Calls to 911 From Black Neighborhoods Fell After a Case of Police Violence
Adrian Spencer, a Milwaukee resident, belongs to a community group trying to improve public safety and relations with the police. CreditDarren Hauck for The New York Times
MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee residents were outraged when they learned, about three months after the fact, that a biracial man at a party had been severely beaten by several white off-duty police officers also in attendance. The man, Frank Jude, was left with a broken nose, bruises and severe bleeding in his ears, a result of having pens pushed into them.
The attack, which took place in October 2004 and came to light after an article in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, prompted protests. In the fallout, nine officers were fired by the Milwaukee Police Department; three were eventually convicted on federal charges of violating Mr. Jude’s civil rights.
It also, according to new research, led to a drop in 911 calls in Milwaukee notifying the police of crimes.
The lag between Mr. Jude’s beating and its becoming widely known created a particularly good natural experiment for a team of sociologists interested in learning whether mistrust of the police can play a role in a community’s reluctance to report crimes. The results may also influence debate over the effect that wider dissemination of instances of police violence, which can now be recorded on cellphone video and spread quickly via the internet, might have on fighting crime.
In a new paper in the American Sociological Review, the sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew V. Papachristos of Yale and David S. Kirk of Oxford have drawn a direct link between widely publicized acts of police violence and the number of 911 calls neighborhoods make.
The lag between when Mr. Jude was attacked and when it became widely known allowed the researchers to isolate the episode’s effect on 911 calls. The researchers pored over 110,000 such calls in Milwaukee, one year before and one year after the beating. The researchers estimated that 17 percent (or 22,000) fewer calls were made than would have been likely if the attack had never happened. They found that the effect lasted roughly one year.
Mr. Desmond said that the results “kind of blew us away; we weren’t expecting to see such a big effect and an effect to last so long.”
The effect broke along racial lines: The majority of the decline in calls took place in black neighborhoods. “It shows what a deep rift events like this cause in the social fabric, in predominately black communities,” Mr. Desmond said.
An abandoned home, a magnet for drugs and prostitution, became a target of crime-fighting efforts in Milwaukee. CreditDarren Hauck for The New York Times
Such events didn’t need to be local to have an impact. The researchers also looked at how the volume of calls to 911 in Milwaukee changed after news accounts of police violence in other, distant cities. In one of the other two cases they studied, they found a significant impact on crime reporting.
The change in calls is unusual because the relationship between crime and calls to the police is typically strong. “If crime is going up in Milwaukee, calls should also be going up,” Mr. Papachristos said.
The advantage of using 911 data is that it’s somewhat of a hybrid between survey and administrative data. With surveys, the best a researcher can do is ask what a person might do in a given situation; it’s not clear whether what people say in a survey will match with what they’ll actually do in real life. The record of 911 calls, by contrast, is data created by residents in their moment of need.
“This is derived from what people are doing — it won’t be as biased as crime reports,” Mr. Papachristos said. “This is the first time that we’ve seen a result in citizen activity.”
It’s not as if people are silent when a crime takes place. Quite the opposite: News spreads fast from house to house.
“Residents are very willing to tell you about what’s happening in their neighborhood,” said Adrian Spencer, who at one point lived in a predominately black neighborhood in central Milwaukee across the street from a tavern that had become a magnet for fights, drag races and shootings. “But it’s much more difficult to get them to talk directly to the police. Or come to a hearing.”
To Ms. Spencer’s surprise, she and her mother seemed to be the only ones calling 911 to report crime connected with the tavern. When she asked other people in the neighborhood, some of whom had lived there longer than she had, the usual response was: What were the police going to do?
She suspects this reluctance to call is rooted in skepticism that law enforcement can make much of a difference or be fair to the residents. “There’s a huge fear of retaliation,” she said. “It’s not happening on the level that they’re thinking that it is. And then you look on TV and you see what’s happening on TV with the police, you definitely don’t want to come in contact with the police if you don’t have to.”
The new study focuses only on data that is 12 years old and primarily focused on Milwaukee. But Mr. Desmond says that the effect may also be true elsewhere: “I think it has implications for what we’re seeing in Cleveland, in Charlotte, in Baltimore, with very publicized cases of police violence. Milwaukee is similar to places like Baltimore and Cleveland in its level of segregation. I think that probably has a lot to do with the story. ”
Researchers have estimated that something changed in how often Milwaukee residents called 911 in early 2005, especially in black neighborhoods. Around that time, news broke of an earlier attack by police officers on a biracial man.
Neighborhood underreporting offers another possible explanation. In an effort to explain rising homicide rates, some police chiefs have saidthat the publicity and backlash surrounding highly publicized episodes in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore have increased the brazenness of criminals. Others, such as James Comey, the F.B.I. director, have suggested it stems from the reluctance of police officers to patrol as aggressively because they fear becoming the subject of the next viral video. The new study may shed more light on whether the increase in crime last year was part of a deepening skepticism that the police can make a difference in already violent neighborhoods.
Chief Edward A. Flynn of the Milwaukee police doesn’t see the connection. He says that calls for service are up in Milwaukee.
He says the researchers’ data were affected by a quirk in how Milwaukee handled its 911 calls. Until three years ago, 911 calls were initially received by the county and then passed along to the city. Chief Flynn says many calls were dropped before they reached the city, but after the Police Department had sent an officer.
“Too often, researchers are doing mass data dumps without field research,” he said. “They’re taking metadata and extrapolating.”
Mr. Desmond says that they were careful to incorporate “administrative considerations that lead to underreporting of calls” and that they worked with a sergeant in the Milwaukee Police Department’s open records section on those issues. Also, Mr. Desmond says that none of the details Chief Flynn mentioned would address the differences in crime reporting between black and white neighborhoods.
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Whatever the causes, there are hints that neighborhoods can have a change of heart. The turning point for Ms. Spencer came four years ago, when 18 bullets were fired at her home and the beauty shop beside her house, striking her room and her daughter’s room. She began to hold meetings to discuss the tavern and crime in her neighborhood more generally. Eventually, after two years of effort, she persuaded the city to revoke the tavern’s liquor license.
She went on to become a community organizer for Safe & Sound, a group that tries to increase communication between the police and vulnerable neighborhoods in Milwaukee. “There’s always going to be people who are more comfortable talking with me, because I grew up here — I’m a civilian,” Ms. Spencer said.
She trains people to follow up with the police, how to appropriately address negative interactions with them and how to pass on tips when they prefer to stay anonymous. Still, she says many of the 75 to 80 people she meets every month have a hard time opening up.
“It’s a tough, tough thing to do,” she said. “Rightfully so, because people have these experiences that they fall back on. For most people, the type of interactions they’ve had with the police have been negative interactions.”