Alfred Olango was killed by police in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon on Tuesday, after his sister called 911 to try to get some help for a loved one seemingly going through a mental health episode on a busy street.
Black Americans have been saying for decades that police violence destroys trust in law enforcement and isolates communities from emergency services. Now there’s some empirical evidence to support and explain that observation.
Calls to 911 dropped dramatically in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee in the months after a notorious police beating of a black man made local headlines in 2005, a new study shows. There was no change to the rate of calls to police about crime in the city’s white neighborhoods in the same window.
“After publicized episodes of police violence, 911 calls reporting crime dropped in predominantly black neighborhoods. They dropped by a lot and they stayed lower than expected for months and months,” lead author Matthew Desmond of Harvard’s sociology department told ThinkProgress.
The research hinges on what Desmond called a “savage beating” in Wisconsin’s most segregated city.
In late October 2004, a posse of off-duty Milwaukee cops poured out of a police officer party. The officers, drunk, decided that two black men who’d attended the same housewarming party had stolen their friend’s police badge. They cut open one of the men’s face with a knife, but he escaped the worst of it. The other man, Frank Jude, was cornered. The officers, soon joined by on-duty colleagues, beat him until he fell, stomped on his head until bones snapped, broke his fingers, held a gun to his head, and then left him half-naked in a puddle of blood.
The hospital photos are difficult to see. Jude’s ears reportedly bled for weeks, after the drunken cops jammed pens into them as part of the rough-up.
The beating wasn’t widely known until early 2005, when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel broke the story. There had been no protests between the beating and the story, but then a crowd of 100 people marched on the District Attorney’s office. Multiple officers were charged and eventually convicted.
And over the year following the story, Milwaukee 911 got roughly 22,200 fewer calls reporting crime than it would have absent the police brutality case, according to estimates in the new research.
The study, by Desmond and colleagues Andrew Papachristos and David Kirk, analyzed 911 call data from before and after the news of the beating broke, split out by geographic origin within the city.
“In black neighborhoods, the decline in 911 calls is large and durable, with citizen crime reporting dropping and staying lower than expected for over a year after the story broke,” the researchers write. Call rates in white neighborhoods did not show the same kind of response.
The murder rate city-wide also jumped briefly after the beating hit the papers. “There was a non-trivial uptick in homicides in Milwaukee in the six months following the breaking of the story, about a 30 percent increase compared to the year prior and the year after,” Desmond said.
The hyper-local nature of the trio’s analysis here makes it hard to extrapolate these findings for the nation as a whole. Desmond’s team cannot apply their findings to the relatively new era of awareness within white communities of the real nature of police interaction with black Americans.
They also can’t draw conclusions for the new social media era where word of a beating or killing in one time zone spreads out to citizens in all the others within hours. They did find that 911 calls dipped in Milwaukee after the killing of Sean Bell by the NYPD made headlines in 2006. But there was no significant change in Milwaukee’s call rates after Oscar Grant was murdered by Bay Area Transit Police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009.
“The good news is that this is based on public data from police departments, so it would be very simple to replicate in the cities that have experiences of publicized police violence: Baltimore, Tulsa, Charlotte, and the rest,” Desmond said.
Law enforcement officials and police supporters have often latched onto the idea that it’s the public attention to police abuse that causes bad outcomes, rather than the abuse itself. FBI Director James Comey worries publicly that a “video effect” is making cops overly cautious and undermining their ability to do their jobs. More brazen defenders of the badge call it a “Ferguson effect,” warping statistics to insist that crime is booming or that there’s a “war on cops.” Neither claim is true.
But Desmond isn’t worried that the new research, with its evidence that news reports on brutality trigger shifts in call patterns, will fall prey to the same manipulation by people interested in stemming the tide of police criticism.
“We live in a free society,” he said. “Reporting on episodes of police violence is absolutely central to our democracy. And what this work shows is that violence to an unarmed black man is not some isolated incident, it has a community-wide effect. And it does violence to our democracy.”
A breakdown in trust between communities and law enforcement doesn’t just drive down calls to 911. It also gives rise — quite naturally — to the belief that if law enforcement won’t bring people to justice, someone else will have to. Academics who study “legal cynicism” have been arguing since the 1990s that these breakdowns lead communities to rely instead upon “the code of the street, ‘a kind of people’s law,’ based on respect and payback,” the new paper notes.
Looked at through the lens of rational cynicism about cops, crime patterns in some major U.S. cities start to make a certain kind of sense. In Chicago, for example, police only ever solve about a quarter of the murders they investigate. The “clearance rate” on homicides there was just 26 percent last year, down from 28.6 percent in 2014.
That leaves more than 600 unsolved murders in two years in Chicago alone — and thousands of family members of victims who effectively know they will never see a courtroom outcome for the person who slew their kin. Family members can accept that and trust the process, or they can look to settle scores themselves.