The validity and legitimacy of legal authority institutions are often undermined by high-profile cases of police violence and brutality. As a social issue, police violence has existed for decades; however, the recent proliferation of recording technologies has made it as exposed as ever. Tragic instances such as the deaths of unarmed Black men such as Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, were highly resonant and even sparked civil protests.
The brutal killings of civilians with no regard for circumstances, as well as the court’s failure to yield justice for the deceased, are likely to have taken a toll on the reputation of the entire system. The present research seeks to establish an association between police violence and the poor reputation of law enforcement.
It is hypothesized that disbelief in the fairness of the authority may lead to a phenomenon called legal cynicism. It can be defined as the conviction about the incompetence of the criminal justice system (Desmond, Papachristos & Kirk, 2015). Legal cynicism primarily pervades disadvantaged communities such as poor and Black-dominated neighborhoods that are more vulnerable to power abuse at the hands of authorities. Nivette, Eisner, Malti, and Ribeaud (2015) have found that self-reported delinquency, social alienation, association with delinquent individuals, and negative experiences with the police were the basis for losing trust in the authority.
Recent events in several counties within the United States have strengthened the tension between the police and urban residents. Hitchens, Carr, and Clampet-Lundquist (2018) conducted qualitative research for which they interviewed women from vulnerable communities about their experiences and beliefs. The researchers learned that apparently, the police were routinely mistreating Black and Latino women. They were exposed to the so-called legal chauvinism, experienced more aggression than White women, and did not always receive help when it was needed. The participants highlighted that both actual and vicarious negative experiences were traumatizing for them. They reported increased levels of distrust and disbelief in the good intentions of the authorities as compared to White respondents.
Hofer, Womack, and Wilson (2020) explored the attitudes of another demographic: urban youth of both genders. The researchers highlighted what makes the chosen cohort different from other age groups. According to Hofer, Womack, and Wilson (2020), young people rarely initiate contact with the police: it is typically the police that starts the interaction first. The youth often have a disdain for the proactive behavior of police officers, such as street stops and frisking. Apparently, in the light of the recent events, young people have grown fearful of police-citizen interactions. As a result, they now have less trust in the police and less confidence in the fairness of the system.
It should be noted that legal cynicism is not only a thought pattern: this mindset molds the affected individuals’ behavior so that they no longer consider it sensible to report crime and cooperate with the police. Desmond, Papachristos, and Kirk (2015) explain that when it comes to reporting, there is a significant discrepancy between actions and attitudes. The researchers have revealed that legal cynics are as likely to show their intentions to report a crime as legal “optimists.” However, if a situation that requires contacting the police occurs, only 35% of legal cynics take action as compared to 85% of individuals that trust the authorities. The findings of the studies cited above provide evidence for further research into the reputation of law enforcement structures.
The motivation for exploring the phenomenon is straightforward and grounded in convincing evidence. Nivette, Eisner, Malti, and Ribeaud (2015) show that legal cynicism and poor reputation of law enforcement are associated with higher violent crime rates, insufficient collective efficacy, lack of self-reporting, and lower resistance from intimate partner violence. However, as Nivette, Eisner, Malti, and Ribeaud (2015) state, while the consequences are well researched, what remains in the dark is the antecedents of the phenomenon.
Negative experience with the police is cited among the factors affecting a plummet in trust rates. Yet, the existing research does not concern the indirect negative experience, such as learning about instances of police brutality. Hence, the central question of the present research goes as follows: “Is there an association between being exposed to the news about police violence and legal cynicism?”
Research Design and Methods
The present research will employ a qualitative methodology based on a series of in-depth interviews. Interviews are widely used in research to gain deeper insights into the subject matter. While numerical data can be more precise and reliable, personal conversations provide an opportunity to establish themes and topics related to a phenomenon that might not have been obvious initially. It is planned to organize two focus groups: one will be interviewed on the spot, without any extra procedures. The other, however, will be shown video clips and articles about police brutality. In each case, what will follow is a group discussion about attitudes toward law enforcement. The discussion materials will be analyzed thematically and compared.
Desmond, M., Papachristos, A. V., & Kirk, D. S. (2016). Police violence and citizen crime reporting in the black community. American Sociological Review, 81(5), 857-876.
Hitchens, B. K., Carr, P. J., & Clampet-Lundquist, S. (2018). The context for legal cynicism: Urban young women’s experiences with policing in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. Race and Justice, 8(1), 27-50.
Hofer, M. S., Womack, S. R., & Wilson, M. N. (2020). An examination of the influence of procedurally just strategies on legal cynicism among urban youth experiencing police contact. Journal of Community Psychology, 48(1), 104-123.
Nivette, A. E., Eisner, M., Malti, T., & Ribeaud, D. (2015). The social and developmental antecedents of legal cynicism. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 52(2), 270-298.