Police Brutality and Public Perceptions of Racial Discrimination: A Tale of Two Beatings

By Sigelman, Lee; Welch, Susan et al. | Political Research Quarterly, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Police Brutality and Public Perceptions of Racial Discrimination: A Tale of Two Beatings


Sigelman, Lee, Welch, Susan, Bledsoe, Timothy, Combs, Michael, Political Research Quarterly


This study uses data from a national and a local opinion survey that were underway when highly publicized police beatings of African American citizens occurred in two American cities-the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the killing of Malice Green in Detroit-to probe the impact of these dramatic events on public perceptions of racial discrimination. The incidents appear to have had their greatest effect on specific perceptions of the way local police treat blacks, and markedly less effect on broader perceptions of the extent of discrimination against them.

On March 3, 1991, a bystander videotaped Rodney King, an African American resident of Los Angeles, being beaten by four white officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, who used a stun gun on King and repeatedly kicked him and hit him with batons. For weeks afterward, the beating received saturation coverage in the news media; according to the Vanderbilt Television News Index and Abstracts (1992), from March 5 (the evening the story broke) through the end of March, the tape was shown twenty-seven times on the three network evening news programs alone. Expressions of outrage echoed across the nation. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles voiced shock but not surprise at the beating, which she labeled "the order of the day in Los Angeles," and her Congressional Black Caucus colleague John Conyers called this "the most heinous, vicious, brutal police brutality case that has been recorded for all time" (Edmonds 1991), though he would soon have occasion to reconsider this appraisal due to events in his own city of Detroit.

Approximately fourteen months later, the trial of the four officers ended in verdicts of not guilty, with a hung jury on one count. Los Angeles exploded in violence that produced approximately sixty deaths and an estimated billion dollars in property damage. Most Americans, black or white, were surprised, even stunned, by the verdicts. According to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll conducted the day after the trial ended, 64 percent of whites and 92 percent of African Americans nationwide thought the officers should have been convicted. Still, blacks and whites drew diametrically different lessons from the verdict. Asked whether it "shows that blacks cannot get justice in this country," 66 percent of white respondents said no, but 78 percent of black respondents said yes (Edsall 1992:10).

Six months after the verdict in the King case, residents of the Detroit area (virtually all of whom were familiar with the King incident and the great majority of whom took exception to the verdict') awoke to news of police brutality much closer to home. On November 5, 1992, several members of the Detroit Police Department repeatedly kicked, punched, and bludgeoned Malice Green, a black Detroit resident, who died as a result of what was officially ruled homicide by "blunt force trauma to the head." Seven officers (six whites and their black supervisor) were immediately suspended for their role in the beating, which Police Chief Stanley Knox denounced as "disgraceful and a total embarrassment." Asked whether he perceived a parallel to the beating of Rodney King, Chief Knox replied, "I think we all do" (Schaefer and Chesley 1992). "I didn't think . . something like that could happen in Detroit," lamented then-Mayor Coleman Young. That it had happened was all the more troubling, Young continued, in light of the progress that Detroit had made in integrating its police force and improving police-community relations. "We're an entirely different department from Los Angeles," Young said. "If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere" (Watson 1992).

Highly publicized incidents of police brutality like the King and Green beatings trigger public outrage, but to what extent, and in what ways, do they change what people think about police performance and more broadly about race relations? This question calls to mind earlier studies of the impact of political events on public opinion, such as the impacts of foreign policy crises on the president's popularity ratings (e. …

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