The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


How Adversarial is the Relationship Between African Americans and the Police?

Not as adversarial as you might think based on some radical/extremist activists' rhetoric.


According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 8.7% of African Americans initiate contacts with the police annually, vs. 11.9% of whites. By contrast, the police initiate contact with whites and blacks at the same rate of 11%. The gap in the first statistic, one presumes, represents a trust gap between African Americans and whites in the police, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this trust gap exists. Indeed, those figures likely underestimate the trust gap; African Americans are more likely to live in high-crime neighborhoods, which would imply a higher likelihood of calling police to report criminal activity. [FWIW, according to the most recent data I could find, 15% of victims of violent crimes are African American, while they are 13% of the population.]

On the other hand, some of the rhetoric from Black Lives Matters and other radical activists would suggest that the relationship between African-Americans and the police is almost entirely adversarial. The fact that one out of every twelve African Americans voluntary initiates contact with the police annually strongly suggests otherwise.

UPDATE: Another interesting data point. According to a 2016 survey, 40% of African Americans, compared to 68% of whites, have a favorable view of local police. 54% of African Americans, compared to 78% of whites, said they would definitely report a crime. Which again shows a significant gap, but not an entirely adversarial relationship. (It also shows a perhaps surprisingly high level of distrust among whites in their local police.)

Over on Twitter, I've been puzzled to see that some interpret reporting such statistics as denying a problem between police and the black community exists, or as undermining attempts at police reform. Perhaps I need to spell it out: The trust gap in how whites and blacks feel about the police is real, an it reflects the real lived experiences of African-American interactions with the police as opposed to whites'. In a post yesterday, I suggested a dozen or so reforms, some fairly radical, that I support. [On reflection, I think part of the problem was my subheading about "activists," which could be read to mean "the average person protesting police violence." I've updated the subheading to "some radical/extremist activists" to make myself clearer.]

Nevertheless, the data suggest that the relationship isn't wholly adversarial, which is in stark contrast to rhetoric that, e.g., black people don't want the police to exist at all. An interlocutor suggested that's a strawman. It's not, as this widely circulated anti-police manifesto (written by a white guy, btw) shows. The difference is between "there's a big trust gap between whites and blacks in the police, and that sorely needs to be addressed by sensible, albeit radical reforms," and "the relationship between black people and their local police is so adversarial that we should abolish policing entirely."