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Black Students' Lived Experiences with and Perceptions of Law Enforcement
The relationship between Black citizens and law enforcement officers in the United States has long been a topic of controversy and concern. Ever since slave patrols were first established in the Carolina colonies in 1704, law enforcement officers have been instrumental in maintaining America’s social order through the systemic control of Blacks. Slave patrols were responsible for capturing runaway slaves, suppressing insubordination, and disciplining slaves who violated rules. After emancipation, slave patrols evolved into Southern police departments, which controlled freed slaves and enforced Jim Crow laws (Potter 1995).
Modern interactions between Blacks and law enforcement officers reflect what has been historically acceptable. In American society, “criminality is viewed as an inherent Black characteristic” (Owusu-Bempah 2016, 29), and the criminalization of Blacks provides social justification for unfair treatment by police. The media reinforces stereotypes of Black people as inferior, violent, and undeserving of the privileges and security granted to other populations (Dreier 2005). This mindset is embedded in American culture and into the unconscious biases of many individuals. Many prejudices that police officers may harbor and act upon stem from the views and attitudes of American society at large (Harris 2007).
Within the last five years in the United States, there have been numerous high-profile cases of Black lives ended at the hands of law enforcement officers. Even the possibility of being subjected to police violence or unfair treatment places immense mental strain on Black people and adds to the obstacles they may face in higher education by reducing their mental bandwidth (available cognitive resources). Because of the constant stress of disconfirming stereotypes and avoiding racial profiling and the subsequent possibility of police violence, Black college students can be hampered in succeeding academically and obtaining a college degree (Verschelden 2017).
To explore Black college students’ lived experiences with and perceptions of campus police (and law enforcement in general), we conducted surveys and focus groups at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), a large, public, four-year university and Predominantly White Institution with 13 percent of the population identifying as Black or multiracial (with one race being Black) during the time of the study. Black students’ responses may mirror the experiences of a larger population of Black people in the United States, bring attention to discrimination against all marginalized groups, and ignite social reform that demands an end to systemic oppression and police brutality nationwide.
In our study, we used critical race theory (CRT) as the framework to conceptualize and explore Black college students’ lived experiences with and perceptions of law enforcement on and off campus. According to CRT, those in power maintain racial inequality in society, economics, and law to preserve the interests of the White elite. CRT rejects the myth of colorblind meritocracy, which White elites have used to perpetuate this power structure and marginalize Black people (Lynn et al. 2002).
CRT also relies on what theorists call “counter-storytelling,” which creates a counternarrative that challenges the status quo and uncovers unjust laws, policies, or systems (Delgado and Stefancic 2000). We used personal stories to empower Black students to counter the societal stereotypes that Blacks are violent and deserving of police brutality. We also sought to conceptualize how Black students’ interactions with law enforcement officers inform their perceptions of themselves. In essence, our study provided a way to redefine the narrative of Black students by providing insights into their lived experiences with law enforcement and challenging the norms associated with modern-day policing.
Data Collection and Methodology
In October and November 2017, we collected data through a mixed-method process using surveys and focus groups. We distributed a survey to approximately two thousand students, both undergraduate and graduate, at UCO who identified as Black or multiracial (with one of those races being Black). Approximately 23 percent of those surveyed, or 460 students, submitted responses. We identified common themes in the survey responses and used those themes to develop questions that we posed to two focus groups of five students each in January 2018. We asked them questions ranging from how they defined security on campus to how they envisioned the ideal relationship between Black people and police in society. Students also described their interactions with and feelings toward campus police and law enforcement in general. In addition, we asked students to collectively think of ways to begin cultivating positive relationships between Black students and campus police.
This communal, strategic approach is inspired by participatory action research (PAR). PAR is a research methodology that allows participants to explain their own experiences and arrive at their own conclusions. The purpose of PAR is to inform social issues and encourage the affected group to be the initiators of the change they would like to see (MacDonald 2012). This method differs from the traditional research canon due to “its participatory character—cooperation between the researcher(s) and other participants in problem definition, choice of methods, data analysis, and use of findings” (Schwandt 2015, 229). It inverts the power structure of research, allowing marginalized groups—who are often unheard and may feel hopeless and forgotten—to explain their own experiences, discuss their concerns, and champion their own solutions.
By focusing on Black students, we ensured that they could contribute to a conversation in which they are rarely invited to participate. The study allowed the students to validate their experiences and perspectives, create a counternarrative, and begin the process of their personal and communal liberation, ultimately acting as social change agents for themselves and others.
Though we initiated our research drawing upon PAR methodology, giving space for the participants to create their own collective response to their experiences, we were not able to begin implementing the focus groups’ suggestions. Due to time constraints of our research, imposed by funding restrictions and the academic calendar, our research ended upon the completion of the 2017–18 school year.
Limitations of the study include only surveying Black students at one university. We did not collect data on perceptions of law enforcement from non-Blacks to serve as a control group, nor did we collect data to better understand where student perceptions originated.
Findings from the Survey
Of the 460 survey respondents, approximately 73 percent identified as female and 27 percent identified as male, representing the same gender breakdown as the population to which we distributed the survey. About 19 percent of the respondents were freshmen, 20 percent were sophomores, 22 percent were juniors, 26 percent were seniors, 12 percent were graduate students, and 1 percent listed their class status as “other.”
In the survey, we asked Black students to rate the quality of their own personal interactions with campus law enforcement (figure 1). Close to one-third of respondents rated their interactions as positive or very positive, more than one-sixth indicated their interactions were negative or very negative, and about half described their interactions as neither positive nor negative.
