Racial Disparities in Policing and their Impact on Police-Community Relations

July 1, 2020

Jan Mooney

Negative relationships between police and communities are associated with civilian perceptions of lack of safety, low civilian trust in police, and overall negative perceptions of law enforcement, particularly for Black communities and other communities who have been historically marginalized.[1–4] While community policing and problem-solving approaches to policing have been associated with reductions in crime, a lack of comprehensive data surrounding police-community contacts has prevented an assessment of how different policing strategies affect outcomes such as community perceptions of police, community safety and wellness, and officer safety and wellness.[1-3,5-8]

Disparities in policing fuel ongoing negative relationships between police and communities.

  • Examination of systemic racial disparities in the use of extreme force suggests that, rather than being driven primarily by actual prevalence of criminal activity, factors such as clothing (e.g., hooded sweatshirts, baggy clothing) and neighborhood perceptions (e.g., low socioeconomic status, perceived “dangerousness,” proportion of Black residents) may heighten racial disparities in shooting decisions.[9,10]
  • In the context of ongoing and compounded negative interactions (e.g., being stopped and searched), Black communities, as well as other historically marginalized communities (e.g., Indigenous communities, Hispanic/Latinx communities), may experience less trust in police and be less likely to seek assistance from police in keeping their communities safe.[2,3,5,6,11]
  • A “culture of urgency,” focus on arrest rates as outcomes, and reactive approach to policing may interfere with officers’ ability to work with communities toward community safety.[7,8,10,12–15]

Community-based approaches to policing, within a broader procedural justice framework, have the potential to change the nature of police-community relationships.

  • A procedural justice orientation to policing that emphasizes fairness, transparency, impartiality, and opportunities to be heard is closely aligned with partnership with communities, prioritization of de-escalation, accountability, and awareness of racial dynamics.[2,3,5–10,13–15]
  • Community policing approaches, which emphasize collaboration and cooperation between police and communities to address ongoing issues and reduce crime, have a stronger association with reductions in crime than strict enforcement approaches, such as “zero tolerance” or “order maintenance” policing.[14]
  • Civilian employees of police departments could provide important perspectives to improve community-police relationships, advocate for and provide services to victims, and support de-escalation efforts.[16]

Potential Avenues for Addressing Gaps: A centralized requirement for systematic, standardized police data collection, funding for police-researcher partnerships, and a focus on community impact as outcomes are likely to address gaps.

  • A lack of comprehensive data on police-community contacts, police training, and the impact of changes in police culture or strategies limits our knowledge of how to effectively improve police-community relationships.[1,3,9,10,13] A centralized requirement for the systematic, standardized collection of these data should be implemented.
  • Federal funding for police-research partnerships would provide critical and valuable resources to better understand how implementing current recommendations for community-oriented policing would impact racial disparities in policing, community perceptions of police, and officer and civilian safety.[7,8,13,14,17]

Bolstering the capacity of organizations and offices, such as the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Bureau of Justice Statistics could support translation of research findings into practical guidelines for police departments.[8,18]


  1. Johnson D, Wilson DB, Maguire ER, Lowrey-Kinberg BV. Race and Perceptions of Police: Experimental Results on the Impact of Procedural (In)Justice. Justice Q. 2017;34(7):1184-1212. doi:10.1080/07418825.2017.1343862
  2. Serpe CR, Nadal KL. Perceptions of police: Experiences in the trans*community. J Gay Lesbian Soc Serv. 2017;29(3):280-299. doi:10.1080/10538720.2017.1319777
  3. Can SH, Frantzen D. Search and seizure jurisprudence: Community perceptions of police legitimacy in the United States. In: Albrecht JF, den Heyer G, Stanislas P, eds. Policing and Minority Communities: Contemporary Issues and Global Perspectives. Springer; 2019.
  4. Calvert CM, Brady SS, Jones-Webb R. Perceptions of Violent Encounters between Police and Young Black Men across Stakeholder Groups. J Urban Health. 2020;97(2):279-295. doi:10.1007/s11524-019-00417-6
  5. Nadal KL, Davidoff KC, Allicock N, Serpe CR, Erazo T. Perceptions of Police, Racial Profiling, and Psychological Outcomes: A Mixed Methodological Study. J Soc Issues. 2017;73(4):808-830. doi:10.1111/josi.12249
  6. Reinka MA, Leach CW. Race and Reaction: Divergent Views of Police Violence and Protest against. J Soc Issues. 2017;73(4):768-788. doi:10.1111/josi.12247
  7. U.S. Department of Justice. Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; 2019.
  8. Robinson LO. Five Years after Ferguson: Reflecting on Police Reform and What’s Ahead. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2020;687(1):228-239. doi:10.1177/0002716219887372
  9. Scott K, Ma DS, Sadler MS, Correll J. A Social Scientific Approach toward Understanding Racial Disparities in Police Shooting: Data from the Department of Justice (1980–2000). J Soc Issues. 2017;73(4):701-722. doi:10.1111/josi.12243
  10. Kahn KB, Davies PG. What Influences Shooter Bias? The Effects of Suspect Race, Neighborhood, and Clothing on Decisions to Shoot. J Soc Issues. 2017;73(4):723-743. doi:10.1111/josi.12245
  11. Bryant‐Davis T, Adams T, Alejandre A, Gray AA. The trauma lens of police violence against racial and ethnic minorities. J Soc Issues. 2017;73(4):852-871.
  12. Sherman LW. Evidence-Based Policing and Fatal Police Shootings: Promise, Problems, and Prospects. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2020;687(1):8-26. doi:10.1177/0002716220902073
  13. Sherman LW. Preventing Avoidable Deaths in Police Encounters with Citizens: Immediate Priorities. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2020;687(1):216-226. doi:10.1177/0002716220904048
  14. Braga AA, Welsh BC, Schnell C. Disorder policing to reduce crime: A systematic review. Campbell Syst Rev. 2019;15(3). doi:10.1002/cl2.1050
  15. La Vigne N, Jannetta J, Fontaine J, Lawrence DS, Esthappan S. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice: Key Process and Outcome Evaluation Findings. Urban Institute; 2019.
  16. King WR, Wilson JM. Integrating Civilian Staff into Police Agencies. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; 2014.
  17. Trinkner R, Tyler TR, Goff PA. Justice from within: The relations between a procedurally just organizational climate and police organizational efficiency, endorsement of democratic policing, and officer well-being. Psychol Public Policy Law. 2016;22(2):158-172. doi:10.1037/law0000085
  18. Zimring FE. Police Killings as a Problem of Governance. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2020;687(1):114-123. doi:10.1177/0002716219888627



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