October 1, 2019 10:38AM

Do Police Treat All Races Equally?

Recently, Pew published a wide-ranging survey entitled “Why Americans Don’t Fully Trust Many Who Hold Positions of Power and Responsibility.” Police officers were among the groups polled among respondents. The results on cops align with what is shown in the annual Confidence in Institutions survey published by Gallup—briefly, that cops are among the most liked and trusted groups in America, despite the enduring “war on cops” narrative—but the general affinity for police breaks down across demographics. The results also mesh well onto what my colleague Emily Ekins found in her 2016 polling on American attitudes toward police.

From the Pew release:

“[O]pinions about police officers differ widely by racial and ethnic group, with white people holding more positive opinions about police officers than black people and Hispanics do. This racial and ethnic divide is most apparent when it comes to police officers treating all racial and ethnic groups equally. Roughly seven-in-ten white Americans (72%) say police officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time. By way of comparison, half of Hispanics and just 33% of black adults say the same. The racial divide extends beyond opinions about police officers treating racial and ethnic groups equally. Across all six questions asked about police officers, whites are more likely than both Hispanic and black Americans to express positive views of police officers.” (emphasis added)

Fully two thirds of black respondents and half of Hispanic respondents do not believe that police officers treat racial and ethnic minorities equally. While it is theoretically possible that so many ethnic and racial minorities have been hoodwinked into believing something that is not true—or are perhaps oversensitive to just and fair police procedures—the far more likely (and statistically supported) explanation is that blacks and Hispanics are treated differently than whites, and many are quite cognizant of that difference. Social networks and personal experience in these racial and ethnic communities inform these beliefs, lending credence to their position.

Given that many Americans live in racially homogenous areas and that some cities remain de facto segregated, many white Americans may not be aware of how police operate in spaces and neighborhoods that are not white-dominated. Likewise, white Americans may not understand how being not white in white-dominant spaces may incur unwanted (and unwarranted) contact with police officers. Such interactions are not always hostile, and the vast majority are not violent, but the experience may nevertheless be a negative one because the person who is stopped recognizes, or at least has legitimate reason to believe, that their perceived race or ethnicity played a considerable role in an involuntary police contact.

As an example of this repeated and unwanted contact, African-American motorist Philando Castile was stopped nearly 50 times for minor violations before he was shot and killed by a police officer in suburban Minnesota in 2016. In many of these stops there was no moving violation at all. In a book published by University of Kansas researchers, evidence suggests that black drivers are far more likely to be pulled over for minor, non-speeding violations than white drivers, who are primarily pulled over for excessive speeding and other less ambiguous violations.

Even if one disregards all the available statistical, anecdotal, and historical evidence of racially disparate policing, the perception that police treat people differently based on race is nevertheless a genuine policy problem for police agencies. Police need human intelligence—that is, public cooperation—to solve most serious crimes. Communities that believe they are regularly targeted by police because of their race or ethnicity will be far less likely to cooperate with those police when major crimes occur. Thus, the perception of racially disparate police practices may hinder police investigations and lead to less safe communities.

But there is ample reason to believe that, in many jurisdictions, police practices vary by race and ethnicity. Therefore, as a matter of public safety and security, police must change their behaviors in order to rectify those issues and cease the invasive practices that engender distrust among people of color. Because police need the public’s trust to function effectively, officers and departments must prioritize earning that trust.

You can read more Cato work on racially disparate policing here and here; you can read about other ways police need to change to earn trust here.