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Law Enforcement Race and Domestic Calls Qualitative Research

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2019


In order to remain legitimate, citizens ought to have confidence in the criminal justice system. If these citizens think of the institution as trustworthy, just, and fair, then chances are that they will concede to it.

Law enforcement is one of the most critical components of the criminal justice system because it interacts with almost all members of society. Ethnic minorities and poor people predominantly contact the government through the criminal justice system.

It, therefore, makes sense for law enforcers to appear just to this group of people. When policemen act differentially or in a biased way against a member of society, then they send the message that the political and social system of the country is unreliable.

It is imperative to study one aspect of police interactions with the public; domestic calls, in order to determine whether such injustices exist.

In this paper, it is hypothesis is as follows: law enforcement officials will respond quicker to domestic calls in a white neighborhood than calls from predominantly black neighborhoods because of the perception of repeated crimes in such areas.

Literature review

It is necessary to look at theoretical underpinning of crime in order to understand the context of the research hypothesis. Two theories are insightful in this analysis; they are the social disorganization theory and the conflict theory of criminology.

The social disorganization theory postulates that crime rates will be high in areas with dysfunctional communal institutions and minimal communal relationships. Lack of strong communal ties minimizes people’s cooperative behavior and hence their ability to prevent criminal behavior.

If a community engages its members in communal institutions such as schools, churches and family, then chances are that these people will have a strong bond with each other.

Consequently, they are less likely to commit crimes against one another. Analysts often apply the theory to people in small geographical units such as neighborhoods or communities (Bursik, 1988).

The social disorganization theory arose in the early 1900s and criminologists used it to explain high rates of crime in Chicago. At the time, numerous immigrants had entered the city and few of them associated with each other on the community level.

Chicago, which had consisted of a peasant society, became a multicultural city. Inconsistencies and disorganization replaced the uniformity and harmony that existed in the peasant society. Individualism and economic competition disintegrated the family unit as well as other communal institutions.

Since families were agents of social control in the previously homogenous society, then the heterogeneous society undermined government control. As a result, crime and delinquency persisted in Chicago.

It is possible for a certain area to experience high rates of crime irrespective of the racial or biological composition of the residents. In the social disorganization theory, social conditions perpetuate crime and delinquency.

Such areas are disorganized and lack the mechanisms for reinforcing laws. In the absence of these controls, crime will thrive (Groves & Sampson, 1989).

A number of researchers have studied the social disorganization theory in real-life settings. A case in point was a study done by Elijah Anderson. He summarized his findings in a piece known as the “Code of the Street”. The author studied an inner city African American community in Philadelphia.

He found that a street code existed in this community, and there were sincere and insincere adherents of the phenomenon. Anderson (1999) explains that families in this community can either be ‘street’ or decent.

Decent families hold mainstream values and inculcate the notions of self reliance and hard work among their family members. Nonetheless, they still teach their children how to behave in dangerous situations so as to protect themselves.

Members of decent families will put on the street persona when faced with difficult situations so as to protect themselves from attacks. Conversely, street families orient their family members into a violent subculture.

A high degree of disorganization exists among these families thus causing them to engage in self destructive behavior such as violence, alcoholism and drug abuse.

These findings indicate that when a high degree of social organization exists, then crime will abound. Therefore, the study testifies to the viability of the social disorganization theory.

It will be useful to understand how the social disorganization theory relates to the effectiveness of police response to domestic calls in this study. One can use the theory to understand why law enforcers sometimes have a bias in this area of police work.

The conflict theory of criminality is also quite useful in understanding criminality and hence police reactions to possible crimes. Karl Marx postulated that capitalist societies consist of two key groups; the working class (proletariat) and the elite (bourgeois).

The resource owners always perpetuate their self interests by exploiting the masses. They control resources and use their positions of power to maintain the status quo.

