Trust gap: What happens when black communities call 911 less often?

The first study of its kind found 911 calls in black Milwaukee neighborhoods dropped significantly following the beating of Frank Jude, an unarmed black man. And then crime rates rose. 

Gregory Bull/AP
A man raises his fist during a protest Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in El Cajon, Calif. A new study offers numerical evidence high-profile police violence leads black communities to call 911 to report crimes less.

In 2004, Frank Jude Jr., an unarmed black man, was viciously beaten by at least 10 white, off-duty police officers outside a housewarming party in Milwaukee because they said he stole one of their badges.

When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the news more than three months later, not one of the police officers had been charged or arrested, even though the city knew who they were.

In the six months that followed, 911 calls from black neighborhoods to report crimes plummeted as the city’s murder rate jumped. The decline in 911 calls is symptomatic of a loss of confidence in law enforcement, according to the study and criminal justice experts. And that trust deficit then leads to rising violent crime rates.

“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement; they also – by driving down 911 calls – thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular less safe,” reads the study, “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” that will appear in the October edition of the American Sociological Review.

These are the results of a study of the effect high-profile excessive force by police against unarmed black men have on an entire community, which Matthew Desmond, the lead author and a sociologist at Harvard University, said is the first empirical study of its kind. 

The mistrust and, perhaps, discontent the study shows in Milwaukee has been mirrored in similar cases across the country in the decade since, with flashpoints in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Chicago, and now Charlotte, N.C. At the same time, the number of people murdered in the country in 2015 experienced the first substantial increase in a quarter-century, leading many to ask why.

Some observers have argued that police, in the face of public scrutiny, have pulled back from their duties, the so-called “Ferguson Effect.” But the soon-to-be published study offers empirical evidence to the contrary. Police have not stopped doing their job. Nor has gang violence turned city blocks into war zones. Rather, the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement can lead whole communities, distrustful of police, to withdraw from the country’s criminal justice system.  

“What this paper does is add something very important to the understanding of what those mechanisms are,” says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities, a project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "Breaches in the confidence that communities have in the police, themselves, lead to disengagement in the criminal justice system, which leads to increased violence and crime."

“It makes absolutely perfect sense that when communities have experience in what they regard as an egregious instance of police behavior, they are less interested and less willing to cooperate with the police,” continues Mr. Kennedy, who was not involved in the study. “Now the study says that. It’s not just conjecture. It’s as close as we get in social science to fact. And that’s connected to very substantial increases in violence.”

The study was conducted by Dr. Desmond and two other sociologists, Andrew Papachristos at Yale University, and David Kirk at the University of Oxford. They looked at every crime-related 911 call in Milwaukee from March 2004 to December 2010. They calculated that in the six months after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the news that Mr. Jude was left bloody and half-naked in the street, the number of crime-related 911 calls in the city decreased by about 22,000, to about 110,000. Fifty-six percent of this decline occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods.

The number of crime-related 911 calls would return to normal after about a year, the authors found. However, the six-month decrease from March through August 2005 led to the most violent stretch in the seven years the authors looked at. During those six months, there were 87 murders in Milwaukee, a 32-percent increase compared to the same six-month periods in 2004 and 2006.

The number of 911 calls in all Milwaukee neighborhoods also declined significantly following the high-profile killing of Sean Bell by police in Queens, N.Y. in 2006, suggesting the fallout of police violence is not an “isolated incident,” as the authors write “police departments and city politicians often frame [it].”

African Americans’ lack of confidence in police has been well documented through surveys and testimonies. Just this week, 9-year-old Zianna Oliphant was filmed telling the Charlotte City Council about being black.

I don’t like being treated differently,” she said through tears at the City Council’s first meeting since Keith Lamont Scott was killed in an officer-involved shooting six days earlier.

The Pew Research Center has consistently found African Americans don’t trust police will treat them equally to whites. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, 46 percent of black respondents told Pew they had “very little” confidence in police to treat them equally.

But observers have debated over whether a lack of confidence in police has led African Americans to not report crime.  It doesn’t, according to a 2006 study by Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson. A vast of majority of both whites and black respondents said they would call 911 if their house was burglarized, even if an overwhelmingly majority of blacks didn’t expect to be taken seriously when police arrived.

This changes in the wake of high-profile police violence in the news, according to the soon-to-be published study. It is perceived by some as a “severe breach in the social contract that exists between citizens and the criminal justice system.”

“That breach is so sudden and violent when unarmed black men are beaten or killed that virtually no institutional response, from public apologies to sanctioning offending officers, can swiftly repair it,” the study says.   

In an interview with the Monitor, Tony Brown, a sociologist at Rice University who studies how racism works, was skeptical of the implications of the study. He praised its analysis, but said the personal motivations that led whole neighborhoods to call 911 less frequently must be studied further. He also stressed the conclusions should be considered within a larger context, namely how the country and its race relations have changed since 2005, and speculated about the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” which FBI Director James Comey referred to in May, but many criminologists and President Obama have rejected.

Whatever those motivations, Dr. Kirk at Oxford said in a statement that police should take seriously the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in particular its recommendations for procedural justice, transparency, and accountability.

Mr. Kennedy at John Jay says many departments are.

“For the longest time, police never criticized police. That’s a real problem for communities that already don’t think highly of you,” he says. “Across the country, we’re just beginning to see police are willing to say to their community, ‘I think that’s wrong too.’ That’s an important development.” 

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