A common response to protests over police shootings is, “What about black-on-black crime?” The question, often poised rhetorically, argues that people should worry more about violence within their communities — and, specifically, the higher rates of violence in minority communities — before they worry about violence by the police.
The response misses that a lot of people in minority communities are very, very worried about the crime and violence there, and are doing something about it.
But another issue is that a lack of trust in the police, fostered by police use of force that’s widely viewed as unfair, likely leads to more crime and violence.
This is what scholars call “legal cynicism”: When people don’t trust the government and criminal justice system, they are less likely to rely on the law to solve conflicts. And that might make them more likely to try to solve conflicts on their own, which can lead to a violent, if unlawful, resolution.
Consider: If you believe that someone shot and killed a family member and may try to go after you next, and you don’t trust police to do anything about it, then you might be more likely to try to go after the shooter on your own to stop them.
David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, explained: “This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong. What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.
They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.
But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”
That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.
“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers wrote, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — 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.”
So police abuses don’t just damage community trust and disproportionately hurt minority groups. They hurt police’s ability to keep the public safe, too.