In Derek Chauvin’s murder trial in Minneapolis, the United States is once again grappling with bad policing and police violence — and local governments are on trial along with the White former police officer. After George Floyd died almost a year ago, spontaneous protests nationwide became the largest and most sustained such mobilization in U.S. history. Black Lives Matter demonstrators regularly demanded that local governments rein in the police. Scholars have found that, in some communities, bad or violent policing leads to distrust and disengagement from local government.

Both public officials and scholars broadly agree governments are better able to address community problems when residents view government actions as fair and legitimate. For most Americans, police are the street-level bureaucrats with whom they are most likely to interact, their first and most frequent contact with government. These police departments and county sheriffs are under local governments’ jurisdiction — and so poor police performance evaluations and police violence against people of color undermine both the rule of law and those governments’ credibility and legitimacy in communities of color, our research finds.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we also found that an individual’s race and ethnicity helps shapes whether police violence or poor police evaluations undermine their trust in local government.

How we did our research

We wanted to assess the relationship between police violence, poor evaluations of the police, and community evaluations of local law enforcement. To do that, we examined data from the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey, a nationally representative survey of over 10,000 respondents that includes a relatively large number of people of color compared to other surveys, and which asks respondents about their feelings, and experiences with local law enforcement. We combined that with data from the Census Bureau, FBI crime statistics, and the Mapping Police Violence Project.

We examined levels of trust in local government by such variables as race, gender, ideology, and personal experiences with crime and police, such as having been a victim of a crime in the past five years or if respondents were ever stopped or arrested by police. Finally, we accounted for community context at the Zip code level, looking at such factors as poverty level, racial composition, crime rates and incidence of excessive police force resulting in civilian deaths.

In communities with violent policing, residents had less trust in local government

We find that among all racial/ethnic groups, poor police performance (measured as whether the respondent thought their local police were doing a poor job) was significantly correlated with a decrease in trust in local government. Black respondents reporting poor police performance were 78 percent less likely to have high levels of trust in local government compared to Black respondents who did not think the police were doing a poor job. Here we are defining “high trust” as the highest rating on a scale of four possible answers. When compared to others in their ethnic groups, Asian respondents who reported poor police performance were 61 percent less likely to have high trust in local government; Latino respondents were 69 percent less likely; and White respondents were 84 percent less likely to have high trust in local government.

In communities with a high number of deaths at the hands of police according to the Mapping Police Violence Project, White respondents were 99 percent less likely to have high trust in local government, defined in the same way, compared to other Whites in areas with lower levels of police-involved deaths. Here we’re defining levels of police-involved deaths operationalized as the per capita number of confirmed killings by police that occurred within a Zip code between 2013 and 2016. Although Whites may be less likely to be the victims, police violence also undermines the trust White respondents have in local government.

We broke down responses among individuals who had direct interactions with police by several measures. Black respondents were 32 percent less likely to have high trust in local government if they were stopped by police in their cars by. Black respondents had the only statistically significant correlation with this type of police interaction.

Interestingly, those who reported having been crime victims also lost trust in local government. Most notably, Asian respondents who reported being victims of a crime were 45 percent less likely to express a high level of trust in government than other Asians who had not been crime victims. Though not statistically significant, Black, Latino, and White respondents who had been crime victims were also less likely to trust local governments.

U.S. democracy promises equality in its founding documents and ongoing rhetoric but applies the law unequally in practice. As a result, many Americans — minorities in particular — become skeptical of democracy and see government as hypocritical.

We find that poor policing and police violence undermine trust in local governments, inhibiting participation in local elections, cooperation with the police and community engagement in general — especially among communities of color that police have disproportionately targeted. Historical patterns of segregation in communities of color literally and figuratively divide these groups from city and town centers. Police violence reduces trust in local government, as communities of color recognize that local governments have historically used police to marginalize them. Now that mobile phones enable almost anyone to record and share such violent acts, White Americans have also been able to see, quite literally, why communities of color so deeply distrust local government and refuse to cooperate with police.

While some argue that communities with higher crime rates need more police presence, studies find that more policing does not reduce crime. Floyd’s killing may have been particularly shocking, but it was not unique. As a result, Derek Chauvin’s trial is a public examination of systemic biases against communities of color. The result — and local governments’ willingness to take action to prevent similar policing — may influence how much communities of color trust and engage with their governments.

Andrea Silva (@asilvaphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas who focuses on immigration and racial and ethnic politics in the United States.

Diego Esparza is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas whose research focuses on police, public security reform and civil-military relations in Latin America.

Valerie Martinez-Ebers (@EbersValerie) is a professor of political science at the University of North Texas who focuses on race, ethnicity and politics and public policy.