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New Perspectives in Policing

M AY 2015




HARVARD Kennedy School
Program in Criminal Justice
Policy and Management

National Institute of Justice

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence

Anthony A. Braga and Rod K. Brunson


Executive Session on Policing and

Public Safety

Police departments, especially in urban

This is one in a series of papers that will be
published as a result of the Executive Session on
Policing and Public Safety.

jurisdictions, are often called on to quell
outbreaks of serious violence such as sudden

Harvard’s Executive Sessions are a convening
of individuals of independent standing who take
joint responsibility for rethinking and improving
society’s responses to an issue. Members
are selected based on their experiences, their
reputation for thoughtfulness and their potential
for helping to disseminate the work of the Session.

and robberies. Inner-city residents and their

In the early 1980s, an Executive Session on Policing
helped resolve many law enforcement issues of
the day. It produced a number of papers and
concepts that revolutionized policing. Thirty
years later, law enforcement has changed and
NIJ and the Harvard Kennedy School are again
collaborating to help resolve law enforcement
issues of the day.
Learn more about the Executive Session on
Policing and Public Safety at:, keywords “Executive Session
Policing”, keywords “Executive
Session Policing”

increases in homicides, aggravated assaults
children usually suffer the most serious harm
when violent crime waves occur. Unfortunately,
due to a long history of exclusion from important
economic and social opportunities, residents
of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods are
primarily minorities and often black. Research
has long documented that most violence occurs
within racial groups and that black Americans,
often victimized by black offenders, experience
disproportionately high levels of v iolent
crime. The term “black-on-black” violence,
while statistically correct, is a simplistic and
emotionally charged definition of urban violence
that can be problematic when used by political
commentators, politicians and police executives.
To the vast majority of urban black residents who
are not involved in violence or criminal behavior,
the term invokes visions of indiscriminate and
aggressive police enforcement responses applied
to a broad range of black people. The term also

2 | New Perspectives in Policing

seems to marginalize serious urban violence as a

media outlets have an interest in presenting

“black problem” that, in the minds of some black

crime and justice issues in a way that captivates

residents, may only receive a cursory response

audiences and stimulates passions. Even though

or, worse yet, be ignored by police departments

crime has steadily decreased over the last two


decades, personal safety remains high on the
list of public concerns, in part, because citizen

We believe that most police departments in

perceptions are inf luenced by news media

the U.S. are dedicated to reducing violence,

sources intentionally designed to make us feel

investigating crimes, and protecting victims

passionately about the subject (Surette, 1998;

irrespective of race. However, poor analyses

Crayton and Glickman, 2007). Obviously, there

and inappropriate descriptions of urban violent

are many positive aspects of intensive, fervent

crime problems can sometimes lead to the

coverage of crime and justice issues: untended

adoption of problematic policing policies and

crime problems may be addressed, miscarriages

programs. Moreover, careless discussions of the

of justice may be corrected, victims and their

nature of urban violence can further alienate

families may receive relief, and other public

law-abiding black residents who need and

goods may be generated.

desperately want to partner with the police to
create safer communities. In this paper, we briefly

However, the media can also distort crime and

describe how news media coverage sometimes

justice issues by constructing attitudes and

distorts racial issues, present a (hopefully) more

perceptions that do not match the reality of

cool-headed analysis of black-on-black violence

contemporary crime problems. Media distortions

(measured as a homicide problem), and consider

of the reality of black-on-black violence in cities

how misconceptions of black-on-black violence

can take many forms. Persistent coverage of

coupled with over- and/or under-policing of

homicides and shootings in black neighborhoods

black neighborhoods can further erode citizen

without appropriate contextual information can

confidence in the police.

perpetrate inaccurate stereotypes of blacks as
innately violent people. When media outlets

The Distorting Role of Mass News
Media Coverage of Urban Violence

prov ide extensive coverage of homicides

As Surette (1998) suggests, what most Americans

victims, but little ongoing coverage of homicides

know about crime and justice comes from popular

involving black victims, it promotes a perception

media’s portrayal of these subjects. Unfortunately,

among black citizens that killings of black people

involving white victims, especially white female

are less important than killings of white people.
Braga, Anthony A. and Brunson, Rod K. The Police and Public Discourse on
“Black on Black” Violence. New Perspectives in Policing Bulletin. Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2015. NCJ

And, by unfortunate association, that the police
are not devoting, or do not think they need to

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 3

devote, sufficient resources to investigate black

Rahm Emanuel, Mayor, City of Chicago3

victim homicides.
“The issue of gun violence is not limited to
A casual sampling of characterizations of black-

Chicago … It’s an urban problem.” The urban

on-black violence in the media by political

violence, Emanuel said, “gets put in a different

commentators, politicians and police chiefs reveals

value system. These are our kids, these are our

persistently vague definitions of the phenomenon

children, and the worst thing for us to do in

and occasionally problematic associations with

my opinion would be to say, ‘Let’s not discuss

ideas about morally bankrupt behaviors in black

this.’ We need to make sure that once a crime

families and communities.

is committed, we don’t allow them back on the
street to become perpetrators or victims. ...

