How the Police Help Criminals

There’s a new study in the American Sociological Review that demonstrates something you might know intuitively. It focuses on a particularly notorious crime that was committed in 2004 by white Milwaukee police officers against a black man who was a guest at a party.

The story is fairly complicated, but the short version is that [Frank] Jude, who is black, attended a party hosted by a white cop and some of his fellow officers. Soon Jude and his three companions got uncomfortable and left, heading for the truck they had arrived in. Quickly the truck was surrounded by ten men from the party, who accused Jude and one of his friends of stealing the host’s badge. In the assault that followed, Jude was beaten so viciously by a group of officers that, at the hospital he was taken to, Desmond and his colleagues write, “The admitting physician took photographs of him because his injuries were too extensive to document in writing.” (Not that it would have justified what occurred at all, but there is also no evidence Jude took the badge.)

Both the beating itself and the investigation raised outrage, particularly in the black community: Even though it was obvious who was involved, it took months for any of the perpetrators to be charged, and the Milwaukee Police Department was accused of obstructing the investigation just about every step of the way. Three officers were brought up on charges and acquitted by an all-white jury, but the feds got involved and were able to convict seven out of eight defendants in federal court.

The researchers, Profs. Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew V. Papachristos of Yale, and David S. Kirk of Oxford, wanted to know if the widespread coverage of this incident resulted in fewer 911 calls from Milwaukee’s black community. The idea was that a lack of trust in law enforcement would make people less inclined to report crimes.

And that’s exactly what their study found. Once the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel began reporting on the case, 911 calls from the black community when down in all cases except for reports of car accidents, and they stayed down for more than a year. By contrast, at the end of the year, calls from white neighborhoods were actually up from the trendline.

They estimated that approximately 22,200 crime reports were never made to 911 as a direct result of the Frank Jude controversy.

How do you trace the impact of 22,000 911 non-calls? There’s no easy answer. It’s safe to say that those would-be calls would have contained a lot of information for police, some of it helpful — both reports of crimes that may not have been recorded otherwise, and additional information about crimes that other people did report that may have helped police clear those particular cases. Whatever the details, if Desmond and his colleagues’ model is correct and the Jude beating led to an approximately yearlong effect that suppressed calls by about 17 percent, that is a really large figure for a single event, and likely brought significant consequences for the neighborhoods most affected (think about what happens in neighborhoods where police can rarely solve violent-crime cases).

Now that cell phones are omnipresent and new beatings and murders and killings are constantly streaming through the national consciousness, the effect of police violence against blacks is not likely to be contained within one city or municipality, and the cumulative lack of trust that results probably suppresses crime reporting and cooperation with crime investigators more than we’d like to admit.

It’s kind of odd to think about it, but it looks like when the police, say, shoot a black motorist for no obviously justifiable reason, they wind up helping criminals get away with their crimes.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.