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Police Brutality Lowers a Community’s Likelihood to Call 911

A new study is the first to show that communities don’t just feel less trust in police after hearing about excessive police use of force in the news — they also act differently, undermining public safety.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Cengiz Yar/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s no surprise that news of police abuse erodes Americans’ trust in officers (particularly black Americans). A new study quantifies just how much trust is lost: In the year following a period of well-publicized police brutality, the residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made 22,200 fewer 911 calls to report violent crimes, according to an analysis of all 911 calls placed between 2004 and 2010. The decline occurred even though homicides increased in the city during that time. Mostly black neighborhoods were the most likely to avoid calling 911 for crimes such as robberies, shootings, and sexual assaults.

“Citizens living in majority black neighborhoods in Milwaukee essentially stop calling the police,” says Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at Yale University who worked on the study. “They withdraw from one of the most basic ways citizens engage with the criminal justice system.”

That may not be news to many who live in Milwaukee’s poorer black neighborhoods. “If it’s something where they don’t have to call the police, they will avoid it, at least on the north side of Milwaukee,” says Tory Lowe, a local activist. Still, Papachristos and his colleagues’ study is the first to use data to prove the point.

“Citizens living in majority black neighborhoods in Milwaukee essentially stop calling the police.”

There happened to be significantly more homicides in Milwaukee after one of the events Papachristos and his colleagues studied — the beating of Frank Jude, an unarmed, biracial man, by both off- and on-duty officers — which Papachristos thinks could have been a consequence of Milwaukeeans withdrawing from the police. “This could be an alternative explanation for what some people call the Ferguson Effect,” he says, referencing the idea that recent anti-police abuse protests have led officers to police less strictly, which in turn caused the recent spike in murder rates in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri.

The Jude case occurred long before protests in Ferguson and other recent shootings drew attention to policing strategies in impoverished neighborhoods of color in the United States. In October 2004, Jude attended a housewarming party with Lovell Harris, a black man, in a predominantly white, middle-class Milwaukee neighborhood. Off-duty officers at the party accused Jude and Harris of stealing a police badge and surrounded them. Harris escaped relatively quickly, but Jude wasn’t so fortunate. Partygoers surrounded him, cut off his clothes, kicked him, punched him, bent his fingers back to break them, and jammed a pen in his ears. When on-duty police arrived, they joined in on the beating. The missing badge was never found.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the story in February 2005 — at which point nobody had been arrested in connection with the assault — and that’s when Papachristos and his co-authors began seeing a decline in 911 calls. The sociologists also saw decreases in 911 calls after the spread of two other major stories of police use of force against unarmed black men between 2004 and 2010.

“What our data shows is that restoring trust, community policing, those aren’t just catchphrases,” Papachristos says. Trust and good community relations can be crucial to solving crimes and keeping citizens safe. Lowe agrees: “It hurts the community when there’s no communication and when there’s mistrust between police and the people.”

In response to inquiries into Papachristos’ findings, A Milwaukee Police Department spokesman provided a statement to Pacific Standard from Chief Edward Flynn:

Although the misconduct and reduction in calls to police referenced in the study happened over a decade ago, it reminds us of the opportunity our officers have to restore trust on each and every call today. We remain committed to working with all communities to reduce crime, fear, and disorder in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, tensions between police and residents of impoverished black neighborhoods in Milwaukee continue. In the years since citizens took to the streets to protest the mishandling of Jude’s case, the city has hosted numerous anti-police use-of-force demonstrations, including one in August that turned violent. Lowe says he’s seen improvements in police-community relations in the last year, including fewer invasive searches in one particular district. Still, he thinks rebuilding trust may take a lot of time: “It’ll take 10 years of them doing it straight,” he says.