(This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)
In Nearly two years of field research on Latin American police forces, one of the most compelling expressions of the role of the police came during a conversation with a former Director of the Colombian National Police, who told me that police officers are "the materialization of the state, what [citizens] could see of the state." In Chicago, and in far too many cities in the US, what you "can see of the state" often depends on characteristics such as your race or ethnicity, class, or neighborhood.
The devastating statistic about police shootings cited above is just one of many indicators of the alarming extent to which state violence disproportionately affects black communities. The city's own Police Accountability Task Force reported that Black Chicagoans are far more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, searched, and killed by the police force that is sworn to "serve and protect" them. Black communities not only face unequal treatment by police, they are also far less likely to see justice. An analysis by the Citizens Police Data Project showed that while 61 percent of all complaints of police misconduct were filed by Black citizens and 21 percent by White citizens, the proportions are reversed among the complaints that are sustained: 25 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
The disproportionate concentration of police violence in communities of color is troubling from a number of perspectives. First, the deterioration of trust between police and communities of color and the violence afflicting those same communities are mutually reinforcing. For this reason, reform efforts in highly violent settings, from Camden, NJ to Central America, often prioritize initiatives to rebuild police-community ties. Rebuilding trust is likely to remain out of reach in Chicago while such inequalities in policing continue.
These stark disparities in how police treat different groups of citizens can also complicate efforts to reform the police. Inequality in citizens' everyday interactions with police can potentially lead to radically different understandings of and relationships to police and state institutions, and ultimately, different preferences and demands. In Chicago, we've seen evidence that, despite the crisis facing the Chicago Police Department, attitudes about the police vary greatly by race and place. For instance, in a survey conducted last April, the proportion of White Chicagoans who rated the CPD as excellent or good (47 percent) was nearly four times greater than the proportion of Black Chicagoans who were satisfied with the police (12 percent). Similar disparities emerged across different neighborhoods.
These divisions do not bode well for the city’s ongoing efforts to reform the police. As my own research on police reforms in Latin America shows, when elected officials perceive fragmented preferences and conflicting demands from the citizenry, they are less likely to pass police reform legislation and to sustain those reforms once they are enacted.
Finally, inequalities in policing shape the lived experiences of people of color and the city's most vulnerable citizens. While attending a series of community hearings last August, I had the opportunity to listen to the testimonies of community members about how the alarming inequalities reproduced by policing and police violence have shaped everyday life. Teachers spoke of the detrimental effects of their students' interactions with police. A public health nurse working in communities of color testified to the challenge of helping clients living with mental illness and their families navigate emergency situations, in light of the history of police violence against people with mental illness.
The city's youth of color have been among the most affected. A Black teenager working as a youth mentor on the West Side spoke candidly about losing a friend to police violence and his distrust of police. "Me and my peers have the same idea toward the police," said the young man, "we can't trust them." He said the community's relationship to the police is defined by "a broken trust, because we get stopped for no reason… because of the way we dress and stuff like that."
But perhaps the most poignant testimony came from a Black mother from the South Side who hugged her 12-year-old son as she spoke about her fear that he could become part of the statistic cited above: "My boy should be safe in Woodlawn when he's riding his bike on the block… He should be able to run around and play, and I wouldn't be concerned if he didn't look a certain way."
Yanilda María González is an Assistant Professor at SSA.