Policing the Police

By Cary Estes


It was just one statement in one of the 40 interviews that Rod K. Brunson, Ph.D., conducted with young African-American men in St. Louis. But it was a disturbing sentiment that seemed to be shared by most of them.

"Police don't like black people," the man bluntly declared.

That assertion stuck in Brunson's mind, to the point that he used it in the title of a recent paper examining the often tenuous relationships between police officers and minority communities.

"It summed up the experiences of many of the respondents in my research," says Brunson, a UAB criminologist. "They couldn't understand why they encountered hostility from police officers. It was difficult for them to come to grips with the way their communities are being policed. And the thing that was most obvious to them was that they were black people."

Close Encounters with the Third Degree

Brunson's paper, which was published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy, is the third in a series of reports about urban policing that he has written in the past two years. The earlier papers were co-authored with colleague Jody Miller, Ph.D., while Brunson was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Brunson's current research records the personal experiences of residents in St. Louis's African-American neighborhoods, along with stories they heard from others. These narratives helped Brunson find out how perceptions about the police are shaped. "The reality is that different communities are policed in different ways," he says. "I'm not saying that the police don't have a difficult job in some of these communities. But I imagine that Mountain Brook is policed a lot differently than West End. People in Mountain Brook may find it difficult to believe that they can be stopped by the police for simply walking down the street, because that probably doesn't typically happen to them. But it happens to residents of West End—for a variety of reasons."

Action and Reaction

Police officers often don't realize that their interactions with one member of a community spread to affect many others in that community, Brunson notes. "That person tells others how he was treated by the police. There may be good reasons for that treatment, but it still reinforces people's preconceived notions" about police hostility toward minorities.

This creates problems for both the police and the neighborhoods they are assigned to protect, says Brunson. "The communities that are most in need of police assistance are the ones that have the worst relationships with the police, and it becomes difficult to find solutions. We're talking about problems that have existed for quite a long time. How do you address a shared perception that is not based upon personal interactions?"

One idea, Brunson suggests, is to have police departments share the responsibility of handling complaints with a third party, such as the prosecutor's office. "That might give citizens greater confidence that something will be done about the complaints," he says. "It may not be any more effective, but it might at least change perceptions and ensure the integrity of the process."

In the end, says Brunson, the best piece of advice is nothing new. "Like anything, it boils down to the Golden Rule: Try to treat others the way you would like to be treated."