What's Really Wrong With Ferguson?

Police-minority tension is an old problem, going back to the establishment of the first city police departments in the U.S. So is the web of disadvantage that feeds the tension.

Acts of police violence involving citizens of color are commonplace. In fact, they are so common the nation typically takes notice only after they spark civil disorder. Over the past several days the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American citizen, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., has once again brought the issue to the forefront.

These high-profile cases follow a familiar pattern—competing claims about the appropriateness of the police action, increased racial tensions in the community, an undermining of police legitimacy, and calls for increased police-force diversity and sensitivity training. Finally, there is often a drain on government resources from civil lawsuits.

This pattern has repeated itself over and over. Perhaps it's time for a more complex, but potentially fruitful, approach to the problem of police-minority tensions.

The socio-demographic backdrop of this most recent high-profile incident is troubling. In a piece for the Brookings Institution's The Avenue, Elizabeth Kneebone documents the fact that Ferguson is a city undergoing racial transition. It has changed from a predominantly white to majority black community in the space of two decades. Substantial increases in unemployment and poverty have accompanied the racial transition, and local government is ill-equipped to handle the problems accompanying concentrated poverty.

Over the last week, numerous commentators have highlighted the fact that virtually no blacks serve on the community's police department or local government even though the population of Ferguson is now two-thirds black. Unsurprisingly, many pundits and politicians have seized on this discrepancy to help explain the events in Ferguson, and we can expect calls for organizational reform to follow. Those calls have been oft-repeated throughout American history.

Fear of the "dangerous" classes of poor, ethnic minorities, and African Americans was a major factor motivating the establishment of city police departments in 19th-century America. Brutality and corruption plagued early policing, and an impetus for organizational reform took hold by the early 20th century. Major changes in hiring practices, training, and supervision helped shape a new professional model of policing by the end of the 1950s. Unfortunately, the problems of policing in African-American communities remained unresolved. This was graphically illustrated by the police use of violence against peaceful civil-rights protesters and the spate of urban race riots during the 1960s.

Charged with investigating the riots that cost many lives and massive sums of money, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (better known as the Kerner Commission) concluded that police actions and unequal justice triggered the violent outbreaks. At the time, city police officers across the country were virtually all white. The commission's recommendations included organizational reforms such as creating racially diverse police departments to address the problem.

Today many police departments (at least in larger cities) have achieved a significant degree of racial/ethnic diversity in their ranks. Other reforms to improve police-community relations, notably community policing, have been implemented to varying degrees. Although such policies have many laudable consequences (e.g., providing good jobs for applicants of color), research shows that they have not curbed police violence in communities of color.

How can that be?

Often overlooked in the conversation about police-community relations is a fundamental insight of the Kerner Commission. While the urban riots of the 1960s were typically triggered by an incident involving a police-citizen encounter, underlying conditions of disadvantage were at the heart of the problem. Unemployment, lack of educational opportunity, poor health and sanitation conditions, and crime were endemic in the disadvantaged African-American neighborhoods of the nation's large cities.

The conditions described by the Kerner Commission not only endure today, they may be worsening. Social isolation, poverty, drugs, weapon availability, violence, and social disorder in disadvantaged African-American neighborhoods are well documented. While in Ferguson these problems may not yet have reached the extremes of the inner-city, they still pose challenges.

Day-to-day police work in disadvantaged neighborhoods exposes officers to the most difficult conditions of urban life. Police officers come to associate such locales with danger, and many citizens (particularly young males) encountered in them may be perceived as potential threats. Police officers are always on edge when patroling in disadvantaged areas. Unsurprisingly, police and citizens of disadvantaged communities are often at odds with one another over issues of crime and disorder. Whereas the police focus on threats to their personal safety and challenges to their authority, citizens worry about crime and aggressive policing in their neighborhoods.

Many citizens of color believe that the police are not sufficiently committed to resolving the problems of crime and disorder that plague disadvantaged neighborhoods. Moreover, many are convinced people of color are targeted for aggressive policing, including violence. Our recent research on the use of excessive force in minority communities reveals that citizens' concerns have considerable merit. While the intractable conflicts of police-minority interests create and reinforce tensions between them, the problem is even more deeply rooted.

Emotions run high when police patrol socioeconomically disadvantaged locales. This may elicit gratuitous violence. Whether they are real or imagined, perceived threats may prompt fear and anger that can trigger aggressive police responses. In addition, popular stereotypes equating race and disadvantaged neighborhoods with violence and criminality are part of departmental and civilian folklore in many cities. Stereotypes can shape encounters with citizens and may amplify a police officer's emotional responses, thereby increasing the likelihood of aggression occurring. Simply entering disadvantaged neighborhoods may activate subconscious emotions and stereotypes in officers. These subconscious mental processes may trigger aggressive action during an encounter with a citizen perceived as threatening before an officer can consciously take stock of the situation. Even police officers of color are not immune to the effects of perceived threats when working in disadvantaged communities.

So what is to be done? We share reformers' commitment to improving police-minority relations. Certainly there is no excuse for police departments like the one in Ferguson, with its virtually all-white force. Its composition harks back to a darker era of race relations in America.

While Ferguson is not as destitute as many historically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods, the police are undoubtedly threatened by the racial transition and increasing concentration of poverty in Ferguson. Organizational changes such as racial diversification and community policing may help calm police-minority tensions in Ferguson. Yet, we must realize that organizational reforms may have a limited effect on police violence in communities of color because they cannot address the socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by many citizens.

The roots of the problem remain deeply imbedded in fundamental human social-psychological processes and a social structure that continues to divide the nation along racial and ethnic lines. The mental processes that make humans acutely apprehensive about people dissimilar to themselves cannot be easily overcome when residential segregation and socioeconomic conditions separate them. Those structural circumstances are ultimately responsible for creating and reproducing the tensions between police and citizens of color.

Meaningfully addressing the problem of police-minority relations, as well as the many other afflictions of poverty, will require a renewed commitment to alleviating the immense disadvantages experienced in some communities of color. While the election of an African-American president ushered in a new era of optimism in race relations, some prominent scholars remain concerned about the future of deeply disadvantaged African-American communities.

Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo's recent book, Divergent Social Worlds, points out that high levels of African-American residential segregation persist in America. Furthermore, they note that deindustrialization has disproportionately affected African-American communities through the loss of manufacturing jobs, and unemployment and poverty have increased in African-American communities. They suggest "many racial neighborhood inequalities may have hardened rather that softened" in contemporary America.

Overlooked in discourse about reforming policing is the reality that organizational changes in police departments cannot ameliorate the larger problems experienced by disadvantaged communities of color. Effective programs to create jobs, improve quality of life, and reduce crime in disadvantaged communities across America may eventually alleviate the tensions between police and citizens. Implementing such policies is clearly not a priority in contemporary American politics. Sadly, just as the events in Ferguson have played out before, they undoubtedly will again.

Malcolm D. Holmes, a professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming, and Brad W. Smith, an associate professor and the chair of criminal justice at Wayne State University, are the coauthors of  Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma.


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