Jason Riley, Columnist, Wall Street Journal


“The black crime rate in 1960 was lower than it
is today … Was there less racism or less poverty
than in 1960? This is about black behavior. It

A piece of this is the culture … Part of this is
having an honest conversation, given the lion’s
share of the victims and the perpetrators are
young African-American men.”

needs to be addressed head-on. It’s about

Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor, City of New

attitudes toward the criminal justice system in

York 4

these neighborhoods, where young black men
have no sense of what it means to be a male or

“Ninety percent of all people killed in our city

what it means to be black.”

— and 90 percent of all those who commit
the murders and other violent crimes — are

Chris Wallace, Polit ical Commentator,

black and Hispanic. It is shameful that so

Fox News2

many elected officials and editorial writers

“The president talked … about black-on-black
crime. And as I looked into this, the numbers
are just staggering … should the African
American community be focusing on that, the
black-on-black crime, the carnage in our inner
cities and not on George Zimmerman? ... When
you have people demanding, ‘Let’s go after
George Zimmerman,’ hate crimes, economic
boycotts of Florida, that isn’t talking about the
real problems in the inner city.”

have been largely silent on these facts …
Instead, they have argued that police stops are
discriminatory because they do not reflect the
city’s overall census numbers. By that flawed
logic, our police officers would stop women as
often as men, and senior citizens as often as
young people … To do so would be a colossal
misdirection of resources and would take
the core elements of police work — targeting
high-crime neighborhoods and identifying
suspects based on evidence — out of crimefighting … . The absurd result of such a strategy

4 | New Perspectives in Policing

would be far more crimes committed against

takes place in a vacuum … If I draw an ellipse

black and Latino New Yorkers. When it comes

over our poorest neighborhoods and then

to policing, political correctness is deadly.”

find an ellipse and draw it where our most
911 calls are, and then draw the ellipse over

Ray Kelly, former Commissioner, New York

where most of our crime victims are ... it’s the

Police Department

same neighborhoods and the same zip codes.”


“The stark reality is that crime happens in

Nevertheless, the explicit and implicit promotion

communities of color … About 70% to 75%

of inaccurate and vague descriptions is generally

of the people described as committing

offensive to black Americans.

violent crimes — assault, robbery, shootings,
grand larceny — are described as being

Before we begin to analyze the issue more closely,

African-American.” … “The percentage of

it is worth noting what black-on-black homicide

people who are stopped is 53% African-

is not. We believe the following ideas are wrong

American … So really, African-Americans

and ultimately not helpful.

are being under stopped in relation to the
percentage of people being described as


Black-on-black homicide is random. The term
“random” is commonly defined as “proceeding,

being the perpetrators of violent crime.”

made, or occurring without definite aim,
There are certainly other concerning perspectives

reason, or pattern.”7 The perspective that

put forth in the popular media on this issue. It

black-on-black homicide is not patterned

is important to recognize, however, that some

lends itself to an interpretation that any

police chiefs steer clear of vague black-on­

citizen could spontaneously be the victim of

black violence descriptions by focusing on

a horrendous crime at any place or any time.

“disparate victimization” in black disadvantaged

The promotion of this misunderstanding may

neighborhoods. For instance:

result in heightened fear of violence among
black residents and visitors to majority black

Edward A. Flynn, Chief, Milwaukee Police

neighborhoods. Increased fear of violence


may undermine the full participation of black
residents in neighborhood life and lead to

“Here’s what’s disproportionate to me … With

weakened community control over local youth

about 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population,

and public spaces.

African-Americans represent 80 percent
of our homicide victims. They represent 60


Black-on-black homicide problems are

percent of our robbery victims and 80 percent

symptomatic of persistent lawless behavior

of our aggravated assault victims.” … “It’s as

by black people. This wrongheaded idea

though the arresting of African-Americans

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 5

leads to an implicit assumption among


Racial differences are reduced substantially

the public that a high proportion of black

for household crimes and personal theft

residents are involved in crime and disorder.


This misperception promotes uncertainty
regarding whether blacks share the moral
standards of mainstream society and, as
a result, diminishes levels of mainstream
concern and determination to find evidencebased responses to the problem.


Although whites represent the majority of
suspects arrested for all crimes, blacks are
disproportionately more likely to be arrested
for violent crimes, especially homicide,
relative to their share of the U.S. population.9

B e t w e en 19 8 0 a nd 2 0 0 8 , bl ac k s w ere

Black-on-black homicide problems are driven
by black people’s tolerance for criminal and
immoral behavior. This false perspective can
influence police officers to mistakenly view
entire black neighborhoods as supportive of
criminal behavior and exacerbate an already
fragile relationship.

Black Homicide Victimization and Black
Homicide Offending Rates

disproportionately represented as both homicide
victims and offenders (Cooper and Smith, 2011).
The homicide victimization rate for blacks (27.8
per 100,000) was six times higher than the rate
for whites (4.5 per 100,000) (figure 1). Blacks
accounted for slightly more than 51 percent of
all gun homicide victims between 1980 and 2008,
despite representing only about 13 percent of the
U.S. population. The homicide offending rate for

In this section, we focus on black and white
comparisons. This crude categorization stems

Figure 1. Homicide Victimization Rates, by Race, 1980-2008

from a lack of crime data that consistently classify
information for Hispanics and non-Hispanics


as well as for Asians and Native Americans


(Lauritsen and Sampson, 1998). Consequently,
most analysis of disparity and discrimination


in crime and criminal justice has focused on
comparisons between blacks and whites. In


general, the available scientific evidence on crime
victimization suggests the following patterns:

Blacks suffer much higher rates of personal
violence and violent victimization than
whites. 8 As discussed in greater detail




below, this is particularly true for homicide



Source: Cooper and Smith (2011: 11).




