.
Their article was published online on May 26 in the journal, Victims & Offenders: An International Journal of Evidence-based Research, Policy and Practice.
“Blacks and Hispanics live with these worries that whites really have no concept of,” Sloan said, summing up. “Given the long history of racial discrimination in the United States, this divide likely has been occurring for a long time, across generations.”
The study is based on a national survey of 1,000 respondents to measure fear by how much the study’s participants “worry” about experiencing police violence.
Participants were asked how much they worry about six potential areas of concern:
- Experiencing police brutality
- Becoming the victim of a racial/hate crime
- Becoming the victim of a violent crime
- Someone breaking into your house when you are home
- A mass shooting at some event or at work/school
- Becoming the victim of a terrorist attack
- The goal of asking about these other worries was to determine if racial/ethnic differences were unique to the worry of police brutality or found within other examples of victimization, and if so, to what extent.
Also collaborating in the study in addition to Haner and Sloan were researchers from Georgia Southern University, the University of Cincinnati, Xaiver University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Previous studies have examined fear of police generally, but this is the first study to specifically examine the fear of police brutality. Further, the study includes a representative proportion of Latino respondents – a subgroup of the U.S. population often omitted from the area of research.
In addition to considering racial differences as related to police violence, the study suggests that for blacks, as well as Hispanics to an extent, worrying about police brutality exacts an emotional toll that is pervasive and largely hidden from view.
This emotional burden is hazardous because research shows excessive worry leads to psychological and physical health consequences as well as behavioral changes.
“Research on the fear of crime shows that worries like these can lead to avoidance behaviors where people restrict normal activities and social interaction out of fear, which can lead to feelings of isolation and lower quality of life,” Sloan said.
“More concerning is that this worry is justified as demonstrated by the killing of George Floyd as well as the numerous other black Americans who have been brutalized and killed by police in the past.”
The extent of this worry among blacks suggests that these consequences may affect entire communities, not only individuals in contact with police and the criminal justice system.
“Taken as a whole, what remains is an insidious picture in which communities worry about those they are supposed to trust during their greatest time of need,” Haner said.
“There is a substantial subpopulation in America that worries about being victimized, not by some perpetrator, but by the state – the very people who are sworn to protect and serve them.”
To provide further context, the researchers analyzed responses about worries across the five other victimization scenarios, which are listed above.
Worries about becoming the victim of a violent crime or a mass shooting appeared homogeneous, with black and Latino respondents worrying no more or less than white respondents. However, it appeared that younger Americans worry more than older Americans about both of these events.
Uniquely, Latino respondents worried more than white respondents about someone breaking into their house when they were present. Black respondents, on the other hand, did not worry about this crime any differently than white respondents.
Finally, black and Latino respondents worried significantly more than white respondents about being victims of a racial or hate crime or being victims of a terrorist attack.
Police-involved shootings challenge our thinking about the intersections of race, gender, class, and place, which are embedded in everyday practices and policies governing law enforcement. The Mapping Police Violence (MPV) Web site estimated that 1164 people in the United States were killed by police in 2018.1
Howard Rodenberg’s essay (p. 456) reflects a collective cognitive dissonance that comes with new reports of officer-involved shootings that structure four socially accepted views: (1) police are good and serve our communities to ensure safety; (2) police have dangerous and stressful jobs; (3) training, ethics, and values guide police behaviors; and (4) if you are arrested, hurt, or killed by police—these “justify” use of force.
Evidence documenting police-involved shootings challenge these views and are less understood because of the lack of data collected over time and across all police agencies, limiting the precision and magnitude of estimates.
MPV reported 104 unarmed Black people being killed by police in 2015. What is not reported in Rodenberg’s comments is that unarmed Black people are five times more likely than White people to be killed by police.
In 2015, 50 police officers were shot and killed, while many more died resulting from other causes such as suicide.2
Is it the general community or just Black and Brown residents who are the risk to police?
As crime rates decline, policing in poor, Black, and Brown neighborhoods increases, and this becomes a fatal risk for being killed by police in those neighborhoods.3
Rodenberg’s essay stems from an incident with Bernard Kersh in Chicago, Illinois, which exemplifies the lack of police training to identify mental health conditions and a perspective that treatment can be received in the criminal justice system.
Months before Kersh was body-slammed by police, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Leonard Shand was shot by 10 officers after being described as talking loudly, holding knives, and disoriented.
Police attempted to use less lethal methods to get Shand to release the knives and to get him medical attention; this was not the case with Kersh. Police use-of-force continuums were argued in City and County of San Francisco v Sheehan,4 which left the Supreme Court to provide immunity to officers, but did not provide any additional guidance about the use-of-force continuum generally or in cases when engaging someone with a mental illness, like in the Kersh and Shand incidents.
There is a lack of standard definitions of police violence and use of force,5 although the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has asked for such clarity to be developed that can modernize existing language in the Fourth Amendment.
The use-of-force continuum Rodenberg suggests should become standards upheld by all police agencies, and there is a need for clear processes to manage violations. Framing these violators as “good” and victims as “bad” becomes a mechanism to allow language softening the reality that an injury or death has occurred.
Biased applications of policing are rewarded, and a rhetoric to justify excessive use of force defines institutional racism in the criminal justice enterprise. Impunity is further established within agencies as other officers are prohibited to report misconduct for fear of falling out of the blue code of protection and being subjected to occupational and professional hazards.
A vicious cycle is created when recruiting and training officers who adhere to a “warrior” mentality, according to experts at a Brookings symposium.6 A hypermasculine professional identity emerges, disallowing opportunities to address implicit and overt bias.
Reform in policing has to take place before a larger-scale rejection of police occurs as tax dollars support restitution payments to individuals or families who experienced officer-involved shootings or injuries.
A critical race approach challenges the laws, policies, and practices of policing and suggests new ways to collect and analyze data, improve training, and articulate the role of scholars and practitioners.7
A new objective has to be established at a national level: to minimize officer-involved shootings and the community trauma that becomes a byproduct leading to a public health crisis.
1. Mapping Police Violence. Available at: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org. Accessed January 13, 2020.
2. Peeples L. What the data say about police shootings. How do racial biases play into deadly encounters with the police? Researchers wrestle with incomplete data to reach an answer. Nature. 2019;573:24–26. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
4. Alito S. City and County of San Francisco, California, et al. v Sheehan, 575 US 13-1412. 2015. Available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-1412_0pl1.pdf. Accessed January 13, 2020.
6. Miller J, Ray R. Highlights: improving police culture in America. November 4, 2019. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/11/04/highlights-improving-police-culture-in-america. Accessed January 13, 2020.
7. Gilbert KL, Ray R. Why police kill Black males with impunity: applying Public Health Critical Race Praxis (PHCRP) to address the determinants of policing behaviors and “justifiable” homicides in the USA. J Urban Health. 2016;93(suppl 1):122–140. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]