Ferguson Residents and Protesters Views about Police Perceptions of Race and Crime

Jennifer E. Cobbina

While many have proposed that hiring more Black officers is an effective way to alleviate longstanding tension between police and African American citizens, this article shows that a shared racial background does not always guarantee positive police perceptions among Ferguson residents and protesters.

"Ferguson" taken by Mike Tigas on November 29, 2014. Public domain.

Two decades of research on perceptions of crime and policing reveal that race is a key predictor of people’s attitudes towards crime and policing. Americans, specifically Whites, strongly associate racial minorities with crime[1] and overestimate the proportion of crime committed by African Americans.[2] The general public specifically associates Blacks with criminality, a bias that has also been documented among police officers as well.[3] At the same time, race is also relevant in public understandings of the police. African Americans are more likely than Whites to report police abuse, harsh treatment, and a culture of impunity.[4] However, what remains less clear is to what extent does a police officer’s race affect a citizen’s perceptions?

Some studies argue citizens don’t perceive race as a significant factor in how police treat them, while others contend the opposite—that Black officers are perceived as demonstrating greater concern and helpfulness towards residents of Black communities. To begin answering this question about the effect of police officer’s race on how they were perceived, I studied police-citizen relations in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the recent high-profile killing of Michael Brown by former officer Darren Wilson.

I conducted in-depth interviews with 45 residents of and protesters in Ferguson, a suburban city in St. Louis County, Missouri in October 2014 – roughly two months after Brown was murdered. My respondents ranged in age from 18 to 74 with a mean age of 37 years. The sample includes 37 African Americans, 7 Whites, and 1 Hispanic. Most lived in Ferguson (N=26); however, 18 lived in the broader St. Louis area and one protestor was from Atlanta.

I asked Ferguson residents/protesters a series of questions to reveal their understanding of racialized perceptions of crime. One question that drew varied responses was whether they felt police officers’ race shapes perceptions of crime. There was a fairly even distribution of responses to this question. However, regardless of whether respondents believed Black or White officers interpret criminal involvement differently, most of their responses drew from racially-specific meanings about perceptions of crime.

“They’re Bleeding Blue”

Half of the residents of and protesters I interviewed in Ferguson believed that officers’ racial backgrounds were unimportant in how they treated citizens. That is, cops were blue so whether they were Black or White had no bearing on their behavior. This sentiment was particularly common among Black respondents. For example, Diamond asserted that regardless of race “when they put the uniform on … they’re bleeding blue.” Jamal stated point blank that officers “do the same thing. It doesn’t matter if they’re Black or White. They [Black cops] commit the same crimes that the White cops do. They’re no better.” Similarly, Evelyn lamented that she has family members who have been “treated bad by Black officers.” She explained, “I think when they’re [Black cops are] in that uniform and they kinda feel like they have to be that way as well …[and] target African Americans.” Likewise, Eric articulated how he believed the job taints law enforcement officers:

[A]t some point the job begins to shake that attitude because, I’ll tell you something, I have run into the same ridiculous treatment at the hands of Black officers, as I have at the hands of White officers. When you become a police officer, you become conditioned, and Black officers, and White officers treat poor people with disregard in the same.

The common perception among many Black respondents was that blue cops targeted and treated poor minorities with disdain and hostility. In this manner, respondents believed that both Black and White officers associated African Americans with criminality.

The perception that officers’ race did not shape how they treated citizens was also common among White Ferguson residents/protesters. However, there were qualitative differences among White and Black respondents’ beliefs that race did not matter. White respondents perceived interaction between police and citizens through a racially-blind lens in comparison to Black respondents. For instance, Sandy stated, “As far as I know, Black officers in other towns pull over White people more than they pull over Black people.” She claimed, “But I don’t think it’s a race thing. I think it’s because the towns that they’re in have more White people.” Molly believed that the racial background of officers did not affect policing because “no matter what your race is, [poor people are] gonna fall into crime at some point, probably.” She believed, however, that officers had the ability to detect those individuals who she stated are “up to no good”:

They can tell when somebody’s, like, up to no – or up to no good, or if somebody’s in the store with a backpack on, or if somebody’s just walking around the neighborhood, and, like, walking up and down the street and stuff. If somebody’s walking by a bunch of cars, trying to carhop or something.

