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

May 27, 2015


A new report released today by Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety (2008-2014), sheds fresh light on media coverage of racial issues, and presents the case for more sober analysis of black-on-black violence when measured as a homicide problem. Also addressed is how misconceptions of black-on-black violence coupled with over- and/or under-policing of black neighborhoods can further erode citizen confidence in the police.

The report, titled “The Police and Public Discourse on ‘Black-on-Black’ Violence” (pdf) was co-authored by Senior Research Fellow Anthony A. Braga and Rod K. Brunson and funded by the OJP National Institute of Justice (NIJ) as part of the Executive Session’s ‘New Perspectives in Policing’ series.

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 violent crime. The authors argue that 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. Because the police represent the most visible face of government and have primary responsibility for maintaining public safety in all neighborhoods, Braga and Brunson contend that 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 co-operation with them,” the authors write.

Braga and Brunson argue that careful analysis can lead to clarity in describing urban violence patterns, and can thus improve police-minority community relations in at least two important ways. First, police executives can better frame and communicate to constituents the true nature of serious violent crime problems. Second, careful analysis can lead to the development and implementation of effective and appropriately focused crime reduction strategies.

The Police and Public Discourse on ‘Black-on-Black’ Violence” (pdf) is published as part of the New Perspectives in Policing series from the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety under the auspices of Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). 

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