SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 10, 2000 – Latinos and African Americans in California — regardless of gender, education level, or income — are less likely than whites to feel that they are treated fairly by police, according to a new study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Moreover, the large-scale survey found that the perception of fair treatment is the most important determinant of attitudes about the police and the court system.
In How Different Ethnic Groups React to Legal Authority, social psychologists Yuen Huo and Tom Tyler analyze interviews with members of three groups — African Americans, Latinos, and whites — about their interactions with legal authorities. The study is based on a 1997-98 telephone survey of over 1,650 Los Angeles and Oakland residents who reported having a recent experience with a police officer, judge, or court official.
The study found that African American and Latino perceptions of unfair treatment are most notable in situations where they report being stopped by police. Only 56 percent of Latinos and 61 percent of African Americans say they are treated fairly in such situations, while 72 percent of whites indicate their treatment is fair. The disparity between whites and minorities persists in situations where the police are called for help, although the difference is not nearly so great. When calling for police assistance, 84 percent of African Americans and 81 percent of Latinos indicate they are treated fairly, as opposed to 91 percent of whites.
“It’s troubling that African Americans and Latinos have more negative attitudes than whites about all types of experiences with police,” says author Yuen Huo, “but it’s encouraging that the gap is smaller than we might expect.” Generally, African Americans and Latinos share common points of view about their interactions with legal authorities. Although they differ from whites when it comes to attitudes about police, all three groups share a similar perspective on judges and court officials.
Interestingly, 77 percent of African Americans and 82 percent of Latinos in the study said they interacted with a police officer or court official from a different ethnic group, while only 42 percent of whites dealt with a non-white authority. However, this disparity appears to have little effect on attitudes about treatment or fairness. In contrast, the study found that preconceptions have a significant effect on people’s attitudes: People who believe it is likely they will be discriminated against are also likely to express dissatisfaction with authorities.
There is some good news, according to the authors. The fact that whites and minorities share similar notions of fair treatment — defining it as unbiased, respectful and concerned behavior — shows that it may be possible to broadly address and improve attitudes about legal authority in California. Additionally, the fact that both minorities and whites say fair treatment is the most important factor in dealing with legal authorities — even more important than the actual outcome of their case — is significant.
“Our findings suggest that authorities can increase community support and improve their effectiveness by fostering behavior and procedures that provide impartial and respectful treatment,” says Dr. Huo, an assistant professor at UCLA. “It’s a challenge, especially because some of the attitudes about legal authority appear to be predetermined rather than based on actual experiences. But serious efforts in this area may go a long way toward bridging the divide between ethnic groups in this critical area of public policy.”
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.