Molly assumed that police are able to spot crime-prone individuals based upon their demeanor and behavior, regardless of the race of the officers themselves. White respondents in the sample were more likely than Blacks to perceive that law enforcement treat citizens impartially while Black respondents believed that cops treat all Black citizens as criminals who are up to no good.

Officer’s Race Makes a Difference

To Ferguson respondents, differential police behavior seemed to be the result of White cops’ lack of familiarity with residents in the neighborhood, Black cops’ efforts to prove themselves in the police force, and racism. I asked Luke, a White man, whether or not officers’ race shapes their perceptions of who commits crimes. “Yeah, for sure … [e]specially if, you know, say you’re, you’re [a] White [police officer], not even from a community that you’re serving.” As an African American woman, Rachel’s account highlights how unfamiliarity with community residents is problematic:

The White police officers don’t identify with Black people. Half of them come from the rural areas of Missouri anyway, probably had never even seen a Black person, except for what they’ve seen on television …. And what you see on TV, we’re ghetto, and we all tote guns, or we’re all on drugs, and we’re all doing stuff.

As a result, she believed that a “Black police officer, he understands and sees a situation better than a White police officer would understand and see it.” Likewise, Ashlee perceived that Black officers, in general, “know their community and they know their surroundings; … [thus] they don’t have the same perspective as White cops.” The perception that White officers were unfamiliar with residents in the neighborhood was deemed problematic. Tray articulated:

Some [Black] police that are on the force, they are raised in the areas where they came from. Like the hoods they call them and so they know basically the beat. They know what’s going on and probably they’re getting more respect because they’re from there, but you got other officers that come in they don’t know what’s really going on. They have to learn from other guys that have knowledge of that and if they don’t get that knowledge they on edge then. They’re scared; they don’t know how to police for real and then when they do police, it turns to brutality.

Some believed that White police officers cannot relate or identity with Blacks who reside in poor communities. Unlike White officers, Black cops often come from low-income neighborhood themselves, which may help to establish greater levels of understanding, sensitivity, and rapport between officers and civilians.[5]

Not all residents of and protesters in Ferguson viewed officers of color as capable of relating to residents. In some cases, African American respondents believed, contrary to previous research, that Black officers treat people of color even worse than White officers. Recounting his encounter with a Black officer, Kevin said, “I know this one Black cop. It just seem like he was uppity. [He said] ‘oh, yeah. Oh, we don’t care.’ What you act like that for? And you already know how it is for us brothers. You came up in this world like that.” Believing that the officer was inconsiderate, Kevin concluded, “it’s not that many White police officers that’s crazy like that.” Likewise, in her discussion of Black officers, Jada expounded, “I feel like they’re worse because they feel like they have so much to prove …. They have to try so much harder … to be in their brotherhood … the cophood.” Ebony expressed a similar view:

I think it is a difference, but there are some African American police officers who have disdain for their own race and so they treat you far worse than the White ones do …. Because they’re trying to prove something to their fellow officers and they’re trying to prove that, ‘I’m not like those Blacks. My skin is black but I’m not Black for real.’

For some, harsher treatment from the hands of African American officers was believed to be the result of working in a White-dominated police department.