On the other hand, unequal distribution of resources causes members of the working class to become frustrated by the prevailing order thus prompting them to oppose the elite. A continuous conflict will always exist between the proletariat and the bourgeois because of this inequality.

Crime manifests in capitalist societies because poor people need a method of survival; only minimal economic opportunities exist for the working class (Kelley, 2011). Additionally, Marxists believe that inequality alienates the poor from the rich and propels them into crime.

Marxism and other conflict theories may also be used to explain why certain law enforcers behave the way they do. Adherents of this theory believe that the elite preserve the status quo by treating the law as an instrument.

It is one of the many institutions (religion, education, and mass media) used to keep power among the ruling class. This is the reason why crimes committed by poor people solicit more severe punishments than those committed by the rich.

Differential application of the law among members of a certain population perpetuates a hegemonic control of the masses. Biases in applications of law prove the existence of these hegemonies.

For instance, only 2.7 % of all the Caucasians that law enforcers capture go to prison while an astounding 10.2% of blacks go through the same. There is a homogenous population in prison that preserves the status quo of the white majority.

Additionally, white collar crime causes plenty of harm in society, but it do not solicit the same punitive actions from law enforcers as crimes committed by the working class. Even white collar crimes can be tax deduced once a judge passes the sentence.

If a court fines an organization, it will often require only a small portion of its earnings and thus protect the interests of the company owners. For instance, it may pay a $1.8 million-fine yet company profits stand at $1.7 billion. Therefore, the punitive abilities of those fines are highly questionable.

One may think of crime and deviance in a heterogeneous society as a consistent struggle between those in power and those outside the locus of control.

Individuals in positions of authority will strive to expand their level of control over resources by defining the activities of others as deviant. Therefore, members in authority will always claim that others are a threat to the existing order. To the elite, the existing order is always the legitimate one.

Matsueda and Drakulich (2009) carried out a study in which they wanted to build on the conflict theory of social control. They analyzed African American’s perceptions of the criminal justice system and determined whether these perceptions undermine the legitimacy of institutions within the country.

According to group conflict theories, the elite maintain control over subordinates through the legal system. Therefore, the biases, as dispensed through the criminal justice system, serve to disenfranchise economically-disadvantaged people continuously.

The authors found that prejudices against African Americans exist, and these serve to damage the authenticity of such institutions. It is these racial injustices that cause many African Americans to support affirmative action as well as other liberal policies.

Anderson (1999) further supports this notion in his analysis of a predominantly black neighborhood. The author states that institutional racism demoralizes African Americans and denies them opportunities for economic empowerment.

Therefore, many of these citizens choose crime (drugs and violence) in order to make financial gains that they would not have accessed had they tried mainstream society. Many African American drug dealers will enter the life of drug dealing in order to access material things and boost their status in society.

In the conflict theory, deviance stems from the proletariat’s need for social mobility. This is the case with black youth in the ghetto. Many of them seek to strengthen their status by acquiring the money needed to buy fancy things.

An economically disadvantaged group, such as the community under analysis, will often use deviant behavior in order to oppose the status quo (Anderson, 2002).

Chambliss and Seidman (1982) further argue that the legal system serves an authoritarian order. Here, law enforcers have the work of implementing the law while politicians make it. Additionally, it is this authoritarian structure that causes deficiencies in the legal system.

For instance, attorneys are the only ones who know most of the legal dialect in the law and this makes it inaccessible to the masses. Furthermore, appellate courts often make decisions that support the status quo. As a result, the elite will keep preserving their privileged positions through legal structures.

It will be insightful to know how the conflict theory will relate to police reactions to callers. The theory will be useful in explaining why police are reluctant to respond to calls from predominantly black neighborhoods, if the bias exists.

Additionally, the theory will contribute towards knowledge of the motivations for racial prejudice within the criminal justice system.

Research findings


Police misconduct entails any act that abuses police authority, such as extortion, bribery, abuses, excessive force or failure to offer assistance to distressed callers. The latter situation is the subject of analysis in this paper.

