KU study finds race, political identities shape our perceptions of Ferguson and other police shootings

Police gather on the street as protesters react after the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests.

The way we understand the causes behind reports of police encounters that resulted in the deaths of African-American men, including much-publicized cases in Ferguson and beyond, is inextricably linked to how we each identify racially and politically, according to a recent study by University of Kansas researchers.

The study, published earlier this month in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy and co-authored by KU political science professors Don Haider-Markel and Mark Joslyn, found that African Americans, liberals and Democrats generally see fatal police encounters as symptomatic of broader issues in policing.

Their white, conservative and Republican counterparts take a different approach, instead viewing these cases as one-off incidents.

“I think when you look at media coverage of events — whether it be from Ferguson (Mo.) or New York or South Carolina or Minnesota — people’s views of those situations, even after watching the same video, seem to be very different,” said Haider-Markel, who is also chairman of KU’s political science department.

“Is it a function of our social and political identities that we view these situations so differently?” he added, referring to the questions his research contemplates, “and if so, is there anything that can change that?”

Don Haider-Markel

The difference in how people of differing racial and political identities come to understand fatal encounters between police and unarmed black men wasn’t a huge surprise to Haider-Markel and his colleague. He and Joslyn have been studying the science of attribution — or how we come to understand the causes of certain issues and how we assign blame for these problems — for several years now, as well as research on policing.

But the onslaught of media coverage surrounding such high-profile cases as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, Haider-Markel said, provided a new opportunity to delve a bit deeper into those attribution concepts.

Researchers drew from two national surveys, one conducted by KU and the other by ABC News and the Washington Post. Both asked respondents, through telephone interviews, about use of police force.

There was some evidence that Hispanic respondents were more likely to view police-related deaths in high-profile cases as symptoms of broader policing problems, though less consistently than black respondents did.

Haider-Markel and Joslyn also found that one’s racial identity often has a greater influence in shaping attributions than a person’s politics. Even African-American respondents who identified as politically conservative, for example, were more likely to perceive fatal police encounters as indicative of systemic problems, in comparison with other conservatives.

Mark Joslyn

“We have to understand that social identities are not things that people develop on their own or attach themselves to,” Haider-Markel said.

If there’s anything for citizens to take from such a study, it’s the importance of critical thinking and self-reflection. After all, Haider-Markel points out, if society can’t agree on the root of the problem, agreeing on a solution won’t be easy.

For example, “if I was to say, ‘Well, this looks like an isolated incident — What would it take for me to think it wasn’t an isolated incident?” he suggests. Essentially, think about the kind of evidence you would need to re-examine your initial response. If that evidence existed, would it change your mind?

Another suggestion to come out of KU’s survey is that police departments take a serious look into developing or expanding community policing efforts, especially in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Community policing involves interactions between officers and citizens not related to crime or responding to 911 calls. These could include community meetings, school outreach projects or simply any positive interaction with law enforcement — the “way you might run into somebody on the street and have a brief conversation,” for example, Haider-Markel suggests.

“Those brief little interactions where we see each other on the same level and there’s no differential authority being exerted — I think those things will not only improve policing, the way police do their jobs, but also the way citizens view the police,” Haider-Markel said.

“I think some level of empathy from both sides of the issue is really needed,” he said.