Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Racialized Policing: Residents' Perceptions in Three Neighborhoods

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Racialized Policing: Residents' Perceptions in Three Neighborhoods

Article excerpt

One of the most controversial issues in policing concerns allegations of racial bias. This article examines citizens' perceptions of racialized policing in three neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., that vary by racial composition and class position: a middle-class white community, a middle-class black community, and a lower-class black community. In-depth interviews examined residents' perceptions of differential police treatment of individual blacks and whites in Washington and disparate police practices in black and white neighborhoods. Findings indicate, first, that there is substantial agreement across the communities in the belief that police treat blacks and whites differerently; and secondly, there is racial variation in respondents' explanations for racial disparities. On the question of residents' assessments of police relations with their own community relative to other-race communities, a neighborhood difference is found, with the black middle-class neighborhood standing apart from the other two neighborhoods.

An overwhelming majority of blacks and whites in America believe that the criminal justice system should operate in a race-- neutral fashion and favor federal government intervention to ensure that minorities and whites receive equal treatment by the courts and police. Three-quarters of whites and 9 out of 10 blacks subscribed to this view in a recent poll (Washington Post 1995). But a person's support for the principle of equal justice does not mean that he or she believes the system actually dispenses unequal justice. Surveys consistently show, for example, that whites are less inclined than blacks to believe that police discriminate against minorities (Gallup 1997; Hagan & Albonetti 1982; Henderson et al. 1997; NBC News 1995; Time 1995; Weitzer & Tuch 1999). Blacks are more likely to believe that the police generally treat blacks more harshly than whites and that police racism and prejudice against blacks is common. At the neighborhood level, blacks are more likely than whites to believe that blacks living in the respondent's own community are treated unfairly by the police, and that black neighborhoods receive inferior treatment by the police. With respect to respondents' personal experiences of discrimination, blacks are much more likely than whites to report that they have been treated unfairly by police because of their race.

There may be more to the story, however, than racial differences. Large aggregate studies of public opinion may mask important differences within racial groups. One such variable is neighborhood context. A small body of research suggests that neighborhood-related factors can influence citizens' relations with police. Such factors include local crime rates, demographic composition, economic conditions, subculture, and patterns of policing (Alpert & Dunham 1988; Apple & O'Brien 1983; Jacob 1971; Klinger 1997; Sampson & Bartusch 1998; Schuman & Gruenberg 1972; Smith 1986; Weitzer 1995). The relative importance of these interrelated factors has not been determined, nor has the literature established whether neighborhood racial makeup or neighborhood class level is more strongly associated with residents' attitudes toward the police. It is commonly assumed, however, that neighborhood racial composition strongly conditions residents' relations with police. In this perspective, residents of white and black communities differ in their attitudes toward police largely because police practices vary between white and black neighborhoods. Because of police bias or other reasons, African American neighborhoods receive inferior treatment by police, which includes poorer service and harsher actions toward people in the community. Inferior treatment adversely affects views of the police in black neighborhoods.

An alternative perspective maintains that relationships with the police are conditioned less strongly by residents' racial backgrounds than by demands on law enforcement that vary by neighborhood class level. …

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