When people in lower-class black communities in majority-black Washington, D.C., were asked whether a police officer's race makes a difference in how that officer treats people, the survey results were mixed. One-third said black officers actually treat blacks more harshly, one-third said they're more sensitive to black people, and another saw them simply as "blue cops," who define themselves by the color of their uniforms, not their skin, according to researchers Weitzer and Steven Tuch.
There is some evidence that black officers tend to be more understanding of African-American neighborhoods, but "most research shows that there's little to no difference on the ground in terms of police behavior, whether those officers are Hispanic, white, black, or Asian," Weitzer says.
Such findings seem to indicate that strains between the police and the community, while often having a racial overlay, are not solely about race. True, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are racially mixed cities where historically white police departments have at times wrestled openly with black communities.
But such tensions also persist in large cities with black power structures, including Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta. History, geography, neighborhood crime rates, police leadership, and local politics all affect how the public views its police force – and how police officers view the public.
Still, "we do know from various studies of cities that [in] those cities that have African-American mayors, police shoot fewer people and fewer people shoot police," Mr. Skogan says.
"Cities with African-American mayors also tend to have adopted community policing early and are more likely to have police oversight mechanisms in place. Those things go along with the rise of visible African-American power, all of which can make a big policy difference."