In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and the Police

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classical Texts
  • Race and Police Decision Making
  • Race and the Organizational Context of Police Organizations
  • Race and Citizen Perceptions of the Police
  • Citizen Perceptions of Racially Biased Policing and Discrimination
  • Racially Biased Policing and Racial Profiling
  • Racial Profiling and Research Methodologies

Criminology Race and the Police
Patricia Y. Warren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0117


Criminological research has consistently explored the relationship between race and policing. Early research focused particular attention on the various ways in which race influences police interaction with citizens along with their overall decision making. What has emerged from this body of scholarship is the salience of police diversification—that is, police organizations need to racially diversify in order to build better minority-community relations. Despite police organizations efforts to diversify, there are still questions about the salience of race in understanding how officers interact differently with minority citizens. In addition, there is an ongoing dialogue among scholars about how the race and ethnicity of citizens impact their evaluations of police. This research has generally found that black and Hispanic citizens express more dissatisfaction with police than do whites because they are frequently subjected to aggressive police patrols, excessive use of force, and racially biased policing. These experiences, along with a history of degradation, have led to tenuous relations between many black citizens and the police such that even in the absence of bias, police fairness is brought into question. In recent years, stories about racial profiling have circulated throughout the media. “Racial profiling” is a term used to describe the use of race or ethnicity by police as a mechanism for deciding whom to place under police suspicion. It has become another source of distrust of the police, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics. National stories about racial profiling such as the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York raised serious concerns about law enforcement’s ability to treat African American and other minority citizens fairly. In the early 1990s, as police organizations across the US came under fire for disproportionately stopping, searching, and citing minority citizens, scholars began questioning the extent to which the disproportionate number of minorities targeted by police was specifically tied to a biased process on the part of the officer or the police organization. In order to answer this particular question scholars have continued to employ new methodologies while determining what baseline or benchmark is most important when evaluating racial bias on the part of the police organization. Overall, this body of research is an emerging field, and utilizes the most sophisticated statistical and qualitative techniques in order to better understand how the empirical connections between race and policing work.

General Overviews

Research exploring the relationship between race and policing has sought to better understand how race informs police decision making while also assessing how this decision making influences racial differences in citizen perceptions of police. These are very delicate issues, and in some instances have sparked great controversy. Despite this, there have been some pivotal studies that have helped lay the foundation for understanding the connections between race and policing. For example, Skolnick 1975 is a classic work that outlines the policeman’s work regimen and personality. The author notes that in order to understand the relationship between race and policing, it requires a broader understanding of how society as a whole shapes how individuals, including the police, interact with different racial and ethnic groups. Weitzer 2010 and Tyler and Fagan 2008 each explore the various contexts for which citizens interact with police and how that influences racial and ethnic variation in evaluations and satisfaction with police. Finally, Brown-Jones and Maule 2010 provides a description of the legal and legislative literature that surrounds these issues.

  • Brown-Jones, Delores and Brian A. Maule. 2010. Racially biased policing: A review of the judicial and legislative literature. In Race, ethnicity and policing: New and essential readings. Edited by Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White, 140–173. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    The term “racial profiling” has been defined as the practice of stopping and inspecting people passing through public places. Examples are drivers on public highways and pedestrians in airports or in urban areas stopped based on race and/or ethnicity instead of some legal violation. This study explores the historical and contemporary legal and legislative issues associated with racial profiling. It provides a great historical context of the problem and how state and federal governments have responded.

  • Skolnick, Jerome. 1975. Justice without trial: Law enforcement in democratic society. New York: Wiley.

    The purpose of this study is to explore how value conflicts in modern, democratic societies foster conditions that undermine the ability of a police organization to carry out and respond to the rule of law. The data for this study were drawn from criminal law officials. The results demonstrated that the tension between the police goal of order and the protection of individual rights constitutes the principal problem of police as a democratic legal organization.

  • Tyler, Tom, and Jeffrey Fagan. 2008. Legitimacy and cooperation: Why do people help the police fight crime in their communities? Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 6:231–275.

    Past research indicates that legitimacy encourages compliance with the law. This study examines the importance of legitimacy by exploring its impact on cooperation with the police and with neighbors to combat crime. A panel study design was used and focuses upon the residents of New York City. These results suggest that the police can generally enhance their legitimacy by using fair procedures.

  • Weitzer, Ronald. 2010. Race and policing in different ecological contexts. In Race, ethnicity and policing: New and essential readings. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A recent trend in policing research is its focus on ecological context. Scholars are increasingly realizing that place matters. This study examines the current state of knowledge regarding the effects of three different contexts: neighborhoods, cities, and nations on police interaction with citizens.

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