A new study shows that publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black men have a clear and significant negative impact on citizen crime reporting, specifically 911 calls.
“This is the first study that empirically investigates what happens to crime reporting after publicized episodes of police violence against unarmed black men,” said sociologist Matthew Desmond, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and the lead author of the study. “In showing that citizen crime reporting drops precipitously after such events, this study suggests that police misconduct can actually make cities less safe by suppressing one of the most basic forms of civic engagement: calling 911 for matters of personal and public safety.”
Titled, “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” the study, which appears in the October issue of the American Sociological Review, investigates how publicized cases of police violence against unarmed black men — most prominently the 2004 beating of Frank Jude by white police officers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — affected 911 calls in Milwaukee. Desmond and co-authors Andrew V. Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University, and David S. Kirk, an associate professor of sociology, at the University of Oxford, relied on data from the Milwaukee Police Department on every crime-related 911 call in Milwaukee from March 2004 through December 2010.
In the Jude case, the researchers analyzed patterns of crime-related 911 calls for roughly the same period of time before and after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the story in February 2005. According to court and news reports, Milwaukee police officer Andrew Spengler and several other off-duty police officers beat Jude so badly that the admitting physician at the hospital took photographs of Jude because his injuries were too extensive to document in writing.
“We estimate that the police beating of Frank Jude resulted in a net loss of approximately 22,200 911 calls reporting crime the year after Jude’s story came to light,” Papachristos said.
More than half of the total loss in calls — 56 percent — occurred in neighborhoods where at least 65 percent of the residents were black, which according to 2000 U.S. Census data accounted for 31 percent of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. For comparison purposes, there were approximately 110,000 crime-related 911 calls from all Milwaukee neighborhoods during this time period.
“Once the story of Frank Jude’s beating appeared in the press, Milwaukee residents, especially people in black neighborhoods, were less likely to call the police, including to report violent crime,” Kirk said. “This means that publicized cases of police violence can have a communitywide impact on crime reporting that transcends individual encounters.”
During the six months — March through August 2005 — that followed the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s publication of Jude’s story, 87 homicides occurred in Milwaukee, representing a 32 percent increase in murders relative to the same six-month period in 2004 and 2006. In fact, March through August 2005 was the deadliest spring/summer in the seven years that the researchers examined.
“By driving down 911 calls, publicized cases of police violence 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,” said Desmond, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and the co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard.
The researchers also found that it does not necessarily take a local event or an incident as brutal as the Jude beating to reduce crime reporting. In predominately black Milwaukee neighborhoods, residents made fewer calls for service following the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s February 2007 report that a white police officer assaulted Danyall Simpson, a 19-year-old black man. While less severe than Jude’s beating, Simpson suffered serious injuries, including a broken eye socket and cheekbone. Residents of predominately black Milwaukee neighborhoods were also less likely to call the police after the national media reported in November 2006 that police officers shot and killed Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed black man in Queens, New York.
“Police departments and city politicians often frame a publicized case of police violence as an ‘isolated incident,’” Papachristos said. “The findings of this study promote a more sociological view of the issue by suggesting that no act of police violence is an isolated incident, in both cause and consequence. Seemingly isolated incidents of police violence are layered upon a history of unequal policing in cities.”
Given the substantial, enduring repercussions of police violence for police-community relations and citizen cooperation with law enforcement, Kirk said, “Police departments should take seriously the recommendations of the ‘Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,’ especially procedural justice, transparency, and accountability as guiding principles, to prevent future police misconduct and law-breaking.”
About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA’s flagship journal.