6 | New Perspectives in Policing

Figure 2. Homicide Offending Rated by Race, 1980-2008

blacks (34.4 per 100,000) was almost eight times
higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000)


(figure 2). The vast majority of homicides are intraracial, with 84 percent of white victims killed by
whites and 93 percent of black victims killed by
blacks (figure 3). Black males between the ages


of 18 and 24 are dramatically overrepresented in


homicide. Homicides of young black males in this
age category peaked at 195.9 victimizations per


100,000 in 1993 and subsequently declined to 91.1








victimizations per 100,000 in 2008. Homicides by
young adult black males peaked at 365 offenders
per 100,000 in 1993 and subsequently declined to
175.8 offenders per 100,000 in 2008.

Source: Cooper and Smith (2011: 11).

Black homicide victimizations are less likely
to be cleared by arrest than white homicide
victimizations. A recent analysis of 2000-2007

Figure 3. Homicides, by Race of Offender and Victim, 1980-2008

homicide data from the National Incident-


Based Reporting System (NIBRS) reported that


57.2 percent of white homicide victim cases
were cleared by arrest while only 50.6 percent

Black on black

of black homicide victim cases were cleared by

arrest (Roberts and Lyons, 2011). In general, the
White on white

circumstances of homicide incidents powerfully
influence clearance rates. For example, offenders



in gang-related and drug-related homicides






Black on white

are much less likely to be arrested by homicide

White on black

detectives (Wellford and Cronin, 2000), in part



due to lack of witness cooperation. Further, black
males are more likely than white males to be
involved in these kinds of homicide incidents
(Cook and Laub, 2002). Without citizens coming

Source: Cooper and Smith (2011: 13).

forward to provide detectives with much needed
information, investigations of gang and drug
homicides can hit dead ends quickly, with no
substantive leads.

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 7

Some analysts suggest that the killings of black

explaining observed differences in homicide

male victims receive less investigative time

victimization and offending rates for young black

and effort from homicide detectives (Roberts

and white males. As summarized by Lauritsen

and Lyons, 2011), whereas others suggest that

and Sampson (1998: 65-66):

white female homicide victims receive more
investigative time and effort (Holcomb. Williams,

Constitutional explanations are problematic

and Demuth, 2004). Most available research on

on empirical grounds — the variations within

clearance rates finds little evidence of homicide

any minority group are greater than the

detectives valuing or devaluing victims based

variations between them. Although there

on race (Puckett and Lundman, 2003; Litwin,

is good evidence that family socialization

2004; Lundman and Myers, 2012), but there are

inf luences children’s delinquency and

some noteworthy exceptions. For instance, a

aggressive behavior patterns, there is no

multivariate analysis of homicides in Los Angeles

consistent evidence that factors such as lack

County between 1990 and 1994 suggested that

of supervision and erratic/harsh discipline

white homicide victims received additional

account for race differences in crime when

investigation attention and, as a result, their cases

socioeconomic conditions are taken into

were more likely to be solved than those involving

account. Subcultural explanations of

nonwhite homicide victims (Lee, 2005).

group variation in offending have yet to
show that black and white Americans differ

The extremely high homicide victimization

significantly in their values and attitudes

and offending rates for young black males in

regarding crime, or that these differences

the early 1990s has been tied to gun violence

in values have an independent influence

epidemics tipped off by the initiation of crack

on offending disparities. Finally, research

cocaine sales in most U.S. cities during the

emphasizing access to the legitimate

late 1980s (Blumstein, 1995; Braga, 2003; Cork,

economic system typically finds that race

1999). Although the intensity of black homicide

differences persist even after controlling for

rates has changed over the last century, the

socioeconomic status.

persistence of the black-white homicide rate
gap has not (Hawkins, 1999). Criminologists

Another diagnostic approach is to examine

have long considered the reasons for observed

the community-level underpinnings of racial

racial disparities in violence and have put forth

disparities in violent crime to identify the

a variety of explanations, including individual

neighborhood characteristics that lead to high

factors (most notably, IQ and self-control),

rates of violence (Sampson and Wilson, 1985).

family socialization, subculture of violence and

Empirical evidence suggests that the capacity

economic deprivation theories (see, e.g., Wilson

of neighborhood residents to achieve a common

and Herrnstein, 1985). Unfortunately, most of

set of goals and exert control over youth and

these perspectives have been unsatisfactory in

public spaces, termed “collective efficacy,”

8 | New Perspectives in Policing

protects against serious violence (Sampson,

and relationships between victims and offenders

Raudenbush and Earls, 1997). The presence

(Braga, Piehl and Kennedy, 1999; Maxfield,

of community-based organizations, which

1989; Riedel and Zahn, 1985). Careful within-

draw membership from individuals within

city research on homicide facilitates a deeper

and outside specific neighborhoods, predicts

understanding of the situations, dynamics and

collective efficacy and collective civic action

relationships associated with elevated rates of

(Sampson, 2012). Concentrated disadvantage in

black homicide victimization and offending.

