People Living In High-Crime Areas Respect The Law, But Distrust The Police

People in highly policed neighborhoods don’t have many complaints about following the law. When it comes to the people who administer the law, though, it’s a different story.

People Living In High-Crime Areas Respect The Law, But Distrust The Police
[Photo: eric1513/iStock] [Photo: eric1513/iStock]

We know that police target poor communities, but how do the people in those communities view the police? Unsurprisingly, not too well: Because of how aggressively police target people in high-crime neighborhoods with pretextual stops, excessive violence, and other tactics, residents may justifiably be wary of helping cops to prevent and solve actual crime. But new research from the Urban Institute shows that while people in high-crime areas don’t view police too favorably, they’re willing to work with them because they respect the law and its power to rein in the bad actors in their neighborhoods.


To compile the report, How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police? researchers from the Urban Institute visited six cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Stockton, California. They found that “less than a third of residents believe police respect people’s rights, but the vast majority believe laws should be strictly followed and many would volunteer their time to help police solve crimes, find suspects, and discuss crime in their neighborhood,” according to the report.

[Photo: aijohn784/iStock]

This disparity arises from how police treat the people in their districts. While 42.5% of respondents believe that police in the community are “legitimate authorities,” only a quarter believe that the police actually behave according to the law when dealing with people. That’s likely a result of racial bias: 55.5% of respondents believe that cops judge people and treat them differently based on ethnicity, which leads to unfounded assumptions about their criminality.

When the questions switch to the law itself, things change. Almost three-quarters of respondents agree that all laws should be strictly obeyed, but when asked about the relevance of the law to their own communities, only 49.2% agreed with the statement: “The laws of our system are generally consistent with the views of the people in your community about what is just and right.” In essence: People respect the law, but don’t always feel that the laws themselves are crafted with their particular circumstances in mind. That being said, people in high-crime neighborhoods are willing to work with the police to see that justice is done: 70.8% would call the police to report a crime, and 63.5% would provide information to help the police find a suspect.

The problem, though, is more how people feel about the police. They are viewed as illegitimate custodians of the law, persecuting poor people based on their race, and “often arrest people for no good reason.” Just 23.8% of respondents said that they thought the police are honest; only 30.1% trust them.The variations in responses in the six cities where the surveys took place are small, suggesting that this attitude is the norm.

The trick, then, says the report, to more successfully policing high-crime, low-income communities is to introduce a concept called procedural justice:

Procedural justice is composed of four perceptions or beliefs on the part of residents: they should have a voice when interacting with police, police are trustworthy, the law is fair and should be followed, and police apply the law fairly and appropriately.

Right now, few if any of these points hold true in poor communities. By disregarding these principles, police have effectively isolated residents of these neighborhoods from their larger communities, creating meaningless distinctions based on race and income. But if cities could train police to treat people fairly, they could create a more equitable and unified community for all residents.

About the author

Previously found writing at, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.