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Police violence leads to fewer 911 calls in parts of Milwaukee

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Police violence can pull a city apart with unrest and pain, but there may be another, equally chilling consequence.

New research shows that highly publicized stories of police violence could make people think twice about calling 911.

A trio of sociologists, Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos and David S. Kirk, investigated 911 calls made in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before and after a high-profile case of police violence against a black man. They found that, especially in black areas of the city, 911 calls declined after the fact — and crime went up.

Though some of the findings, published in the American Sociological Review on Thursday, are more than 10 years old, the researchers say they are still relevant today. The deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and more recently, Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher — all at the hands of police — have sparked conversations that are analogous to the study’s findings.

It’s something that, culturally, we can sense every time a new episode comes to light: Police violence against black citizens erodes trust in law enforcement, especially in black communities.

The Frank Jude case

In October 2004, a black man named Frank Jude was beaten and profoundly injured outside a Milwaukee party by a group of off-duty police officers. Despite local protests and calls for justice, three officers involved in the attack were tried and acquitted the following year.

Researchers used the case as a marker and collected data from all 911 calls made in Milwaukee neighborhoods for the year preceding and following the incident.

They found that the 911 calls declined significantly — but only once media coverage of the event started to grow. At first, both white and black neighborhoods saw a dip, but the numbers in black neighborhoods took far longer to rise again.

Matthew Desmond, one of the study’s leads, is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and the co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard. He says he and his co-authors were moved to investigate this trend because they sought some measurable way of gauging the social aftermath of police violence.

Desmond had previously conducted research in Milwaukee and has analyzed millions of 911 calls for other studies. The methods seemed to fit.

“We drilled down and said, can we actually see the stats on citizen crime reporting after one of these episodes of police violence?” he told CNN. “Can we actually look and see if people change their behavior, not just their attitudes?”

Their conclusion was, yes. “We were really surprised by the disparity and how long it took for [call numbers] to recover,” he said.

Two other cases produced similar results

Desmond and his co-authors also investigated three similar cases — one in Milwaukee from 2007, one in New York City in 2006, and one in Oakland, California, in 2009. All were highly publicized incidents where police had severely injured or killed a black man.

In two of those cases, they found similar trends. In the Oakland case from 2009, 911 call rates did not seem to decline along the same lines. Researchers think shifting neighborhood demographics brought on by the recession resulted in different data.

Still, Desmond says replicating the study, especially with more recent cases that have been heavily discussed on social media and news outlets, could provide more insight into the trend.

“The good news is, it’s a fairly straightforward study,” he says. “And it can be replicated in Baltimore and Cleveland and San Diego and in places where more recent episodes of police violence have occurred.”

A dangerous correlation

Even more troubling than their initial findings was the fact that leaders of the study also found an uptick in crime after the Jude case.

“The spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study,” they wrote.

In other words, as citizen crime reporting went down, actual crime went up.

Milwaukee is a crucible for racial tension

The Jude case isn’t the only instance of police violence to have a lasting effect on Milwaukee. Last month, an unarmed black man, Sylville Smith, was shot and killed by police during a chase.

His death incited violent, fiery protests in the city. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who is black, condemned the unrest as “tribal behavior” and an example of “black cultural dysfunction.”

In truth, the racially fueled uproar was not an anomaly. Milwaukee is sometimes referred to as one of the “most segregated cities in America.” Reports and surveys show significant income gaps, education gaps and incarceration gaps between black and white communities there. In the wake of the Smith shooting, its fragile racial climate was compared to that of Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in 2014.

MORE: Milwaukee’s staggering black-white economic divide.

Recent events fuel concern

Althought the Jude case happened more than 10 years ago, Desmond thinks similar studies conducted today would yield similar results, and the trend definitely deserves a place in the national conversation.

“My suspicion would be that the effect today would still be there, and that it might be even more acute,” he says. “This study reports events that happened in an area where, and time when, we weren’t having the kind of national conversation we are now.”

Indeed, their conclusion provides an uneasy footnote as conflict continues to brew in several cities following a recent spate of police shootings. There’s Keith Scott in Charlotte; Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and this week, Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California, who was shot and killed after a 911 call described him as behaving “erratically.”

Olango’s family has called for a federal investigation.

“We do not trust local prosecutors to investigate local police,” a family spokesperson said.

There again, brewing in El Cajon, is a feeling traced all the way back through Keith Lamont Scott and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, down through the years to Frank Jude and beyond.

Mistrust.

And with it, untold social consequences.

2 comments

  • confused

    No kidding crime will go up when people are afraid to call 911. Criminals know that call won’t be made, so they have at it. Plus, if you do call, you have to be ready to testify against the criminals and if you’ve ever CCAP any of the siblings/family/ the associates of a criminal, or the criminal, you will notice that quite a few cases have been dismissed because the witness didn’t show up, or there was a problem with the witness. I think a lot of times the siblings/family/associates threaten witnesses and then the case is dropped/closed/dismissed. If they threaten you how would you be able to prove the threat without getting more threats? If you call and your neighbors “wonderful son”, looting and burning a building while waving a gun and refusing to listen to commands gets shot by a cop, you think that mamma won’t come after you? AND the family? It’s all about criminals.They are the new victim.

  • Mike O

    “Last month, an UNARMED black man, Sylville Smith, was shot and killed by police during a chase.” (caps added) Since when was Smith unarmed? Is this a mistake (by both the reporter and the editor), or is this just helping the incident better fit the agenda? When I was in journalism class in college, the three most important aspects of reporting were accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.

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