urban neighborhoods, which are often populated
efficacy and gravely limits the ability of residents

City-Level Analysis of Black Homicide Victims
and Black Homicide Offenders

to address serious violent crime problems

We use detailed data on homicides in Boston

(Sampson and Wilson, 1985). As a result, urban

to examine the nature of black homicide

homicides, largely committed with guns and

victimization and offending in urban settings.

perpetrated by and against young black men,

Although modest differences are associated

tend to concentrate in disadvantaged black

with variations in local dynamics across other


U.S. cities, the basic picture of black homicide

by black residents, undermines local collective

victimization as highly concentrated among
Urban environments experience the largest

a small number of active offenders involved

proportion of homicides, and black Americans

in high-risk social networks is essentially the

tend to make up larger shares of urban

same. Research has consistently documented

populations relative to suburban and rural

that violence driven by conflicts within and

areas. Between 1980 and 2008, nearly 58 percent

among gangs, drug-selling crews and other

of homicides occurred in U.S. cities with a

criminally active groups generate the bulk of

population of 100,000 or more (Cooper and Smith,

urban homicide problems (see, e.g., Block and

2011). More than one-third of all homicides in the

Block, 1993; Kennedy, Piehl and Braga, 1996;

U.S. during that same time period occurred in

Papachristos, 2009; Tita et al., 2004).

cities with one million or more residents. Citylevel analyses provide an important opportunity

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 24 percent of

to understand the nature of homicide problems

Boston’s estimated 618,000 residents identified

better. While useful in describing objective

themselves as black. Between 2000 and 2013,

information on homicide incidents such as age,

Boston experienced 836 homicides. Nearly 74

race, sex and weapon type, national data systems,

percent of Boston homicide victims were black

such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s

(615 of 836), and roughly 68 percent of arrested

Supplementary Homicide Reports, are well-

homicide offenders were also black (294 of 430).

known to be limited in providing reliable and

In cleared black homicides (218, 35.4 percent

valid information on homicide circumstances

of 615), 91.7 percent of the offenders were black

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 9

(200 of 218). As figure 4 shows, the year-to-year
variation in total homicide counts in Boston is
largely driven by black homicide victimization

Figure 4. Total Homicide Victims and Black Homicide Victims in Boston, 2000-2013
Number of Homicide Victims
Total Homicide Victims



Black homicide victims were primarily young


(mean age = 26.6 years, 54 percent were age


24 and younger), overwhelmingly male (91.1


percent), and usually died from gunshot wounds


Black Homicide Victims

(84.1 percent). Arrested black homicide offenders

were also primarily young (mean age = 25.0
years, 59.5 percent were age 24 and younger)


and overwhelmingly male (94.2 percent). In





addition, 78 percent of black homicide victims








(480 of 615) and almost 90 percent of arrested
black homicide offenders (264 of 294) were known
to the Massachusetts criminal justice system
before the homicide incident. Black homicide

two groups — homicide offenders and victims —

victims and arrested black homicide offenders

are essentially the same. Figure 5 (page 10) shows

known to the criminal justice system averaged,

the previous criminal justice system involvement

respectively, 12.4 and 12.7 prior arraignments

of known black homicide victims and known

in Massachusetts courts for a variety of violent,

arrested black homicide offenders. Probation

drug, property and disorder offenses. So these

supervision, commitments to secure facilities

Circumstances of Boston Homicide Victims by Race, 2000-2013
Non-Hispanic Black

Non-Hispanic White








Personal dispute/argument










Family/domestic violence




















Note: Percentages may not add up because of rounding.






10 | New Perspectives in Policing

Figure 5. Criminal Justice System Involvement of Known Black Homicide Victims
and Known Arrested Black Homicide Offenders in Boston, 2000-2013

intersections experienced nearly 74 percent of all
fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city between
1980 and 2008. The most violent 60 street blocks


and intersections experienced more than 1,000



shootings during this time period.






Boston, like many cities, suffers gang-related
violence that tends to generate a large number
of black homicide victims. The table on page 9




presents the circumstances of 573 non-Hispanic


black and 90 non-Hispanic white homicide


victims killed in Boston between 2000 and 2013.


that only 5 percent of Boston’s street blocks and

The share of gang-related homicides accounts
Prior Probation

Active Probation

Prior Commitment to
Secure Facility

Prior Felony


% Black Homicide Victims
% Black Homicide Offenders

Note: N = 480 for known black homicide victims; N = 265 for known arrested black homicide offenders.

for the greatest difference in the circumstances
of white and black homicides. Few Boston black
male youths are gang members. The most recent
estimate, in 2006, suggests that only 1 percent
of Boston’s population between the ages of 14

and felony convictions characterized the prior

and 24 (Braga, Hureau and Winship, 2008) were

criminal justice system experiences of both of

members of street gangs involved in gun violence.

these groups.

However, black male youth participation in these
high-risk social networks that promote violent

A majority of black homicide victims (78.9 percent,

norms to settle disputes puts them at elevated risk

485 of 618) were killed in the Roxbury, Dorchester

of becoming a perpetrator or a victim of fatal gun

and Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston.


