This article was originally posted on November 4, 2019 on Scatterplot.
Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, the topic of police violence and police reform has been at the forefront of the debate about the future of criminal justice in the U.S. Questions about policing have peppered the recent Democratic debates and have featured prominently in some of their policy plans. This week, several candidates met with a group of men and women who were formerly incarcerated to discuss criminal justice reform.
Yet often missing in the public conversation about police reform are the voices of community members most heavily impacted. While some of these residents get involved in community organizing, through #BlackLivesMatter chapters and other groups, many never have their opinions on police reform heard.
During 2017-2019, our research team traced the process of police reform through the eyes of the local police (Minneapolis Police Department), professionals and activists involved in reform, and residents in North Minneapolis, the residential community in our city most impacted by high rates of poverty, racial segregation, street crime, and police contact.
In this post, we provide some preliminary results from our interviews with residents in North Minneapolis. We conducted over 120 interviews, collecting survey responses about attitudes toward the police and in-depth qualitative accounts of their experiences with police and attitudes about police, policing advocacy groups, and police reform.
We situate the project in the context of legal scholar Monica Bell’s idea of legal estrangement. Bell argues that distrust towards the police in race-class subjugated communities is best understood as legal estrangement, which connotes the sense of exclusion residents of poor, predominantly minority communities feel about police, the law, and mainstream society more generally.
There are three primary mechanisms or routes to legal estrangement:
- Personal experiences of policing injustice, including racial profiling, procedural injustice, criminalization, and inappropriate officer use of force.
- Indirect experiences of those same injustices. These can be witnessed first-hand, communicated through the stories of friends and family, or shared through traditional and social media.
- Failure to receive full and equitable protection, including slow police response times, apathy from officers, and a sense that the police are failing to prevent violent crimes in your community.
The harms of policing should be clear to people familiar with media coverage of the Movement for Black Lives. Indeed, our participants reported horrific examples of abuse–experienced both directly and indirectly–at the hands of police officers across Minnesota and the country. Some of the stories we heard had taken place the prior day or week, while others had transpired years before but still terrorized residents. And while some of these stories were about abusive, degrading, and excessive responses from police, others were about the failure to protect or respond to residents’ calls of distress adequately.
Consistent with other surveys of race-class subjugated communities, overall measures of trust in police were quite low in our sample. On a standard suite of procedural justice indicators, most of our sample replied that police only “occasionally” or “sometimes” tried to do what was best, explained their decisions, respected people’s rights, and made fair and neutral decisions. In addition, most of our sample “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that police officers judged people based on their race/ethnicity.
Compare these numbers to national measures of trust in the police and you can see the stark divergence. Nationally, 54% of Americans in 2018 reported that they had “quite a lot” or a “great deal’ of confidence in the police (though, notably, this confidence in police was higher than for other state institutions like the presidency, Supreme Court, or Congress). In our sample, only 15% could say the same about their police.
Legal estrangement and negative police contact was more intense and frequent among Black residents of North Minneapolis. Part of what made this contact so negative was their pervasive sense of racial inequalities–most residents believed that Black members of the community were stopped more often regardless of the level of criminal activity, treated with less respect and more suspicion by officers, and more likely to face police violence–all of which is consistent with the social science evidence on policing in the US. Each time they heard another story, or saw another civilian killed by police featured on TV news, it reinforced the same fear and distrust.
In contrast, white residents often came to understand the policing crisis in the context of the Movement for Black Lives and the media attention that generated, as well as through the stories and experiences of their friends, family, and neighbors of color. For these interviewees, these experiences produced a new ethical dilemma–whether or not to call the police in response to concerns in the neighborhood. A number of white residents described a shift from seeing the police as “there to help” to potentially putting their friends and neighbors “in harms way.”
The residents we spoke with, however, didn’t have monolithic experiences with, or attitudes about the police. About 1 in 10 in our sample were wholly positive about the local police department and saw no need for reforms. Another smaller group had such negative experiences and attitudes that they didn’t think reform was possible.
But most of our interviewees were wedged in the middle: frustrated by a lot of their direct experiences and stories of police behavior, while also having some positive interactions and recognizing their reliance on the police. When asked a question about positive interactions with the police, two-thirds of our sample reported positive experiences. These experiences included getting assistance, help, or information; prompt response times and polite interactions; and police going beyond their formal obligations. Unfortunately, for many, these positive interactions, including various kinds of community engagement, were not enough to overcome residents’ concerns and, at worst, were construed as a way to paper over abuses.
DeeDee, a Black woman in her late 20s, told us about a time her younger relative had gotten a bicycle from the police through one of their outreach programs. The interviewer asked if that experience would “increase the trust” or give her “hope about police relations”? DeeDee replied:
“It don’t do that much. Because the bad outweighs the good. We see that one lil’ good thing, RARELY, but you always hearing something negative or bad. And it’s not just North Minneapolis police. It’s not just Minnesota police. It’s police US-wide.”