If police fail to act appropriately when a person calls for help, it is necessary to determine why they acted in such a manner. Several studies have looked into the issue of police misconduct and found that the behavior is likely to occur in neighborhoods with structural mobility issues.

This can be easily explained through the social disorganization theory. Additionally, police misconduct may also stem from changes in the population; that is, racial bias (Kane, 2002).

In fact, when these two factors exist in a certain location, then residents’ call for police help will not receive the much needed attention that it requires.

The history of citizens and police interactions with one another has a large role to play in determining whether law enforcers will respond accordingly to a distress call from a black neighborhood. Anderson (1999) carried out his research in Germantown Avenue.

He found that most residents did not trust the police owing to their indifference to their situations. Police helping behavior would dramatically reduce when in a predominantly black neighborhood. Some of the residents even reported cases of abuse from law enforcers who should have assisted them.

For instance, instead of dealing with the matter at hand, police would ask them about unrelated issues such as the sale of drugs. Sometimes this would spiral out of control and lead to the arrest of a victim of a crime.

Respondents in the latter study indicate that police were often present in the streets, but they did not have the residents’ interests at heart. The locals claimed that police officers have a low opinion of African American citizens, so they are less likely to assist them.

Given this negative relationship between law enforcers and black citizens, it is safe to say that police response to African American domestic calls from black neighborhoods would be lackluster.

A distinct difference exists between the provision of police services in black neighborhoods and white communities; law enforcers make these decisions based on the economic predisposition of the residents as well as their racial composition.

Brown and Coulter (1983) confirmed that an inequality exists in distribution of police services based on ethnicity. Sun and Payne (2004) further clarified that police do not act in the same way across all neighborhoods; their behavior changed according to their locations.

The number of victims that received assistance in these locations was not as high as the number of incidences that occurred. Furthermore, citizens were likely to result to their own ways of seeking justice in these areas. Weitzer (2000) also found that racialized policing was a reality in predominantly black neighborhoods.

The author compared police treatment of individuals across three neighborhoods in Washington DC. One neighborhood consisted of a predominantly lower class black community while the second one was a middle class white society. The third community was a middle class black community.

Respondents gave their insights about how police treated them in relation to other communities. Weitzer (2000) found that the predominantly black, lower class community experienced racial bias from the police fraternity.

If a member of the black community interacted with a police officer outside a black neighborhood, then police biases against them would disappear (Weitzer, 1999). Therefore, race becomes a problem in law enforcement when taking into account one’s neighborhood.

The differential treatment of citizens by law enforcement officials can be manifested through the rate at which police respond to calls. Consequently, such variations prove that the research hypothesis in true. Racial composition and social-economic backgrounds of callers determine police reactions.

It should be noted that the existence and extent of community policing in a certain neighborhood has adverse effects on how police respond to neighborhood calls. By its sheer nature, community policing represents a shift from reactive law enforcement to proactive work.

Neighborhoods with a sound community policing strategy connect well with police and inform them about crimes before they occur. They have a strong relationship with police because police respond suitably when they call for help.

Weitzer (2000) found that predominantly African American neighborhoods had poor relations with their police officers even when community policing existed. Study subjects stated that the police had no interest in engaging with them, and they were highly unwelcome.

Such opinions from the residents stemmed from the fact that the police had failed to come through for them when they needed their help. Residents continually get negative feedback from police when they warn them about crimes (for instance through domestic calls), and this leads to resentment from them.

It should be noted that these findings change dramatically when black officers enact community policing in predominantly black neighborhoods. Sun and Payne (2004) explain that differences in behaviors were present between black and white officers policing predominantly black neighborhoods.

Findings indicated that black officers engaged in supportive activities when in black neighborhoods while white officers used more coercive tactics in these communities. As a result, one can assume that differential treatment of victims of crime is true, and this implies poor response during domestic calls.