Inhabitants of these areas are mostly black, and
these communities are characterized by high

A recent study analyzed detailed police records

levels of social and economic disadvantage.

to map the social networks of 763 individuals

Homicides are not evenly spread throughout these

in one Boston community, using non-arrest

neighborhoods, though. In fact, most streets did

observations to create links between individuals

not experience any homicide incidents between

(the nodes) who were observed hanging out

2000 and 2013. Rather, black homicide incidents

together (Papachristos, Braga and Hureau, 2012).

tend to recur in very specific places, such as in

The study found that 85 percent of all shootings

and around public housing dwellings, gang turfs

in this community occur within the observed

and street drug markets. A recent analysis by

network (less than 3 percent of total neighborhood

Braga, Papachristos and Hureau (2010) revealed

population)—nearly all of which are driven by 10

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 11

different gangs, also observed in the network. The

Figure 6. Social Networks of High-Risk Individuals in a Boston Community, 2008

risk of fatal and nonfatal gun victimization within
the network spreads outward from other shooting
victims to infect their friends and associates. In
fact, each “handshake” closer one is to a shooting
victim increases one’s own probability of getting
shot by approximately 25 percent (figure 6).
Boston Police Department (BPD) homicide
detectives cleared 50.9 percent of all homicide
v ict i m i zat ions by a r rest or except iona l
circumstances, such as the subsequent suicide
or murder of the offender, between 2000 and
2013 (426 of 836 homicide victims). Incidents
involving homicides of white non-Hispanic
victims had an 80.0 percent clearance rate (72
of 90 non-Hispanic white homicide victims).
However, BPD homicide detectives only cleared

Source: Papachristos, Braga and Hureau (2012: 998).
Note: Grey nodes represent individuals in the network. Red nodes represent individuals in the network
who suffered a fatal or nonfatal gunshot wound.

35.9 percent of non-Hispanic black homicide
victims during this same time period (204 of

lower clearance rates in black neighborhoods

573 non-Hispanic black homicide victims). This

are not race-based. Indeed, disadvantaged white

disparity seems to be strongly influenced by very

neighborhoods of Boston have been known to

low clearance rates for gang-related homicides.

exhibit similar patterns of violence and lack of

Only 26.0 percent of gang-related non-Hispanic

cooperation with the police. For instance, the

black homicides (82 of 315) were cleared by arrest

Charlestown, South Boston and North End

or exceptional circumstances between 2000 and

neighborhoods of Boston were noted strongholds

2013. Data derived from qualitative interviews

of Irish and Italian organized crime organizations

with BPD homicide detectives suggest that low

during the 1960s through the 1980s that were

levels of witness cooperation in gang homicide

characterized by repeated, unsolved killings by

cases, driven by citizen fear of violent reprisals

warring factions of the organizations (Lehr and

or participation in criminal social networks

O’Neill, 2000; MacDonald, 1999; O’Neill and

with norms against sharing information with

Lehr, 1989). Criminal subcultures that embrace

the police, seriously limit investigators’ ability

violent norms in settling disputes and promote

to make arrests in these kinds of cases.

anti-police attitudes exist in impoverished
neighborhoods with varied racial compositions.

It is worth noting here that the criminal dynamics

However, black neighborhoods suffer higher rates

that characterize high levels of homicides and

of this kind of criminal network violence due to

12 | New Perspectives in Policing

the more intense concentration of disadvantage in

disadvantaged neighborhoods as the black-on­

these neighborhoods (Sampson and Wilson, 1985).

black violence problem. We acknowledge that this
designation is undeniably statistically accurate,

How Weak Descriptions Further Erode
Community Trust and Confidence

victims and offenders of the same race. However,

Research and analysis thus reveal that black-on­

this higher-level statistical view can blind us to

black homicide, and by extension more general

the details of the specific problems and dynamics

black-on-black violence, is largely concentrated

that drive these statistics.

given that most interpersonal violence involves

among a small number of criminally active
individuals and occurs in a small number

Seldom are crimes involving whites described as

of high-risk settings within disadvantaged

white-on-white violence. Use of this vernacular

neighborhoods. It is important to remember,

to describe blacks’ victimization of other blacks

however, that many black homicide victims are

has several important consequences. First, a

not involved in any criminal activity. For instance,

singular focus on a rudimentary race-based dyad

in 2009, 15-year-old Soheil Turner was waiting for

characterizing black offending and victimization

his early morning school bus in Boston’s Dudley

has the potential to devalue black life while

Square near the Orchard Gardens (formerly

overshadowing the importance of harmful social

Orchard Park) housing development. Turner

conditions, such as concentrated neighborhood

was not involved in gangs. Nevertheless, he was

disadvantage and low collective eff icacy

shot once in the back of the head by 18-year-old

(Sampson, 2012) that collectively produce crime.

Xzeniyeju Chukwuezi, a member of the Dudley

Second, casual use of the black-on-black violence

Street Posse looking to send a message to the

classification may lead segments of the public to

rival Orchard Park Trailblazers. Tragedies like

implicitly assume that blacks are more tolerant

this, involving innocent bystanders, occur too

of crime and disorder and do not share the moral

frequently in cities across the U.S. All homicide

standards of mainstream society.

victims and offenders, regardless of their status
as criminals or not, are members of someone’s
family. In disadvantaged neighborhoods with
limited opportunities, many otherwise promising
youth become involved in criminal activities. And
whether they are lost to ghastly street violence
or to the justice system, family and friends will
grieve over their absence.