So, improving community trust through outreach and positive community interactions alone is really difficult. And it is important to note here that DeeDee was someone who was thoughtful and, at times, optimistic about the potential for major reforms, or transformations, in policing.
What do residents want?
So what kinds of reforms do most residents want to see? While the people we talked to had lots of different ideas about the path forward, most expressed at least some support for the platform of reforms endorsed in the Task Force on 21st Century policing report, including body cameras; procedural justice, racial bias, and deescalation training; and hiring from under-represented communities. They also wanted to see more accountability for officers accused of misconduct and more transparency in the discipline and criminal prosecution processes.
Our interviews took place during a period of intense reform; the Minneapolis Police Department was one of The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice demonstration sites. Yet few residents were aware of any of these reforms (with the exception of the debate over body camera policies in the wake of Justine Damond’s killing). This is despite the fact that many of the reforms residents thought would be a good idea were being implemented, such as implicit bias and procedural justice training. Worse, those with the most knowledge of ongoing reform efforts were typically the most cynical about the likelihood of their success.
Success in reform was also easily derailed by one negative experience, locally or nationally. Kenneth, a Black man in his early 60s, talked about a stop in Georgia that happened after the murder of Justine Damond and was caught on camera:
“Once again, they’ve been doing studies, they’ve been putting policing training, you know, all they’re doing is just changing the words. Now it’s called, like you said, de-escalating. They are just changing the words, but what really happens? They show it on TV–the police stopped a woman, and this was after the woman in St. Paul got killed–the white woman. This was after that. The police stopped a white woman. She was terrified, I mean, absolutely terrified… She was like, ‘I don’t want to get shot. I want to get shot.’ Now, like I said, it was on the news. The police officer response was, ‘We don’t kill white people. We kill Black people.’ OK … So you know, now where’s all the training he had? Where’s that at for him to come up to say something like that? So all the studies and all of that, you know, it hasn’t worked then and I doubt it’s going to work now.”
For Kenneth and many others, this highly publicized officer misconduct showed that police training was failing. Kenneth saw this latest episode as one in a long series of police abuses, drawing on his experiences with previous cycles of reform to conclude that nothing was likely to change.
Finally, residents also expressed a great deal of ambivalence about policing and police reform, both wanting better police responses to the problems of violence and crime in their homes and community and resenting the heavy police presence in Northside. Sometimes even the same person would waffle between these two perspectives. In describing her reaction to seeing police, Tanya, a Black woman in her mid-fifties equivocated: “But sometimes–I’ma say this even though I don’t like ’em–I like to see them because if anything happen to me they around. But I see ’em a lot. I see ’em a lot.” While lots of residents then wanted more and better policing, the increased presence of officers in the neighborhood was also seen as a threat and a risk.
This suggests a fundamental paradox in policing reform: police are often blamed for the failure of equal protection in poor communities of color, but police play only a limited role in producing neighborhood thriving and safety. And some of the ways that police work to increase safety–including more officers, more patrols, more proactive stops of residents–can have large negative consequences, including residents feeling targeted and the potential for abuse and/or arrest and imprisonment. In contrast, economic development, employment and recreational opportunities, housing support, and healthcare all influence crime rates as well, yet these broader influences are rarely part of the “police reform” conversation.
Barriers to Reform and Opportunities
To sum up, I think our findings suggest several important barriers and opportunities for policing reform or transformation (or abolition). First, even just focusing on the most impacted communities shows a really diverse range of opinions about how to move forward with reimagining policing. These attitudes, no doubt, are even more complex when we look city- or county- or state-wide. Second, each widely-publicized or shared story of police violence–anywhere in the US–challenges the small and hard-won gains in police trust, reigniting decades-long community trauma. Third, positive experiences with police are less salient for residents, making it a difficult path for resolving legal estrangement. Fourth, the policing crisis is not just about policing. It is about all of the social problems that cluster in race-class subjugated communities.
What does all of that suggest about the path forward? We think it points toward the need for hard conversations about the role we expect police to play in society. That conversation should center the voices of the most impacted and include an honest discussion of the historical legacies (and continuing realities) of racial trauma. It also suggests that while one-off training on procedural justice or implicit bias might make small improvements, they are certainly not the end of the road in remedying legal estrangement. More radical options include: transferring some police authority (e.g. responding to mental health crises) to other institutions, ending pretextual stops of pedestrians and drivers, changing laws and legal precedent to more aggressively discipline and prosecute police misconduct, and increased state and federal oversight of local departments. We would argue that in parallel to these conversations about policing, we need to consider alternative mechanisms to produce safety for the most heavily impacted communities, including economic development, political and social inclusion, access to healthcare and housing, and more.
The authors would like to thank our excellent team of interviewers: Santino Reynolds, AshLee Smith, and De Andre’ T. Beadle. Funding for this project was provided by the University of Minnesota’s Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry, and Scholarship program and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. We would finally like to thank the Minnesota Justice Research Center for inviting one of the authors (Phelps) to speak at the Reimagining Justice conference, where an earlier version of this post was presented.