Theoretical explanations of police reactions to calls from African American neighborhoods

In order to understand why the police behave so differently, it is necessary to look into the theoretical explanations of their behavior. Conflict theories indicate that people in positions of authority will act in a way that protects the interests of those in power.

One can define a dominant group on the basis of economic status. Since American society largely consists of a white, middle class population, then poor, black citizens represent the opposite spectrum of those in power.

When police respond inadequately to domestic calls from low income, African American societies, they are protecting the interests of those in power.

Wearing police uniform and belonging to the police fraternity gives many law enforcers a strong sense of identity, which tempts some of them to abuse their positions. One may thus perceive law enforcers as agents of social control (Chambliss and Seidman, 1982).

In line with the above argument of social conflict, one may assume that unsatisfactory responses to domestic calls from African American callers stem from the lack of effective mechanisms for punishing racist behavior.

The prevalence of a dominant race causes them to implement policies that preserve their place in the social hierarchy. Placement of mechanisms that deter racist behavior among police officers would undermine efforts designed to protect members of the dominant class.

If proper disciplinary measures existed to correct such abuses of power, then the elite would no longer be significant. Police officers’ misconduct during call responses also stems from their perceptions of entities in control.

Many law enforcers feel that the only genuine source of their authority stems from the majority, where they belong (Jacobs and O’Brien, 1998).

On the other hand, police act discriminatorily during their response to distress calls owing to the social disorganization theory described in the literature review. Police may presume that predominantly black neighborhoods already have a high concentration of crime so their interventions will do little to change that.

Consequently, this perception causes them to slow down their reactions to domestic calls. The temptation to do nothing or to act inappropriately is much higher in crime-prone neighborhoods than in neighborhoods without such incidences. Sampson and Bartush (1998) confirm these assumptions.

They asserted that when the level of violent crime in a neighborhood became statistically insignificant, then police indifference to residents also reduced to unusually low levels.

This supports the notion that the police associate African American neighborhoods with a high degree of violence, and this makes it difficult to respond to them.

It should be noted that Sampson and Bartusch (1998) do not support police biases; they were merely assessing perceptions and explanations for differential police behavior in divergent neighborhoods.

One can look at this differential treatment by police using the opportunity model of social disorganization. In places where a high degree of crime already exists, it is likely that more opportunities for law enforcers’ misconduct exist. Neighborhoods with high crime rates often have a large proportion of police patrols.

In fact, saturation patrolling is a common phenomenon in such locations. Police – resident contacts are too frequent, and this often leads to friction between the two groups. This elevates the potential for hostile encounters between residents in high-crime neighborhoods.

This means that when citizens need help, most of them will not find it from police officers. Law enforcers already have an abrasive attitude with them so this makes them less likely to help. Cases of over policing usually exist when law enforcers find the crimes.

However, if local residents take the initiative to inform the police about these crimes, they are likely to receive a poor response. Additionally, because street crime is common in these neighborhoods, then police have more opportunities to act in a corrupt way.

They can ignore calls for help and get away with it because of the degree of social disorder in those neighborhoods (Jacobs and O’Brien, 1998).

Terrill and Reisig (2003) found that police tend to be more corrupt and inefficient in disadvantaged areas. Law enforcers are inefficient because of stereotyping members of low class African American communities as troublesome.

Kane (2002) also makes a powerful argument when explaining why certain police officers fail to act satisfactorily after receiving domestic calls from predominantly black neighborhoods.

Using the social disorganization theory, he explains that most of these residents lack the power to constrain corrupt or biased behavior. Residents in socially disorganized locations are powerless against abusive law enforcement.

They do not have the capacity to lobby against police mistreatment, while residents in affluent or middle class neighborhoods know policy makers who can mobile against unethical police.

As a result, police can get away with indifference against distressed callers from predominantly poor neighborhoods even when this behavior is continuous.


Police institutions need to take responsibility for their actions by being their own critics. They need to implement mechanisms for diagnosing inappropriate responses to domestic calls from African American neighborhoods, and find immediate remedies for them.

