Political Scientists Gather to Examine the Interplay of Race & Law Enforcement

by Nathan K. Micatka and Nicholas Napolio 

On October 30, 2018, several political scientists descended upon the University of Southern California for the Race and Law Enforcement Symposium. The symposium was organized by the Political Institutions and Political Economy Collaborative within the Bedrosian Center for Governance in the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. The purpose of the symposium, said director Jeffery A. Jenkins, was to “bring together people around policy relevant, normatively important topics.”

In recent years, many violent encounters involving police and racial minorities have taken place across the United States. Protest movements like Black Lives Matter have emerged in response and been helped along by the support of celebrities, like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. They have also been criticized by major political figures, like President Donald Trump.

As such, political scientists have increasingly turned their attention to understanding the politics, consequences, and implications of race and law enforcement. Panelists presented cutting edge work on police-community relations, the implications of police violence for democracy, and the gaps in political representation often faced by people of color.

The symposium began with two presentations on perception. The first speaker, Cheryl Boudreau (UC-Davis), presented research on “Police Violence and Public Perceptions: An Experimental Study of How Police Performance and Endorsements Affect Support for Law Enforcement.” Boudreau and colleagues sought to elucidate the effects of police violence on community support for law enforcement and to create a better understanding of how information about policing can influence political outcomes. Spencer Piston (Boston University) similarly explored how political information and knowledge impacts community perceptions of the police and the political system more broadly. Piston and co-authors analyzed hundreds of conversations in Chicago and Milwaukee about race and policing to cast new light on what political knowledge is and how it might be gained.

Tom Clark (Emory) lead off the second panel by asking “Do Officer-Involved Shootings Reduce Citizen Contact with Government?” Clark and co-authors explored the consequences of police violence on citizen propensity to contact emergency services or make service requests, leveraging a unique and extensive dataset to answer fundamental questions about how police behavior may influence democratic health. Shea Streeter (Stanford) followed with her work on differences in police killing of Black and White people. Her research suggests a clear profile of Whites killed by police, while there is no clear profile of Black individuals killed by police. She hopes that further research into profiles of those killed by police might be to look into the differing mobilization and other political outcomes.

The final panel featured Laurel Eckhouse (U of Denver) explored difference in preferences for criminal justice policy between Black Democrats, White Democrats, and White Republicans. Eckhouse finds significant intraparty differences based on race yet notes that the preferences of Black Democrats are rarely enacted into policy, suggesting the importance of descriptive representation. Andrew McCall (UC Berkeley) presented “Resident Assistance, Police Chief Learning, and the Persistence of Aggressive Policing Tactics in Black Neighborhoods.” McCall formulated a formal theory of policing tactics by considering how police expectations of community assistance and the costs associated with learning new policies may account for the persistence of aggressive policing tactics in Black neighborhoods.

The important work presented by these scholars is sure to influence public discourse and hopefully percolates up to policymakers as disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity in policing persists.

The Bedrosian Center will continue to host symposia on policy relevant and normatively important questions. Future symposia in the 2018-2019 academic year will consider gender and politics, and foreign policy in the age of Trump.