police discrimination, race, and community poverty

Our new Equity in America website shows that more than a quarter of Americans who live in high-poverty ZIP codes report having been personally mistreated by the police. That is 10 points higher than the rate in high-income communities.

Zooming in on the map shows that many of the people in our survey who live in high-poverty ZIP codes and who reported police discrimination reside in smaller cities or towns. Chicago, Miami, Queens (NY) and Los Angeles each supply one person in our survey who met these criteria, but so does my hometown of Syracuse, NY, Aurora, CO, and Spokane, WA, for example.

So I formed the hypothesis that living in a low-income, smaller community might be a risk factor for police discrimination. I tested that hypothesis with a binomial logistic regression, treating being discriminated against by the police as a yes-or-no matter. This is a similar method that might be used to predict being hired for a job or getting a disease. These issues are very different morally, but we can use the same math.

For possible predictors, I considered race, gender, education, age, English-language proficiency, household income, housing type, county-level income (not self-reported, but from Census data), and any mental health diagnosis.

It should not surprise anyone that being African American is the major risk factor. If we include any police discrimination, being Black raises the odds of being mistreated by the police almost five-fold (4.6 times), and that result is statistically significant at any level. If you exclude discrimination that happened far in the past, being Black still raises the odds threefold (2.955 times).

Identifying as female cuts your odds in half or better. More education helps, to a statistically significant yet modest degree. (This implies that highly educated African Americans have almost the same risk as those with little schooling.) The risk declines with age, but that pattern just misses being statistically significant, as does the risk from being Latino. Having a low family income, not speaking English well, reporting mental health issues, and living in an apartment rather than a house are not significant predictors. Neither is living in a poor ZIP code or a town or rural area as opposed to a city.

In short, my hypothesis about community factors was not correct–the race and gender of the individual is what matters. However, it remains true that a lot of police discrimination occurs in smaller, low-income communities, and that has implications for how we should address this grievous problem.

See also: Two-thirds of African Americans know someone mistreated by police, and 22% report mistreatment in past year; more data on police interactions by race; insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; and explore the dimensions of equity and inequity in the USA.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.