LATINOS & THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Latino Public Opinion & Perception

Perceptions of Police and Racial Profiling

Fig 2-1

Source: Lopez and Livingston, 2009

Hispanic attitudes toward police are on average very poor and generally fall between those of blacks and whites. They have low confidence that police will treat them fairly, are concerned about the use of excessive force, and perceive unfair treatment heightened by police involvement with immigration enforcement.

The evidence shows that Latinos generally hold negative views of the police and local law enforcement. Their opinions are characterized by tepid confidence, low job ratings, and concerns about discrimination. Often Hispanic attitudes fall between those of blacks and whites on the spectrum of race and ethnicity in the country, and studies agree that Hispanics perceive the police in a more positive light than blacks, but more negatively than whites (see footnote).

What is the general confidence in police?

The 2002 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Survey found that Latinos in the Central Valley are less likely than non-Hispanic whites to give high marks to their local police protection (Baldassare, 2002). A 2009 study commissioned by the Pew Hispanic Center, “Low Confidence, High Exposure,” found that Latinos’ confidence in the criminal justice system to police their communities is closer to the low levels expressed by African Americans than to the high levels expressed by whites. Approximately 61 percent of Hispanics reported having a fair amount of

Fig 2-2

Source: Maxson, Hennigan & Sloane, 2003

confidence that the police in their communities will do a good job enforcing the law, compared with 78 percent of whites and only 55 percent of African Americans (see figure 1) (Lopez & Livingston, 2009). Numbers from 2013 show even lower confidence: 55 percent of Latinos expressed confidence in the police, compared with 68 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks (Jones, 2013b). This confidence level is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Hispanics appear more likely to hold police solely responsible for controlling crime (Gallagher, Maguire, Mastrofski, & Reisig, 2001).

Huang and Vaughn (1996) found that Hispanics are among the demographic groups particularly concerned about excessive use of force by law enforcement authorities, but a 2003 study conducted for the Department of Justice in Los Angeles found that Latinos came in second for rating officer demeanor positively (80 percent approval, compared with 68 percent for blacks, 72 percent for Asians and others, and 88 percent for whites). The DOJ study also reported that Latinos held the lowest rating of job approval for police: 67 percent of Latinos approved, compared with 68 percent of blacks, 72 percent of Asians and others, and 80 percent of whites (see figure 2) (Maxson, Hennigan, & Sloane, 2003).

The Hispanic population is hardly homogeneous, however. Confidence levels were lower among young Latinos, and immigrant Latinos also reported less confidence in the criminal justice system than the native born. The report highlighted that “exposure to all parts of the criminal justice system has risen even faster than their rising share of the U.S. adult population” (Lopez & Livingston, 2009). A study on community policing in Chicago found that Spanish-speaking Hispanics held less positive views about police than did English-speaking Hispanics (Skogan, Steiner, DuBois, Gudell & Fagan, 2002, cited in Rennison, 2007). It is clear that “Latino” as a category cannot be solely used to determine opinion on perceptions of the police.

Do Latinos believe that injustice or racial profiling occurs?

Fig 2-3

Source: Lopez and Livingston, 2009

Hispanic confidence that police officers will treat Latinos fairly is lower than that of whites but higher than that of African Americans, and Hispanics occupy the middle ground when perceiving levels of injustice (Buckler & Unnever, 2008). Many sources document perceptions of unfair treatment by the police. Only 45 percent of Hispanics in 2009 reported being confident that police officers would treat them fairly during interactions, compared with 74 percent of whites and 37 percent of African Americans (see figure 3) (Lopez & Livingston, 2009). A 2001 PPIC study on racial and ethnic attitudes in the state found that 65 percent of Latinos believed the practice of racial profiling by the police to be widespread, compared with 82 percent of blacks and 43 percent of whites (Hajnal & Baldassare, 2001). In a 2012 University of Phoenix/National Journal Next America Poll, whites, blacks, and Hispanics were all found to generally agree that the police do not give whites and minorities equal treatment. Some 63 percent of Hispanics believed that law enforcement personnel treat Hispanics unfairly, compared with just 46 percent of whites (81 percent of African Americans think that Hispanics are treated unfairly) (Brownstein, 2012). The share of Latinos who believe that the unequal treatment of minorities extends throughout the criminal justice system is similar, at 58 percent (Jones, Cox, & Navarro-Rivera, 2013).

In a study of ethnicity and views of legal authority conducted in Los Angeles and Oakland, Huo and Tyler found that Latinos (along with African Americans) report unfair treatment by the police at higher levels than whites. More generally, they hold more negative impressions of encounters with law enforcement authorities. Even though the study found that members of different ethnic groups shared an understanding of what constitutes

procedural fairness, minorities reported lower levels of procedural justice. Huo and Tyler also offered a glimpse into a possible cause while looking at satisfaction from interactions with police, stating that “the large majority of minorities reported interactions with a legal authority from a different ethnicity. Compared to those who interacted with a same ethnicity authority, those who interacted with a different ethnicity authority paid more attention to outcomes in forming compliance attitudes” (Huo & Tyler, 2000).

Fig 2-4

Source: Weitzer and Tuch, 2004

A 2004 study by Weitzer and Tuch tested whether Hispanic perceptions of police fell closer to “nonwhite” or “white” on the spectrum of public opinion. Their findings also showed that Hispanics take the middle ground between the two previously dominant categories. For example, “16 percent of whites believe that police very or fairly often stop people on the streets of their city without good reason, compared to  54 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Hispanics” (see figure 4). The fact that one-fifth of survey respondents said they have been stopped by the police without a good reason offers a possible reason for that perception. Hispanics typically perceive and reportedly experience more police abuse than whites but less than blacks. The researchers also found that “Hispanics are much less likely than blacks to believe that some types of police misconduct (e.g., verbal abuse, corruption) occur very often” (Weitzer & Tuch, 2004).

Is racial profiling ever justified?

A 2004 Gallup Poll measured the extent of racial profiling by asking whether it was widespread when passengers are stopped at security checkpoints at airports. More Hispanics answered yes (54 percent) than any other ethnic group (48 percent of blacks and 40 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Hispanics and African Americans were equally likely to report widespread racial profiling in all situations examined by the study, but their opinions diverged over the question of whether racial profiling was justified as a security measure in the given situation (Latinos are more likely than blacks to believe it is justified in all situations studied). Hispanics and whites hold similar views when it comes to motorists stopped on roads and highways, but more Hispanics than whites (38 percent to 24 percent) believed that racial profiling is justified when shoppers in malls or stores are questioned about possible theft (Carlson, 2004).

Reitzel, Rice, and Piquero found that while blacks were the most likely group to believe that profiling was widespread and to report that they had been profiled, Hispanics surveyed were also more likely than non-Hispanics to hold this perception. Hispanics and non-Hispanics did not differ on the idea that profiling was sometimes justified, however, while black respondents were again more likely than nonblacks to hold this belief. Reitzel et al. also found that political alignment affected these perceptions: non-Hispanic conservatives were less likely to believe that profiling was widespread, for example, but both conservative Hispanics and non-Hispanics believed that profiling was sometimes justified (Reitzel et al., 2004).

Footnote: Throughout the report, the terms “black” and “white” refer to the non-Hispanic portions of those populations.

Image courtesy of Arasmus Photo.

Works Cited



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