Further, tensions between the police and
minority communities are worsened when
frustrated public officials hold press conferences
following high-profile homicides, chastising
residents of black neighborhoods for not
coming forward with information, unwittingly
calling into question the black community’s
fundamental sense of decency or commitment

As we noted earlier, commentators routinely

to citizenship. Such proclamations about blacks’

refer to eruptions of violence in minorit y,

unwavering reticence to assist the police are not

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 13

only inflammatory, they are also exaggerated.

problem-oriented policing, hot spots policing

In fact, blacks comprise a sizable proportion of

initiatives, and focused deterrence strategies

prosecution witnesses and routinely petition

(Braga and Weisburd, 2010, 2012; Weisburd et al.,

criminal justice officials for increased attention


to community violence, irrespective of family and
friendship relationships with offenders (Donziger,

Unfortunately, despite these important reforms,

1996; Tonry, 1995).

it remains surprisingly difficult to get residents
of poor minority neighborhoods to engage

Evolving Police Strategies to Engage
Minority Communities

constructively with police due to a history of

The evolution of policing strategies is highly

the sincerity of the police, and fear of reprisals

relevant to the effective treatment of these issues.

from local criminals when cooperating with the

Through the adoption of community and problem-

police (Skogan and Frydl, 2004). Further, highly

oriented policing, the way police departments

disadvantaged neighborhoods often lack the

deliver services in urban communities in general,

organizational infrastructure to collaborate

and disadvantaged communities in particular,

with the police to manage crime and disorder.

has changed dramatically over the last 30 years

The available research suggests that community

(Skogan and Frydl, 2004). By the beginning of the

policing has been unevenly implemented

2000s, nearly all large urban police departments

within police departments, with responsibility

reported having a community policing program

for community-based initiatives sometimes

in place (Hickman and Reaves, 2001). Police are

relegated to specialized units comprising a small

now more open to input from communities, deal

number of officers rather than spread across

with a wider range of complex social problems,

police departments (Skogan and Frydl, 2004;

and rely on partnerships more heavily. In general,

Skogan, 2006). Many police agencies still have

broad-based community policing initiatives have

far to go in developing real working relationships

been found to reduce fear of crime and improve

with the minority communities they serve.

the relationships between the police and the
communities they serve (Skogan and Frydl,
2004; Weisburd and Eck, 2004). Modern police
departments are also more likely to systematically
analyze the nature of crime problems, develop
tailored responses to those problems, and engage
a diverse set of strategies and partners in their
implemented responses. Indeed, a growing body
of scientific evidence confirms the crime control
value of innovative police strategies such as

strained relationships, continued skepticism of

Inaccurate descriptions and poor analysis
of crime problems can lead to inappropriate
and ineffective police responses to recurring
incidents. Goldstein (1990) urged police officers
to ensure adequate depth when analyzing
crime problems so that interventions could be
appropriately focused, and a broader range of
responses, beyond just increasing presence and
making arrests, could be considered. Whereas
police departments should be encouraged to

14 | New Perspectives in Policing

pursue strategies artfully tailored to specific

of neighborhood policing efforts, it potentially

risks (such as hot spots, repeat victims, high-

suggests to bystanders that officers are involved

rate offenders, or gang hostilities (Braga, 2008)),

in a fierce battle with every neighborhood

how the police choose to address these recurring

resident, regardless of their law-abiding status

problems may either improve or further damage

(Brunson and Weitzer, 2009). The urban warfare

their relationships with minority residents.

mindset begets particular kinds of tactical

Police departments can adopt crime prevention

operations and has the potential to create a rift

strategies that seek to engage the community in

between neighborhood residents and the police,

changing the underlying conditions, situations

reducing citizens’ level of trust in officers and

and dynamics that cause violence to recur.

their willingness to participate in local crime-

Alternatively, police departments can simply

reduction efforts (Brunson and Gau, 2014). The

“put cops on dots” through directed patrols or

vast majority of urban residents, of course, are

carry out enforcement blitzes aimed at potential

not anti-police and fully recognize that officers

offenders in high-violence areas. The overly

are critical to public safety (Carr, Napolitano

simplistic “black-on-black violence” problem

and Keating, 2007). Yet, what many minorities

description seems likely to encourage officers to

consider over-policing, combined with occasional

pursue harsher and less thoughtful approaches,

disrespectful treatment at the hands of officers,

concentrating intensive enforcement efforts

intensifies black citizens’ overall negative views

or zero-tolerance policies on blacks in specific

of the police.

public spaces.
Over-policing refers to officers intervening in
Citizens’ appraisals of the police are influenced

matters that, to everyday citizens, seemingly

by the style of policing in their communities.

do not warrant law enforcement action. Over-

Minorities living in distressed neighborhoods

policing typically occurs in locales that the

routinely report high levels of dissatisfaction

police deem suspicious and/or dangerous due

with, and skepticism of, the police (Bass, 2001;

to obvious signs of disorder and perceptions

Websdale, 2001). Police executives and city

that a considerable number of crime-prone

managers sometimes point to elevated crime

individuals operate there (Klinger, 1997).

