Excerpted From: Brooklynn K. Hitchens, Jeaneé C. Miller, Yasser Arafat Payne, Ivan Y. Sun and Isabella Castillo, More than Race? Intragroup Differences by Gender and Age in Perceptions of Police among Street-identified Black Men and Women, 47 Law and Human Behavior 634 (December 2023) (References) (Full Document Requested)


Hitchens etalObjective: Whereas studies have documented racial differences in attitudes toward police between White and Black Americans, relatively little is known about the intragroup, gender-based variations among urban Black residents involved in criminal activity (i.e., street-identified men and women). Hypotheses: We hypothesized Black women would be more likely to believe in police legitimacy and positive intent than men (Hypothesis 1), especially among the younger segment of the sample (Hypothesis 2). We also expected this relationship to be moderated by contact with police (Hypothesis 3) and experiences with victimization (Hypothesis 4). Method: Using survey data, this Street Participatory Action Research project examined the direct and interactional relationships between gender, age, involuntary police contact, personal victimization, and participants' perceptions of police legitimacy and positive intent. Participants included 515 street-identified Black men (40.4%; n = 208) and women (59.6%; n = 307), ages 18-35 years, from two high-crime neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware. Results: Women had significantly higher perceptions of police legitimacy than did men (Hypothesis 1). While older participants tended to have lower perceptions that the police behave with positive intent, age did not moderate the relationship between gender and perceptions of police (Hypothesis 2). The relationship between gender and perceptions of positive police intent was moderated by involuntary police contact (Hypothesis 3) and experiences of victimization (Hypothesis 4). Conclusions: Contrary to existing literature, prior involuntary police contact mattered more for street-identified Black women than men in predicting perceptions of police. Experiences of victimization were also more impactful for these perceptions for street-identified Black women than men. Men's perceptions of positive police intent were consistent, regardless of the frequency of police contact, whereas women's favorable perceptions declined with more police contact and victimization experiences, and they eventually became more critical of the police than their male counterparts.

Public Significance Statement

This study expands our understanding of the intersections of race, gender, and age in shaping perceptions of police among street-identified Black men and women--the group most likely to experience police contact. Unlike Black men, Black women's perceptions erode with more involuntary police contact and personal victimization. Future research should systematically examine these gender-based distinctions to better understand the problems and solutions of policing within marginalized communities. Study results also highlight the urgent need for policies geared toward improving police legitimacy and suggest a novel methodological framework that can serve as an exemplar to advance action-based policies on racial disparities in American policing.

Keywords: attitudes toward police, gender, race, interaction effects, Street Participatory Action Research

Negative encounters with and attitudes toward police remain a pressing criminological concern. Summer 2020 marked a breaking point in racial unrest in the United States, fueled by the escalation of police misconduct disproportionately experienced by Black Americans. For instance, recent police-involved deaths of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and 46-year-old George Floyd in Minnesota sparked protests in more than 2,000 U.S. cities and 60 countries worldwide, reigniting calls for police accountability and reconsideration of police roles and functions in marginalized communities. Not surprisingly, public ratings of police legitimacy and trustworthiness reached a record low in recent years. Historical differential treatment and targeted police practices, such as racial profiling, excessive force, and hyper-surveillance, have fractured relations between Black communities and police. Harassment and disrespect, unwarranted stops and searches, and problematic interactions are harmful yet common experiences with police in Black communities. As a consequence, Black Americans as a group generally are more distrustful of police, fear police, are less willing to cooperate, and hold more negative attitudes toward police relative to other racial groups.

Although research indicates that various forms of police misconduct disproportionately occur in poor Black communities, less is known about how gender shapes perceptions of police in these communities. Our study investigated gender differences in perceptions of police misconduct among street-identified Black men and women--a subgroup within low-income Black populations that embodies a racial/ethnic-, sociocultural-, and gender-based ideological code and behavior centered on attaining personal, social, and economic survival. We expanded the literature on public attitudes toward police in several areas. We first examined the intragroup variability of police-related attitudes among Black American men and women, a group that is typically compared with other racial groups in aggregate. We then delved deeper by focusing on a community sample of street-identified Black men and women, a hard-to-reach subgroup due to their marginalized racial and socioeconomic status. Few studies have sufficiently captured the perceptions of this sensitive subgroup, although these individuals are most likely to experience involuntary police contact. We finally analyzed the effect of gender on police attitudes, with potential moderation of this effect by age and involuntary police contact among this subgroup. Most of the extant literature suggests that Black men, young people, and those with frequent involvement in the criminal legal system have more negative police perceptions. But we know less about how street-identified Black people's demographic background and contact variables interact to inform perceptions of police. We argue that critical analysis of attitudinal variations within Black populations enables us to better understand the problems and solutions of policing within marginalized communities. Examining gender differences among this subgroup can help inform the tailored interventions and policies needed to improve police-citizen relations, increase police legitimacy, and restore public safety.

