Why Improving Police Behavior May Not Be Enough
New study explores confidence in police among minorities
Americans’ faith in police has been racially and ethnically divided for a long time. While addressing the low confidence in police among minorities, we put a lot of emphasis on improving the behavior of frontline police officers. This is indeed important and will always be. Body-worn camera program or procedural justice training are some examples among many.
A recent empirical study on immigration enforcement, however, explains why improving police behavior would not suffice to fix the problem.
In 2010 April, the state of Arizona passed Arizona S.B.1070, which was soon joined by 5 more states with copycat bills — Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah. These so-called “papers, please” bills authorized state or local police forces to perform immigration enforcement in the line of duty, which has traditionally been the job of the federal government. The backlash was immediate among politicians and activists. A major concern was that the already-existing ethnic biases in policing against Hispanics and Latinos would likely be exacerbated.
In my recent article in the journal, Governance, I examined whether the passage of Arizona S.B.1070 and its copycat bills had a disproportionately negative impact on confidence in police among Hispanics and Latinos compared with the rest of society.
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The short answer is, it did.
In the study, I used a quasi-experiment with multiple years of Pew Research Center survey data. The results demonstrate that the passage of the bills reduced Hispanics and Latinos’ confidence in police effectiveness and police use of force. The negative effect approximated one point on a survey scale of one to five, which is sizable for a single policy change. By contrast, no statistically meaningful effect was found among the rest of the ethnic groups.
The “papers, please” bills were, in fact, said to be written in ostensibly neutral language. In addition, their implementation at the frontline was delayed and eventually blocked or restricted by the courts. Some bills managed to survive the legal challenges against them, yet still faced rulings that their implementation must not compromise individuals’ constitutional rights. Furthermore, only about 10% of the Hispanic or Latino adult population face an officer-initiated encounter each year in the first place, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Given this, the decline in confidence in police among Hispanics and Latinos after the bills were passed was not necessarily because individuals experienced more negative police encounters than before. Instead, it was likely more based on how they expected to be treated by the police as a group, which was tied with the reinforced negative stereotypes of Hispanics and Latinos in the matter of immigration.
The implications of this finding can be extended to other contemporary hot-button policy issues. For example, former President Trump used the term “China virus” during the governmental response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Conceivably, negative stereotypes of Asians were strengthened along the way. To an extent, this could have negatively affected Asian Americans’ orientations toward health departments or even the government as a whole, irrespective of how fairly or professionally individual Asian Americans were treated by frontline officials.
The takeaway is that when conceptualized as an undesirable and inferior group by various signals in the policy environment, minorities may lose faith in government institutions, even without themselves having a negative experience. However, this does not negate the need for citizen-government interactions of better quality. A more balanced approach that combines efforts from both policymakers and frontline implementers would be necessary to end the marginalization of minorities and move towards social equity.