rates to justify officers’ use of aggressive policing

Where the police consider certain places (and

initiatives in poor black neighborhoods. The

some of the people they encounter there) more

use of what residents may consider heav y-

menacing, they are likely to approach otherwise

handed and oppressive crime-control tactics

mundane situations with greater unease than

has resulted in some policing strategies being

they might in more tranquil settings (Klinger,

compared to “urban warfare” (Brunson and

1997). Further, in extremely disadvantaged

Gau, 2014). For instance, when specialized

neighborhoods, the police disproportionately

units and task forces constitute the foundation

use force when attempting to control and/or

The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 15

apprehend suspects (Kane, 2002; Smith, 1986;

consequences of over-policing, in economically

Terrill and Reisig, 2003). Officers’ disparate use

disadvantaged, black neighborhoods residents’

of force in high-crime, minority neighborhoods

concerns about local crime control efforts may

may unknowingly diminish their moral authority

equally center on under-policing (see Kennedy,

in the eyes of community residents. Poor blacks

1997; Smith, 1986). Specifically, urban blacks

disproportionately experience over-policing,

frequently express dissatisfaction regarding

and research demonstrates that people are less

delayed response times, uncertain prioritization

likely to cooperate with officers’ directives if they

of calls for service, and the overall perception that

are not treated with respect (Tyler, 2006). Hence,

police are not committed to solving crimes that

aggressive policing strategies set the stage for

have been reported (Brunson, 2007). Brunson and

increased acrimony between the police and

Weitzer (2009) examined disadvantaged urban

disadvantaged blacks.

males’ experiences with police across three
neighborhoods that varied by racial composition:

Brunson and Miller (2006) found that young

one was lower class and black, the second was

black men reported being routinely stopped by

lower class and predominantly white, and the

police and “…believed that despite their best

third was lower class and racially mixed. They

efforts, they were not able to convincingly present

noted that “perceived police under-protection or

themselves as law-abiding, even when they

poor service in poor, minority neighborhoods has

were, due to the confounding influences of race

been complained about for generations, and some

and place in the creation of symbolic assailants”

of [their] respondents made the same complaint”

(p. 636). An abundant body of research reveals

(p. 876). Poor service and a lack of empathy can

that officers’ preconceived notions about race,

certainly occur at the same time police officers

place and crime can lead to patterns of behavior

are saturating neighborhoods with resources to

that leave urban black males believing they are

control outbreaks of violence.

perpetual targets for the police (for a summary,
see Brunson and Gau, 2014). Fairness and

Citizens complain of under-policing when

impartiality are fundamental to police legitimacy

of f icers appear to dismiss cer tain ca lls

(Tyler, 2006). Heavy-handed policing tactics

for service or fail to make arrests in poor

underway in far too many black neighborhoods,

neighborhoods for offenses that individuals

coupled with some officers’ predetermined view

living there unequivocally believe would be

regarding criminal involvement of young black

severely punished in wealthier communities

men, seriously challenge efforts to improve police

(Klinger, 1997). Residents of distressed, high-

legitimacy in minority neighborhoods.

crime neighborhoods consistently report higher
levels of dissatisfaction with the police and often

Although recent scholarship has devoted

blame the police for persistent crime and disorder

con siderable at tent ion to t he ha r m f u l

problems (Weitzer and Tuch, 2006; Weitzer, 2010).

16 | New Perspectives in Policing

Residents of crime-plagued neighborhoods often

respond to incidents, and engage with them in

call for greater police presence. In fact, Weitzer

appropriately focused rather than indiscriminate

(2010: 121) “… found that 85 percent of Hispanics

policing strategies.

and 88 percent of African Americans favored
more police surveillance of high crime areas.”

Careful analysis can lead to clarity in describing

Much like their white counterparts, minority

urban violence patterns and can thus improve

citizens understand the need for improved

police-minority community relations in at least

police effectiveness. However, routine eruptions

two important ways. First, police executives can

of neighborhood violence often cause poor

better frame and communicate to constituents

minorities to doubt that they are receiving equal

the true nature of serious violent crime problems.

protection, reducing their overall confidence in

Second, careful analysis can lead to the

and satisfaction with police.

development and implementation of effective
and appropriately focused crime reduction

Police executives, politicians and political
commentators need to refrain from using
overly simplistic descriptions — such as
“black-on-black” violence — when describing
outbreaks of serious criminal violence in black
neighborhoods. Because the police represent the
most visible face of government and have primary
responsibility for maintaining public safety in all
neighborhoods, police executives in particular
should avoid framing urban violence problems in
this way. Inappropriate use of such phrases can
inadvertently promote inappropriate policing
activities in black neighborhoods, which in turn
erode the community’s trust and confidence in
the police and inhibit cooperation with them.
Disadvantaged neighborhoods that suffer from
serious violence need and benefit from focused

strategies. The type of analysis conducted in
Boston, described above, is well within the reach
of most urban police departments.
Inappropriate framing of urban criminal violence
problems, and the policies and practices that
result, constitute substantial obstacles for police
departments and for minority communities
struggling to solve these critical issues. We believe
the key to progress lies with careful analysis of
the specific dynamics that generate patterns of
violence and a broader appreciation of the value
of carefully tailored police interventions.


police attention. Black residents clearly want

2 . ht t p s://w w w.y out u b e.c om /w at c h? v =

police in their neighborhoods. However, they


want the police to know the community, treat
residents with respect and dignity, prevent

3. http://w w­

future outbreaks of violence rather than merely


The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence | 17


that blacks represented only 13.1 percent of the


U.S. population.


states/00000.html (accessed Apr. 27, 2014).


