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Community Accountability, Minority Threat, and Police Brutality: An Examination of Civil Rights Criminal Complaints

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 41 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2003 Pages: 1035-1063
Brad W. Smith; Malcolm D. Holmes
Robert J. Bursik Jr.
Date Published
November 2003
29 pages
This study examined the effects of two structural-level theories, community accountability and minority threat, on the incidence of police brutality civil rights criminal complaints.
Even though there is a growing body of evidence that minorities are disproportionately the victims of police brutality, important theoretical questions regarding the origin of the disproportion remain unclear. The few existing studies do not incorporate variables from alternative theoretical explanations, thereby limiting inferences regarding the reasons why racial and ethnic minorities are targeted for brutality. Drawing on the community accountability hypothesis and the minority threat hypothesis, this study tested the predictions of these two prominent structural-level explanations of police brutality in a study of civil rights criminal complaints. The community accountability perspective entails a set of closely related propositions derived from an organizational approach that maintain formal and informal characteristics of police organization influence officers’ street-level behavior, including excessive force. The threat argument maintains that aggregate measures of minority threat predict the employment of crime control mechanisms by the police. The civil rights criminal complaints dataset was extended to include community accountability variables. The study combined the central variables of the community accountability and threat hypotheses in a single analysis. The investigation focused on municipal police departments in cities across the county with populations of 150,000 or more. The theory that better explained the incidence of police brutality was identified as minority threat. The threat hypothesis is supported insofar as large effects of the measures of threatening people, percent Black and percent Hispanic in the Southwest exist despite the inclusion of five key community accountability variables. The findings for minority representation in police departments coincide with structural arguments concerning the social and economic organization of minority communities, consistent with conflict theory. The degree to which minority representation reduces police brutality may be largely contingent on the social organization of minority communities. Until exhaustive research has been done on police organization and police brutality, only guarded conclusions should be drawn. References