Sometimes law enforcers are too quick to defend themselves or defend actions of their officers. It is necessary to have self critical measures that would eradicate this form of racism from the police.

Since differential responses to callers emanates from power relations, then policemen need to be subjected to immense scrutiny in order to avoid the abuse of power. Regardless of the reasoning applied police should not respond differently to callers; this is an unjustifiable act that must be corrected.

Some of the positive steps that police departments can take include establishments of an anti-racism policy and provision of training. An anti-racism policy should specifically talk about consistent and effective response to domestic callers.

In precincts where a lot of divergent behavior towards white and black communities thrives, a Race Relations unit ought to be instated. The unit would solve conflicts when they arise.

It would also provide information and mediate between those individuals who were victims of prejudiced behavior during phone calls.

Additionally, the unit would furnish the precinct with the necessary information on the matter. Alternatively, such divisions can set up community relations units for handling these biases (Ungerleider, 1992).

Aside from the use of reactive measures, to curb the practice, institutions ought to have preventive methods that would ensure police protect individuals irrespective of their economic status, race, or any other factor that causes bias.

First, administrators can set up evaluation mechanisms that assess arrest rates from predominantly black neighborhoods. They should determine whether these arrests occurred because of additional crime or because of negative attitudes held by police officers.

Such attitudes should be nipped in the bud before they manifest in poor helping behavior among black victims. Failure to do so could even lead to a high number of deaths among the group.

Police divisions ought to change their hiring programs in order to include members of diverse origins. Although this approach may not be the ultimate solution to racial biases in the police, at least it can be a useful tool for exposing officers to people of divergent origins.

Daily associations with such members can cause many of them to alter their attitudes towards people who are different from them. When instating the program, racial quotas should be met in order to realize the benefits of such a strategy fully.

Another preventive measure that should be employed by the police force is the implementation and improvement of community policing in predominantly black neighborhoods. As stated earlier, failed community policy can lead to resentment and disengagement between the police and residents.

This breeds an attitude of indifference that becomes visible when citizens make domestic calls. Administrators should train police officers on how to carry out community policing effectively. Genuine engagement with residents should be the main point of focus.

Diversity management policies should be considered by those in charge in order to ascertain that racist behavior does not occur. Prevalence of a code of conduct in an institution should be implemented so that it can have a real impact on the group concerned (Ungerleider, 1992).

Since some of the prejudices that police officers hold stem from the rest of society, then stakeholders should talk to the media about their approach to reporting crimes.

When law enforcers arrest a member of an ethnic minority group, the media will often describe the suspect using the person’s racial identity, yet they do not do the same for white suspects.

The use of these racially-based descriptions creates the perception that members of a certain race have criminal predispositions thus causing a bias in the public. These sentiments can rub-off on police officers who do their job based on these prejudices.


Studies support the research hypothesis; that police are slow to respond to domestic calls from predominantly black neighborhoods. They, however, respond quickly to domestic calls from predominantly white neighborhoods.

The history of interactions between the police and members of predominantly black neighborhoods illustrates this. Police develop an attitude of indifference to these communities and are thus less prone to act when they get distress calls from them.

Law enforcers also believe that such neighborhoods have a lot of repeat crimes, so they see no need to intervene in any situation hastily. Additionally, people in these neighborhoods have no ability to constrain or fight against corruption, so police can ignore their calls and get away with it.

The country lacks institutions that can punish people with racist behavior. Consequently, some of them may engage in this behavior when getting distress calls and no authority will persecute them.

Lastly, the police themselves perceive their positions to be powerful, and they also want to perpetuate the interests of those they perceive as powerful. These reasons explain why officers handle calls from predominantly black neighborhoods improperly.

Police divisions should alter the hiring programs and train their officers on how to respond to such calls consistently. Police departments should also enact evaluation policies on how police deal with cases from ethnic minorities.


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