Calling 911 in the Wake of Police Violence

black_lives_matter_sign_-_minneapolis_protest_22632545857Amanda Seligman is a Visiting Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette University Law School.

How does racially-tinged police violence toward civilians affect city residents’ willingness to summon aid in an emergency? A study in the October 2016 American Sociological Review asks what happened to the number of 911 calls after the public revelation that off-duty white Milwaukee police officers beat Frank Jude in 2004. In “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos, and David S. Kirk find that in the year after the initial publicity around the beating, Milwaukee residents placed 22,000 fewer 911 calls than might have been expected, resulting in a total of 110,000 calls. Although white neighborhoods saw a spike in 911 calls and then a long but shallow dip, the loss of calls was especially pronounced in black neighborhoods. The authors found no such loss of calls reporting traffic accidents.

Desmond et al.’s 911 study received extensive mass media coverage. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams wrote about the study in The Atlantic, and the New York Times’sThe Upshot” column reported the findings. The study was the subject of two articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one reporting on the findings and one offering responses from District Attorney John Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Two of the authors, Desmond and Papachristos, also published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times commenting on the significance of their research. A small host of other reports suggest broad interest in the study’s implications in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread coverage of police shootings of African American civilians.

Sociologist Desmond is one of our most thoughtful observers of the cultural significance of the 911 emergency call system. In Evicted, his 2015 ethnographic study of housing and poverty in Milwaukee, Desmond observed how victims of domestic violence put themselves at risk for losing their homes if they call the police too often. In the ASR article’s abstract, the authors interpret use of 911 as a form of “civic engagement,” a term that echoes political scientist Robert Putnam’s treatment of social capital in his 2001 book Bowling Alone. Desmond et al. elaborate that calling 911 is “foundational to public safety, being the first and among the most important acts of cooperation with the police, who in many cases can respond to criminal activity only if it is reported.” It is worth noting that the study’s examination of 911 calling patterns is not a reflection on crime rates. The lost 911 calls might have been redundant calls from multiple citizens reporting the same incident, or they might have been from crime victims or residents in need of medical help declining to involve the authorities.

For the heart of this study is trust in police, not the amount of crime in the city or the operation of the 911 system. Police officers beat Frank Jude not in response to a 911 call, but for an alleged theft at a party he had attended at the home of a police officer. The Jude episode itself was different from some recent police shooting incidents, such as the September death of Alfred Olango in El Cajon CA, in which a caller must have calculated that the need for help outweighed the risks of attention. In the ASR study, a resident’s willingness to summon help through 911 stands as a proxy for his or her faith that the summoned authorities will defuse rather than escalate the emergency.

In their New York Times opinion piece about their study (but not in the article itself), Desmond and Papachristos relate their findings to the so-called “Ferguson effect.” A reference to the death of Michael Brown in the summer of 2014 in a suburb of St. Louis MO, the term implies that police hold back in the wake of an officer-involved shooting, thereby endangering other residents and allowing new crimes to pass unchecked. Indeed, Desmond and Papachristos report that in Milwaukee homicides increased by almost a third in the six months after the coverage of the Jude beating. They claim that their research suggests an alternate explanation for the spike in murders that followed the Frank Jude beating: the increase was due not to police holding back their professional effort, but instead shows mistrustful black citizens withdrawing their cooperation from law enforcement. An increase in residents’ “legal cynicism,” they suggest based on other studies, led to an increase in violent crime. Their reflection here, however, does not preclude the possibility that policing changed as well.

Finally, Desmond and Papachristos conclude the New York Times essay with a litany of names of black men who died at the hands of Milwaukee police, dating back to Ernest Lacy’s death in 1981. Clearly influenced by the recent #Say Her Name campaign, they write, “Some of us have forgotten these names; some of us cannot.” This litany of remembrance, however, points to a different, and also dismaying, possibility: a permanent depression in the willingness of urban residents ask for emergency help from authorities. The ASR study finds that a year after the Jude beating, the number of emergency calls returned to its expected baseline. But what are the cumulative effects of a troubled relationship between the police and the public?

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