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In addition, we asked students about interactions between students and campus law enforcement in general. Close to two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: “In general, most students on campus are treated differently by law enforcement officials based on their racial appearance” (figure 2).
We also asked participants to choose a word to complete this sentence: “The presence of law enforcement on campus makes me feel _________” (very anxious, somewhat anxious, neither anxious nor assured, somewhat assured, very assured). Less than 27 percent of Black students felt somewhat or very assured by the presence of campus law enforcement, while nearly 34 percent felt somewhat or very anxious about their presence. About 40 percent felt neither anxious nor assured.
A greater proportion of female than male students reported feeling somewhat or very anxious about the presence of campus police (about 35 percent of female students versus about 30 percent of male students). This discrepancy is interesting because the narrative surrounding police and Blacks is usually centered around Black men being anxious around law enforcement officers. In addition, a higher percentage of female than male students reported feeling somewhat or very assured (about 28 percent versus about 23 percent), and a greater share of male than female students reported feeling neither anxious nor assured by the presence of campus law enforcement (about 48 percent versus about 37 percent). Further research might investigate whether women are consistently more aware of their environment than men or whether the presence of law enforcement increases the sense of potential danger that women face regularly.
We also learned that although nearly half of respondents had little to no personal contact with campus police, many still saw them as a threat to their safety. Out of the 181 respondents who indicated they had no contact with campus police, 30 percent (fifty-four respondents) felt either very or somewhat anxious about the presence of these officers. This could imply that vicarious interactions with police (e.g., through the media, their peers’ stories, etc.) shape students’ perceptions of campus police.
Table 1 summarizes themes that emerged as we analyzed participants’ responses to open-ended survey questions about their perceptions of their Blackness, campus police, and law enforcement in general, categorized as positive, neutral, or negative. In general, Black students were either proud to be Black or hated being Black because of the unfair treatment of Black people. Some respondents used terms such as “Black pride” and “empowering” to describe their Blackness, while other students described being Black as “frustrating” and “uncomfortable” and said it made them feel “fearful.”
In addition, many Black students described campus law enforcement as “untrustworthy,” “apathetic,” “overly aggressive,” and “bullies.” Most Black students tended to have a negative opinion of law enforcement in general; they viewed police officers as “untrustworthy” and “apathetic” and believed they used “excessive force.” However, some Black students viewed campus law enforcement as “helpful” and “reliable,” especially if the students had a relative or friend who was a law enforcement officer. No participant who indicated a close relationship with a law enforcement officer perceived law enforcement to be negative. These results suggest that providing opportunities for students and campus law enforcement officers to come together could increase their familiarity with each other and the likelihood of positive interactions and perceptions.
Findings from the Focus Groups
We conducted two focus groups with five students in each group. Within each focus group, students further explained their lived experiences with law enforcement on campus and more generally. During these discussions, students identified common themes and problems and suggested ways to improve relationships between Black students and police.
In the first focus group, the students discussed incidents that they experienced or witnessed regarding Blacks and their interactions with law enforcement. These experiences included inadequate communication, a lack of partnership between the two groups, and a lack of visibility of campus police officers. To address these issues, the students proposed that the university bring campus law enforcement officers to new student orientation week, especially the part designed to introduce students from diverse backgrounds to resources, services, and programs to help them succeed at UCO. This idea stemmed from the “coffee with a cop” events that some police departments use to engage with their surrounding communities. Bringing campus law enforcement to orientation would make the police more visible to the students and provide Black students with an opportunity to at least speak with an officer. According to the focus group participants, this approach could help Black students feel safer on campus, thus improving their mental bandwidth.
The second focus group felt that protests are effective in highlighting injustices, but there is usually no follow-up action. They recommended having continuous meetings, forums, and conversations between students and campus police. The students wanted to create a policing week with events related to building trust between students and campus law enforcement officers. These events might include panel discussions with campus police, student hip-hop or spoken word poetry performances, exhibits of student artwork, a police-hosted community event for the students, or student-led conversations in which students could freely talk with officers about their feelings and perceptions related to problems in law enforcement on campus and beyond. The week might end with a visit to a police station or the campus police office.
The students felt that a policing week would force the two subcultures to learn about one another. The events would be created from the perspective of the students, enabling police to see policing issues from Black students’ point of view and encouraging officers to examine their biases. This week could be cosponsored by the Criminal Justice Club and organizations in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, such as the Black Student Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The focus group participants believed that if the university held a policing week, students could finally share their stories without being persecuted, which is vital to being viewed as a true member of society.
Further Research Opportunities
Our research indicates that Black students have feelings of anxiety and fear related to law enforcement. Further research on this subject could include gathering data on participants’ feelings of achievement, belonging, and ability to succeed in order to deduce whether there is a correlation between student success and the reduced mental bandwidth that the presence of law enforcement may cause.
Future research might also include the perspectives of White students, other students of color, or international students to get comparison views. We might also ask students to tell us about their interactions with campus law enforcement so we could better understand their potential impact. Moreover, we might ask students who indicated they had negative interactions to tell us about different ways they cope with those experiences.
Our results suggest that many Black students worry about the presence of police when they are on campus at a Predominantly White Institution, even if they have not personally had negative interactions with campus police. We can presume that having police on campus affects a Black student’s mental bandwidth, but it was beyond the scope of this study to collect evidence that this anxiety directly affected their overall college experience or success. We believe that creating more opportunities for Black students and campus police officers to interact, as our focus groups suggested, could potentially increase trust between both groups and reduce Black students’ anxiety and restore some of their mental bandwidth.
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Jaylon Thomas is an Undergraduate Student in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice, and Kalen Russell is an Undergraduate Student in Strategic Communications, both at the University of Central Oklahoma.