Civil Rights, Latinos and the Law

Latinos and police: It’s complicated

A micro-survey conducted by Pew in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., revealed Latinos really like the police. Sort of.

It was a “confidence” survey, meaning all the questions were framed in terms of participants’ trust in the ability of police to do their job. Latinos came in squarely in between blacks and whites in all the questions.

For example, where whites really trust police to not use excessive force on suspects—a whopping 74 percent—blacks’ confidence was only at 36 percent. Latinos were in the middle at 45 percent.

Or where blacks and whites were on opposites ends of the spectrum in terms of whether police treat races equally—with blacks’ confidence below the 40 percent mark and whites hovering above the 70s—Latinos’ trust was at near 50 percent.

What does this all mean? Probably not much, given the small sample size of Hispanics surveyed and the significant margin of error. What’s more, this was a national survey; the figures would likely shift if the survey were conducted in, say, an area affected by discriminatory policing.

Last year, shortly after a Manhattan federal judge found the NYPD’s application of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, the Vera Institute of Justice released a study on youth perceptions of police. The numbers were startling: 88 percent of New York youth surveyed perceived that their neighborhoods did not trust the police.

The findings seem to lead to a truism: The more police target young blacks and Latinos, the more their distrust grows. The more unsafe they feel. The least likely they are to call the police to report crime. Youth interviewed by Vera reported all of the above perceptions.

In the case of Latinos, surveys like Pew’s also obscure certain realities, like the fact that Latinos can be apprehensive of police encounters—not only for fear of stop-and-frisk, but because of potential immigration consequences.

For an undocumented Latino, for example, something as routine as a traffic stop, even as a passenger, can prove terrifying because it may lead to deportation. Stories of factory raids, harassment of day laborers, and racial profiling on account of ethnicity are all part and parcel of the immigrant experience. All of them can be more telling indicators of how Latinos view police.

There’s also the Secure Communities and the 287(g) programs, two controversial Department of Homeland Security-led initiatives partnering local police with immigration authorities. Criticized for sweeping too broadly and decried by immigrant groups for tearing up families, both have contributed to the perception that law enforcement and immigration enforcement are one and the same.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also contributed to the trust problems. In 2012, the court allowed Arizona to keep a law on its books permitting state officials to verify the immigration status of people suspected of unlawful presence in the country. The court called the law constitutional “on its face”—that is, it did not single out Latinos explicitly, and thus let it stand.

But the reality of this “show-me-your-papers” law—other states have passed copycat provisions—is that, on the ground, anyone who looked Latino was targetedEven American citizens. Even school kids.

Perhaps a more interesting question for a future Pew inquiry would be to ask how many times a participant has had an unsavory police encounter. Or if prior police stops have resulted in merely a warning, a summons, or something worse. Or how participants feel when they pass a patrol car on the street. Or if they have a family member or know someone who is involved in the criminal justice system or in immigration proceedings.

Those are better questions because personal experience often colors one’s views of law enforcement and their work. And when such work is viewed as something other than serving and protecting, it is likely the served and protected will feel anything but.

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