Study Shows That 911 Calls Fell in Black Neighborhoods After Police Violence Against Unarmed Black Men


The beating of Frank Jude Jr. 12 years ago by off-duty Milwaukee police officers rocked the city, leading to the largest number of firings in department history, federal convictions of seven officers and a series of reforms.

A new study reveals another unseen but far-reaching impact: Residents in predominantly black neighborhoods in Milwaukee were far less likely to call 911 for months after the beating.

That dropoff in 911 calls suggests the incident eroded trust and sharply damaged the relationship between the police and neighborhoods that often count on them the most, according to the study.

Controlling for crime and other factors, researchers found that 911 calls dropped by approximately 22,000 citywide over the following year, with the effect much higher in black neighborhoods, according to a first-of-its-kind study done by faculty from Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities. It was published Thursday in the American Sociological Review.

As 911 calls dropped, the city experienced a surge in homicides later in 2005, leading the authors to suggest the lack of reporting of crimes by citizens may have contributed to the spike in killings.

The researchers found another drop in 911 calls in predominantly black neighborhoods after the beating of Danyall Simpson by a Milwaukee police officer. And they also found evidence that an incident of police violence in another city might have contributed to a drop in 911 calls in Milwaukee.

The findings come at a time when high-profile cases of police-involved shootings contribute to unrest across the nation. Meanwhile, homicide figures have spiked in some cities, including Milwaukee.

The Jude beating was first reported in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that described the extent of Jude’s injuries and spotlighted the failure by police and state prosecutors to thoroughly investigate what would later be described as the torture of Jude by the officers outside an off-duty police party in Bay View in October 2004.

The study’s lead author, Matthew Desmond, associate social sciences professor at Harvard University, said the research shows that 911 calls started dropping right after the Journal Sentinel investigation was published and stayed down over the following year.

“Something like the Frank Jude case tears the fabric apart so deeply and de-legitimizes the criminal justice system in the eyes of the African-American community that they stop relying on it in significant numbers,” Desmond told the Journal Sentinel in an interview.

Desmond, who recently published a book that examined the unseen effects of evictions on families and communities, did the study with Andrew Papachristos, associate professor of sociology at Yale University whose research focuses on gun violence, street gangs, social networks and neighborhoods; and David Kirk, associate sociology professor at the University of Oxford in England.

The study examined more than 1 million 911 calls in Milwaukee between 2004 and 2010. To do the statistical analysis, the authors controlled for crime rates in different neighborhoods, weather and other factors. They also removed calls unrelated to crime including traffic, fires and medical emergencies.

The study found 911 calls fell by 20% in the city over that year and the drop was markedly larger in black neighborhoods. Over half of the drop in calls — 56% — happened in predominantly black neighborhoods, which account for 31% of all neighborhoods. Desmond said he was shocked when he first saw the size of the drop.

“That is a huge effect and it symbolizes that these are not isolated incidents because they don’t have isolated effects, they have community-wide effects and those effects can actually make the city less safe by driving down crime reporting and thwarting public safety efforts,” he said.

The new findings run counter to a theory that has been advanced to explain the recent spike in homicides in some cities — that the increase is fueled by police becoming timid which emboldens criminals. Coined the “Ferguson Effect” in reference to unrest after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the theory holds officers have become passive out of fear they will be investigated for uses of force.

In the Jude study, researchers found data suggesting people withdraw from the system after an incident of police violence. Papachristos said the study shows that police violence and other misconduct may result in a deepening of so-called “legal cynicism” — the idea that police are either unable or unwilling to help — within communities. That dynamic can perpetuate crime and distrust.

“Our contribution is putting this into cause and effect. Here’s what happened and there’s a very clear change in behavior. That’s what we showed,” Papachristos told the Journal Sentinel. “I really think the big takeaway is the effect that cynicism has on black communities. Not only does it impede sort of their view of the law, it actually further impedes their own safety.”

‘Blue wall of silence’
In October 2004, Jude, another black man and two women went to a late-night off-duty police party in Bay View, Wis. They stayed a short time, felt unwelcome and left.

But before the four could leave, off-duty officers surrounded their truck and pulled the men out, accusing them of stealing officer Andrew Spengler’s badge. The other man, Lovell Harris, broke free and ran.

Jude was surrounded by off-duty officers and beaten savagely as he was down and handcuffed on the street. The officers kicked Jude in the head and body, cut off his pants, yanked back his fingers, jammed pens deep into both of his ears and put a gun to his head as they yelled racial slurs, according to court testimony. An on-duty officer arrived but rather than stop it, he joined in the beating.

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SOURCE: USA Today; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, John Diedrich and Ashley Luthern