Residents in Black Neighborhoods Less Likely to Call 911 After Reports of Police Violence, Study Says


A new study examining citizen crime reporting in Black communities revealed a startling find between instances of police violence and the number of 911 calls made by Black residents in times of distress.

Researchers behind the new report, titled “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” specifically sought to study “how one of Milwaukee’s most publicized cases of police violence against an unarmed Black man” impacted 911 calls to the cops.

The aforementioned beating was that of then 26-year-old Frank Jude Jr., who was pummeled by several white off-duty police officers at a party in October 2004. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Jude suffered a concussion, a broken nose, cuts in both ears and a host of other serious injuries.

The brutal attack by police remained largely unknown until the Journal Sentinel published a piece on it — three months later. It was this lag between Jude’s beating and the story going public that researchers say led to a drop in 911 calls in the city of Milwaukee. The violent episode seemingly made the city’s Black residents wary of calling the police to report crime.

According to the study, authored by sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew W. Papachristos of Yale and David S. Kirk of Oxford, Milwaukee’s residents were estimated to have made 17 percent, or 22,000, fewer calls to police following the Jude beating. The three-month span between the attack and when it became widely known allowed researchers to control for the incident’s effect on 911 calls, The New York Times reports.

The sociologists examined over 110,000 emergency calls in Milwaukee — one year before and one year after the beating — and found that the suppressing effect lasted roughly a year.

“The results kind of blew us away,” Desmond said. “We weren’t expecting to see such a big effect and an effect last so long.”

When analyzed across racial lines, researchers discovered that over half of the total drop in 911 calls happened in predominately Black neighborhoods.

“Previous research shows that negative encounters with law enforcement, as well as high profile cases of police misconduct, contribute to the spread of legal cynicism within Black communities,” the study states. “If police misconduct lowers crime reporting throughout Black communities, it directly threatens public safety within those communities.”

The researchers’ assertions rang true. The trio reported a 32 percent increase in murders, adding that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.” The uptick in homicides occurred during the same time the city was experiencing a drop in 911 calls, according to the report.

Papachristos called the change in calls unusual, because if crime was up in Milwaukee, then naturally the number of 911 calls would be up, too. But that wasn’t the case.

The study also examined the effects of police violence on the volume of 911 calls in other cities across the country. Significant impacts to the number of emergency calls were linked to two other cases of police brutality as well.

“I think [the effect] has implications for what we’re seeing in Cleveland, in Charlotte, in Baltimore, with very publicized cases of police violence,” Desmond said. “Milwaukee is similar to places like Baltimore and Cleveland in its level of segregation. I think that probably has a lot to do with the story.”

According to researchers, neighborhood under-reporting of officers, public backlash surrounding high-profile police shootings and increased skepticism of the effectiveness of police are also possible explanations for the sudden drop in emergency calls.

“It’s a tough, tough thing to do,” Milwaukee community organizer Adrian Spencer told The New York Times. “Rightfully so, because people have these experiences that they fall back on. And for most people, the type of interactions they’ve had with the police are negative interactions.”

Back to top