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Trust in police rose or fell along racial lines after the death of Michael Brown

Ferguson protest 3/12/2015
Lawrence Bryant | St. Louis American
A protest this past March

African Americans who live near where Michael Brown was shot showed a sharp decrease in how much they trust police and believe in their legitimacy in the weeks after Brown’s death, according to a survey by a criminologist at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Meanwhile, white residents who live near the shooting showed no decrease in support for police. In fact, there was a slight uptick in how much they trust police.

Those with more negative views toward police cited police overreaction, military tactics and the use of rubber bullets and tear gas.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who has followed the SIU study, told researchers the lessons he has taken away from Ferguson:

  • The importance of optics – Use blue uniforms instead of camouflage and keep SWAT and national guard units available but out of sight. Walk the streets and talk to protesters.
  • Share the facts – Police need to be “proactive” not “reactive” in sharing facts and be prepared to respond to questions from the press. At his press conference after the Brown shooting, Belmar asked for reporters to submit questions in advance but did not take questions afterward, which he told researchers was a mistake.

  • Avoid flashbangs – The flashbangs used with the initial tear gas gave a more militaristic impression than intended.

  • Social media changes everything – For one thing, social media can aid the criminal element among protesters.
  • Elective leadership – Elected leadership needs to speak out and act. One common criticism of public officials last summer was that neither St. Louis County nor state officials showed strong leadership. 

Tammy Rinehart Kochel, a criminology professor at SIU - Carbondale, conducted the surveys of citizen attitudes. She and her researchers had first contacted St. Louis County residents in 2012-13 for a federally funded study into the effect of different police tactics in crime hot spots.
After the Brown shooting, Kochel contacted 389 of the residents she and her researchers had interviewed earlier. That enabled them to see how the events of last August in Ferguson had affected people living a few miles from where Brown was killed.

Kochel concluded: “Views about police significantly worsened among African American residents” who found police to be less trustworthy, less legitimate, more aggressive and less effective.

“Having spoken to residents prior and following the events in Ferguson, I can state with confidence that these declines in residents’ perceptions of the trustworthiness of police and their fairness and respectfulness; as well as the frequency with which residents believe they see police stopping people without good reason, using insulting language and using more force than is necessary in the circumstances; and concerns about police legitimacy and effectiveness can be attributed to their combined personal, vicarious, and media experiences in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and police and public responses to it.”

Most people felt impact

Kochel’s initial study was designed to measure citizen reaction to two police approaches to “hot spots” with high levels of crime. One approach is problem-solving policing to identify the root causes of crime and bring community resources to bear on them. That approach has been effective in Cincinnati. The other approach, directed patrol, increases police patrols and visibility.

In September and October after Brown’s death, Kochel and her researchers contacted 389 of the same people they had interviewed before the shooting to see how attitudes had changed.

None of the residents lived in Ferguson, but a quarter lived within two miles and three-quarters within six miles of the site of the Brown shooting.

Protesters in Ferguson in August 2014
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Protests in Ferguson in August 2014

About three-fourths of the people said the events in Ferguson had an impact on their lives, with most citing an emotional impact, such as shock, fear and frustration. Others said their lives had been affected logistically, with closed schools and stores.

“I can’t sleep at night, because of helicopters in the air,” one resident told researchers. “I was in the military for eight years so the helicopters triggered my PTSD, and I could smell the tear gas from my porch.”

Another said, “It’s a sad case for St. Louis. The kids are scared to go out or to lie down at night. It’s a terrible thing and it ain’t going to stop until justice is served.”

Some residents saw benefits from the protests because they drew attention to the cause of the marchers.

One said, “There are so many Michael Browns out there. I don’t condone burglary or other illegal acts that happened, but I understand the public being upset. There are conflicting stories: No one knows what happened besides that police officer and God.”

Another said, “The protests were wonderful. ... But the looting was totally uncalled for. A lot of people from out of town came in and took advantage of the situation. It left Ferguson a mess physically and financially.”

Strong racial differences 

More than 60 percent of African Americans surveyed voiced agreement with public reaction to the events in Ferguson. But almost 70 percent of nonblacks disagreed with the public reaction, meaning public behaviors that included protest. Those disagreeing mentioned looting, rioting, vandalism and violence.

Similarly, three-fourths of African Americans disagreed with the police response, while more than 60 percent of nonblacks agreed with it.

The biggest changes in attitudes from before to after the shooting were among African Americans.

Citizens were asked whether:

  • Police authority is legitimate and valid;
  • People trust police to act fairly, impartially and respectfully;
  • Police are effective in maintaining order and
  • Citizens see police engage in misconduct – such as stopping people without a good reason, using insulting language and excessive force.

After the shooting, African Americans saw police as substantially more aggressive, less effective, less legitimate and less trustworthy when it came to procedural justice.
The average assessment of trust and procedural justice by African Americans declined by 25 percent after the Brown shooting and their assessment of police legitimacy declined by 8 percent. Meanwhile, their perception of police using overly aggressive tactics jumped 20 percent.

One resident told researchers: “It's impacted the way I feel toward the police. I feel like they are criminals. The only difference is the law protects them when they do wrong.”

Another said, “It makes me cautious about my kids. Are they going to get picked on by the police? It makes me nervous.”

A protester said, “Everybody that was out there, me included, had the right to express ourselves peacefully. I got gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. We were made to feel like animals. They (the police) instigated the violence. They shouted out racial slurs and were telling us what to do. How they reacted is what made us feel like screw this.”

Another citizen said, “This happens a lot to the black community, this is nothing new. It happens A LOT. This time it was publicized. As a mother of four sons, I’m touched by it deeply. I can certainly feel for the mother of Michael Brown. A lot of things get swept under the rug.”

Those with unfavorable reactions to the police handling of the events often cited police overreaction and military tactics.

One citizen said, “Tactical gear/helicopters/tanks/tear gas was so unnecessary. My friend and his wife got gassed while peacefully protesting. It was all crazy. It was like Iraq out there.”

Another said, “Coming out in the tactical gear was just pouring gasoline on the fire, especially if they already had a bad relationship with the people in Ferguson.”

Restoring trust

Researchers asked about eight ways of improving trust and confidence in the police.

Sixty percent said police using body or dash cameras would greatly improve their trust and confidence.

About half favored police organizing focus groups to meet with residents. Forty percent favored more minority police officers, although this approach had much higher support among African Americans than nonblacks.

Just as blacks and whites agreed on the value of body or dash cameras, they also favored more police patrols, Kochel said.

Kochel noted that earlier studies reported by the American Enterprise Institute in Los Angeles and New York showed that public trust in police declines after instances of perceived brutality, but then bounces back.

She noted that her interviews last fall occurred before the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death and before the Justice Department announced a pattern of unconstitutional police and municipal court practices in Ferguson.

She said that the highly “malleable” public opinion toward police “offers hope that changes in policing that are underway are already improving these negative effects.” Kochel is in the midst of a third round of interviews – having completed 150 so far -to see if attitudes have changed since last fall