5. http://w w
c om m i s s ione r-k e l l y- d e f e n d s - s t op -a n d­
frisk-ta rget ing-a frica n-a mericans-a r t icle­
6. lynn-says­
policing-not-cause-high-rate-black-ma le­
7. http://dictionar
random (accessed May 8, 2014).
8. According to the National Crime Victimization
Survey, in 2012, blacks had a serious violent
v ict imizat ion (rape, robber y, aggravated
assault) rate of 11.3 per 1,000 people ages 12
and older, whereas whites had a serious violent
victimization rate of 6.8 per 1,000 people ages 12
and older (Langton, Planty and Truman, 2013).
9. Accord i ng to t he Federa l Bu reau of
Investigation, whites accounted for 58.7 percent
of persons arrested for violent crimes, and blacks

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Anthony Braga is the Don M. Gottfredson
Professor of Evidence-Based Criminology, School
of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, and
Senior Research Fellow, Program in Criminal
Justice Policy and Management, John F. Kennedy
School of Government, Harvard University. Rod
K. Brunson is Vice Dean for Academic Affairs,

Weisburd, David, Cody Telep, Joshua Hinkle, and

Ph.D. Program Director, and Associate Professor,

John Eck. 2010. “Is Problem-Oriented Policing

School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University.

Effective in Reducing Crime and Disorder?
Findings from a Campbell Systematic Review.


Criminology & Public Policy 9: 139-172.

The authors would like to thank Charles Ramsey,
Malcolm Sparrow, Darrel Stephens, Christine

Weitzer, Ronald. 2010. “Race and Policing in

Cole, and members of the Harvard Executive

Different Ecological Contexts.” In Race, Ethnicity

Session on Policing and Public Safety for their

and Policing: New and Essential Readings, edited

helpful comments on earlier versions of this

by Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White. New

paper. They also would like to thank Anthony

York: New York University Press.

Bator for his excellent research assistance.

Weitzer, Ronald, and Steven Tuch. 2006. Race and
Policing in America: Conflict and Reform. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Findings and conclusions in this publication are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Members of the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety
Commissioner Anthony Batts, Baltimore
Police Department

Chief Edward Flynn, Milwaukee
Police Department

Professor David Bayley, Distinguished
Professor (Emeritus), School of Criminal
Justice, State University of New York at

Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent,
New Jersey State Police

Professor Anthony Braga, Senior Research
Fellow, Program in Criminal Justice Policy
and Management, John F. Kennedy School
of Government, Harvard University; and
Don M. Gottfredson Professor of EvidenceBased Criminology, School of Criminal
Justice, Rutgers University
Chief Jane Castor, Tampa Police Department
Ms. Christine Cole (Facilitator), Executive
Director, Program in Criminal Justice Policy
and Management, John F. Kennedy School
of Government, Harvard University
Commissioner Edward Davis, Boston
Police Department (retired)
Chief Michael Davis, Director, Public Safet y
Division, Northeastern University

District Attorney George Gascón, San
Francisco District Attorney’s Office
Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, Director, Office of
National Drug Control Policy
Professor John H. Laub, Distinguished
University Professor, Department of
Criminology and Criminal Justice, College of
Behavioral and Social Sciences, University
of Maryland, and former Director of the
National Institute of Justice
Chief Susan Manheimer, San Mateo
Police Department
Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Chicago
Police Department
Professor Tracey Meares, Walton Hale
Hamilton Professor of Law, Yale Law School
Dr. Bernard K. Melekian, Director, Office

Mr. Ronald Davis, Director, Office of
Community Oriented Policing Services,
United States Department of Justice

of Community Oriented Policing Services
(retired), United States Department of

Ms. Madeline deLone, Executive Director,
The Innocence Project

Ms. Sue Rahr, Director, Washington State
Criminal Justice Training Commission

Dr. Richard Dudley, Clinical and Forensic

Commissioner Charles Ramsey,
Philadelphia Police Department

Professor Greg Ridgeway, Associate
Professor of Criminology, University of
Pennsylvania, and former Acting Director,
National Institute of Justice
Professor David Sklansky, Yosef
Osheawich Professor of Law, University of
California, Berkeley, School of Law
Mr. Sean Smoot, Director and Chief Legal
Counsel, Police Benevolent and Protective
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Professor Malcolm Sparrow, Professor
of Practice of Public Management, John F.
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
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Worth Police Officers Association
Lieutenant Paul M. Weber, Los Angeles
Police Department
Professor David Weisburd, Walter E. Meyer
Professor of Law and Criminal Justice,
Faculty of Law, The Hebrew University;
and Distinguished Professor, Department
of Criminology, Law and Society, George
Mason University
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Police Executive Research Forum

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