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Perceptions, Minority Populations and Law Enforcement: A Two Way Problem

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Wayne Jones
April 14, 2017

What do you think about local law enforcement? This is one way to analyze the perception of the men and women providing police services in your community. What is being sought is your perception. Your response to this question would be impacted by factors including your age, race, education, socio-economic status and personal experiences.

We all have perceptions. This is a human trait. There are different aspects of perception. The aforementioned question deals with social perception, which deals with “the study of how people form impressions of and inferences about other people.”  We make these social perceptions as a regular part of our lives. The majority of time there is not a problem with how we perceive others.

However, sometimes our perceptions do not coincide with facts. When this occurs, there is a potential for misunderstandings, anger and resentment that can lead to physical confrontations with life changing consequences including injury or death. One area where incorrect or misinterpreted social perceptions can result in actions with life changing and life ending consequences is when minority populations interact with law enforcement.

However, we must acknowledge this can be a two way situation as police officers, have stressful jobs dealing with diverse populations, calling for split second life changing decisions, made for the protection of the public and often their own lives. Their decisions, especially when they involve interactions with minority populations resulting in the use of deadly force are questioned. After the fact, these interactions are analyzed based on numerous factors including what the officer was thinking at the time and if their personal perception might have clouded their professional actions.

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The current discussion of how the United States should address the question of immigration deals with some aspects of the problem of the facts not coinciding with a social perception. Many persons believe there is a connection between the number of undocumented immigrants and crime rates, specifically that immigrants present a threat to public safety.

This is not a new perception regarding immigrants. According to a March 2, 2017 article in Governing, “it’s a viewpoint that has persisted for years, long before Donald Trump made it a hallmark of his presidential campaign.” The problem is the facts do not support this perception.

In the same article, Governing cites results from an analysis of data obtain from the Pew Research Center concerning “unauthorized immigrants.” The data revealed “no link with violent crime, but indicated concentrations of unauthorized immigrants to be associated with marginally lower violent crime rate.” Additional and more detailed results were cited by Dr. Robert Adelman one of the authors of Urban Crime Rates and the Changing Face of Immigration. Their analysis of FBI data from 1970 to 2010 revealed “immigration does not increase assaults but that robberies, burglaries, larceny and murder are lower in places where immigration levels are higher.”

Immigrants are not the only minority population impacted by this problem. A second area that is related to this discussion is the perceptional bias in judgements of the physical size and the potential for danger from African American males. The questionable shootings of several black males in our country over the past few years reignited discussions and research into this social perception. The results of a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Racial Bias in Judgements of Physical Size and Formidability: from Size to Threat” indicated “black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening and may be disproportionally targeted by police even when unarmed.” The authors of the research “found evidence that biased perceptions of young black men’s physical size may play a role in this process.” While the study was limited its authors also noted “more inquiry should be made into how this apparent bias play into real world police interactions including life or death situations.”

Social perceptions also work the other way with significant numbers of individuals within a community often perceiving law enforcement negatively. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found “seven in ten blacks said that blacks in their community were treated less fairly than whites in dealings with police, in comparison to the 51% of Hispanics who held that view.” There are a number of factors that influence results such as these. However, the implications this data has on citizen police interactions is important mandating further and more detailed research.

What are some public policy implications created from the incongruences of these social   perceptions? A level of tension and mistrust is created between the law enforcement and citizens which can result in minor situations escalating to physical and armed confrontations between these entities that need each other’s assistance and support. It also damages recruitment efforts to get members of the minority communities to serve as police officers. Finally, these social perceptions also impact how citizens view and interact with each other, possibly contributing to incidents like road rage.

We cannot eliminate social perceptions. However, we can seek to determine what the facts are and base our thoughts on these facts. Our actions and behavior will then be reasonable.


Author: Wayne A. Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia State University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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