Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in Perceptions of the Police

Published date01 May 2012
Date01 May 2012
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
28(2) 206 –227
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1043986211425726
and WarrenJournal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
1Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joshua C. Cochran, Florida State University, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 634 West Call
Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1127, USA
Email: jcochran@fsu.edu
Racial, Ethnic, and Gender
Differences in Perceptions
of the Police: The Salience
of Officer Race Within the
Context of Racial Profiling
Joshua C. Cochran1 and Patricia Y. Warren1
Prior research has consistently demonstrated the salience of minority status in
understanding racial and ethnic differences in perceptions of the police. This research
has overwhelmingly shown that Blacks and Latinos hold lower levels of trust and
confidence in the police than do Whites and other racial minorities. The increased
skepticism of the police expressed by minority citizens is commonly associated with
racial profiling and documented racial disparities in police behavior. Although policing
research has empirically demonstrated the influence of race on perceptions of the
police, few studies have explored the relevance of officer race in shaping citizens’
evaluations of police encounters. Using data from the BJS Police–Public Contact
Survey, the purpose of this study is to examine whether racial variation in evaluations
of police behavior is moderated by the race of the officer. The results suggest that
officer race may be an important factor in shaping citizen perceptions of police stops,
particularly when it comes to Black citizens. This finding is important as it provides
some evidence that increasing the number of minority officers may be one viable
option for improving citizen–officer relations.
race, policing, racial profiling, public opinion
Cochran and Warren 207
Criminological research has long explored the salience of race and ethnicity in under-
standing citizens’ evaluations of the police (Black & Reiss, 1970; Brunson, 2007;
Hurst, Frank, & Browning, 2000; Weitzer & Tuch, 1999, 2006). This growing body of
research has demonstrated that Black and Hispanic citizens hold lower levels of trust
and confidence in the police than do Whites and other racial minorities. These perceptions
result in part from the disadvantages that racial and ethnic minorities experience across
the justice system, along with any gratuitous treatment that they may have experienced
during their encounters with police. In recent years, racial profiling has emerged as a
major factor shaping minority citizens’ evaluations of the police (Warren, Tomaskovic-Devey,
Zingraff, Smith, & Mason, 2006; Weitzer & Tuch, 2002). The term racial profiling
describes the practice of targeting or stopping an individual based primarily on race,
rather than on any individualized suspicion (Beckett, Nyrop, & Pfingst, 2006; Engel &
Johnson, 2006; Weitzer, 2000a). As a result of these experiences, Black and Hispanic
communities have raised questions about police legitimacy as well as the procedural
fairness of police organizations more generally (Engel, 2005; Smith & Holmes, 2003;
Tyler, 2001).
Although prior studies have demonstrated that racial minorities are more likely to
perceive police as racially biased and unfair, there continues to be ongoing questions
about the factors that underlie these perceptions. In particular, prior studies have over-
whelmingly highlighted the salience of direct and vicarious experiences (e.g.,
Rosenbaum, Schuck, Costello, Hawkins, & Ring, 2005; Weitzer & Tuch, 2006),
neighborhood context (e.g., Brunson, 2007; Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Sampson &
Bartusch, 1998; Schuck, Rosenbaum, & Hawkins, 2008; Stewart, Baumer, Brunson,
& Simons, 2009), along with the outcome of the police encounter (e.g., Brown &
Frank, 2006; Johnson & Kuhns, 2009; Warren & Tomaskovic-Devey, 2009) when
evaluating racial/ethnic differences. However, to date, few studies have explored the
relevance of officer race (for exceptions, see Engel, 2005; Gilliard-Matthews,
Kowalski, & Lundman, 2008; Lersch & Mieczkowski, 2000). The lack of empirical
attention to officer race is anomalous given the push from both policy makers and
scholars to diversify U.S. police organizations in efforts to improve citizen–police
relations and to dispel notions of racial profiling.
The debate surrounding the relevance of officer race began in the late 70s and early
80s when many police departments adopted diversification strategies to foster trust
and improve police–minority community relations (Brown & Frank, 2006; Kuykendall
& Burns, 1980; Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993; Smith & Holmes, 2003; Weitzer, 2000b; Zhao,
Herbst, & Lovrich, 2001). Despite these efforts, there have been relatively few empiri-
cal studies to demonstrate that officer race significantly influences citizens’ evalua-
tions of them (see also Engel, 2005; Kaker, 2003). In fact, the National Research
Council (Skogan & Frydl, 2004) contends that there is little evidence to suggest that
minority officers behave differently than their White counterparts.
Against this backdrop, the purpose of the current study is multifaceted. First, we
explore the salience of officer race in understanding citizen perceptions of police
behavior. We do so by examining how the combined effects of race, ethnicity, and

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