Some of the individuals I interviewed were in agreement that several officers acted on the basis of racism and prejudice that preceded their joining the police force – that is, on racist attitudes long held. When asked if race shapes how officers perceive and interpret criminal involvement, Marie, a Hispanic woman, asserted, “I think race shapes everything … Because we live in a society that the very underpinnings of this country were founded on racism.” Likewise, in her discussion of White officers, Jasmine said:

But I don’t know if some of it comes from – maybe some of it is just the person they were before they became the police. You know what I mean? Maybe some prejudice. Maybe how they were raised, what their parents taught them, what they say when they’ve having their kitchen table talk with their family and their friends. You know they view Blacks period …. I’m sure that plays a part. And then once they become a police officer, they get that badge, and that sense of authority and I’m in charge, and I’m the police …. And you were already a racist person and already had hatred in your heart for the race overall. And I mean, that has to only make it worse.

Kirk, a White man, noted multiple themes. For him, race, one’s upbringing, and social context affected perceptions about crime: “Aren’t we all influenced by our upbringing? …. I think that race and upbringing and your surroundings, your environment are going to impact how you behave.” As the above comments remind us, racialized perceptions of crime and criminality among citizens and law enforcements is deep-rooted; it extends beyond the moment of citizen-police interaction, the institution of law enforcement, and punishment itself.

How might we build trust between law enforcement and Blacks? Frequently floated is the notion that racial and ethnic diversification in law enforcement may help to increase African Americans’ confidence in the police. My study suggests that if the nature of contact between police and residents were characterized by respect, it would pay huge dividends in promoting trust in the police. Not only would this help to reduce tension between police and the public, but also officers who show respect towards residents may be more likely to be perceived as legitimate authorities Evidence suggests that community policing reduces tension between the police and the public[6] and improves relationships between residents and the police. But improved interactions are just the first step in the long journey towards changing negative perceptions of policing. The cautionary note here is that police legitimacy projects can turn into compliance programs. That is, police legitimacy projects can seek to create a docile population that—if treated with respect—will accept inconsistent and obtrusive, albeit polite, forms of policing, which may still lead to disparities in adjudication and sentencing.

References and Footnotes

  1. Chiricos, Ted, Ranee McEntire, and Marc Gertz. "Perceived Racial and Ethnic Composition of Neighborhood and Perceived Risk of Crime." Social Problems 48, no. 3 (2001): 322-340; Soler, Mark. "Public Opinion on Youth, Crime and Race: A Guide for Advocates." Building Blocks for Youth (2001); Quillian, Lincoln and Devah Pager. "Black Neighbors, Higher Crime? The Role of Racial Stereotypes in Evaluations of Neighborhood Crime." American Journal of Sociology 107, 2001: 717-767.
  2. Chiricos, Ted, Kelly Welch, and Marc Gertz. "Racial Typification of Crime and Support for Punitive Measures." Criminology 42, no. 2 (2004): 358-390; Pickett, Justin T., Ted Chiricos, Kristin M. Golden, and Marc Gertz. "Reconsidering the Relationship between Perceived Neighborhood Racial Composition and Whites’ Perceptions of Victimization Risk: Do Racial Stereotypes Matter?" Criminology 50, no. 1 (2012): 145-186.; Unnever, James D., and Francis T. Cullen. "White Perceptions of Whether African Americans and Hispanics are Prone to Violence and Support for the Death Penalty." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 49, no. 4 (2012): 519-544.
  3. Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Bernd Wittenbrink. "The Police Officer'sDilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, no. 6 (2002): 1314-1329.; Payne, B. Keith. "Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 2 (2001): 181-192.
  4. Taylor, Terrance J., Kelly B. Turner, Finn-Aage Esbensen, and L. Thomas Winfree. "Coppin'an Attitude: Attitudinal Differences among Juveniles Toward Police." Journal of Criminal Justice 29, no. 4 (2001): 295-305.
  5. For more on this idea, see: Zauberman, Renée, and René Lévy. "Police, Minorities, and the French Republican Ideal." Criminology 41, no. 4 (2003): 1065-1100.
  6. Kessler, David. “The Effects of Community Policing on Complaints Against Officers.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 15, no. 3 (1999): 333-372.