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Legacy of Christopher Dorner case: rekindled distrust, resentment of police

When ex-cop Christopher Dorner pursued his fatal vendetta against Los Angeles Police Department, his cause resonated with some in the black community. Why has the old rift between police and minorities been so hard to heal?

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To be sure, the steady drip, drip, drip of episodes disturbing to many Americans, and especially to the black community, keeps trickling out. There was the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year; local police declined to charge the shooter of the unarmed black teenager. There was the 2011 case of military veteran Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a black senior citizen, killed by police in his White Plains, N.Y., apartment after the officers' response to a medical alert escalated into a confrontation. And there was the 2009 death of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., killed by a transit police officer on the train platform. In each case the pattern repeats itself: shock, outrage, demonstrations, calls for real change.

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The bottom line is that Americans, and especially African-Americans living in poor neighborhoods, don't want to be "doubly victimized – victimized by crime and [also by] the response to crime," says Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and author of "Community Policing: Can It Work?"

Among the most visible changes in policing is the racial composition of police departments themselves, which today are closer reflections of the communities they protect. The LAPD, which polices one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities on the globe, is 59 percent nonwhite.

Nationally, 10 to 11 percent of police officers are black, compared with 13.4 percent of the population, says Ron Hampton, executive director of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America.

It's not necessarily the case, however, that a more diverse police force changes the public perception of a department, especially in poor, black communities where residents' views about police are generally the most critical and distrustful, say criminologists and other researchers.

When people in lower-class black communities in majority-black Washington, D.C., were asked whether a police officer's race makes a difference in how that officer treats people, the survey results were mixed. One-third said black officers actually treat blacks more harshly, one-third said they're more sensitive to black people, and another saw them simply as "blue cops," who define themselves by the color of their uniforms, not their skin, according to researchers Weitzer and Steven Tuch.

There is some evidence that black officers tend to be more understanding of African-American neighborhoods, but "most research shows that there's little to no difference on the ground in terms of police behavior, whether those officers are Hispanic, white, black, or Asian," Weitzer says.

Such findings seem to indicate that strains between the police and the community, while often having a racial overlay, are not solely about race. True, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are racially mixed cities where historically white police departments have at times wrestled openly with black communities.

But such tensions also persist in large cities with black power structures, including Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta. History, geography, neighborhood crime rates, police leadership, and local politics all affect how the public views its police force – and how police officers view the public.

Still, "we do know from various studies of cities that [in] those cities that have African-American mayors, police shoot fewer people and fewer people shoot police," Mr. Skogan says.


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