We drew on survey data collected from a large community sample of street-identified Black American men and women residing in two low-income urban neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington, which was labeled “Murder Town USA”, is a useful research site to examine urban policing because it maintains both an aggressive police force and one of the highest per capita homicide rates among small cities. Thus, the city represents an ideal setting to investigate how the context of elevated violent crime shapes relationships between police and distressed Black communities.

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Our findings furnish a few directions for policymakers and police administrators to consider in efforts to address citizen-police relations in urban, Black communities. Black Americans more broadly--but especially street-identified Black men and women during early adulthood--encounter police more frequently than any other group. Although several initiatives have been launched to address the strained relationship with Black communities, these programs have not substantively transformed policing with young Black Americans. Study findings demonstrate the collateral consequences of this chasm, highlighting the various layers of eroded perceptions among this sample. Thus, we encourage lawmakers to enact a robust, national police oversight commission to improve relations between police and Black America with a keen focus on gender and age. Our findings suggest that street-identified Black women's perceptions of police are perhaps more malleable than those of men and worsen with more accumulated victimization and involuntary police contact. Police behavior and treatment matter during these interactions, and we suggest that this oversight commission considers how gender-based and age-based distinctions influence how men and women perceive police effectiveness and legitimacy. Randomized field trials contend that citizens' perceptions of police legitimacy can be improved if police make a concerted effort to treat people with dignity and respect during encounters. Although causality cannot be proven from this present study, if Black women perceived more fairness or neutrality in the quality of their direct and vicarious interactions with police, perhaps they would have more favorable police perceptions (Rosenbaum et al., 2005).

Moreover, the sitting president and policymakers should finally pass the promised “George Floyd Bill” or the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (Hunnicutt, 2021). The George Floyd Bill was intended to develop a national police oversight commission to increase accountability for excessive use of force. Although President Biden initially pledged as a candidate to enact this bill, he divested from this campaign promise in favor of “funding the police” through the American Rescue Plan, which provided billions of dollars in support of more police. Of the potential promise, however, is the $20 billion grant program allotted for the evaluation and implementation of “evidence-based programming” and a marginal $300 million to expand community violence interventions.

The proposed national oversight commission should be comprehensive and includes publicly available dashboards with data on arrest and police misconduct inclusive of an officer's full name and demographic information, along with the demographic information of the person aggrieved by police. Local departments should also be required to report incidents of police misconduct to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This national oversight commission should be positioned to inform a neighborhood-centered, community-policing program with prosocial activities. This community-policing program should include routine cultural sensitivity training for police with a focus on the experiences of low-income Black Americans, particularly those who are street identified. This training should also grapple with how police-citizen encounters are shaped by race/ethnicity or Blackness, gender, socioeconomic status, age or developmental period, and neighborhood.

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Relations between Black communities and police have been a focal area of concern for many years. Our work focused on a hard-to-reach, community sample of street-identified Black men and women, finding that women had significantly higher perceptions of police legitimacy than did men. Contrary to previous work examining more typical samples, older participants in our sample tended to have lower perceptions that the police behave with positive intent than younger participants. Finally, street-identified Black women's perceptions of the police varied based on experiences with police and victimization, while men's perceptions were more consistent, regardless of these factors. These findings underscore the need for police-community initiatives that target specific demographic subsets of Black communities and consider important intragroup differences among these communities. Findings also highlight the need for studies that undertake Street PAR as a methodological framework to access hard-to-reach populations.

Brooklynn K. Hitchens

Jeaneé C. Miller

Yasser Arafat Payne

Ivan Y. Sun