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Fear and Fairness in the City: Criminal Enforcement and Community Perceptions of Fairness, 73 Southern California Law Review 1219 (2000)


Blacks in central city neighborhoods are more likely than any other group to perceive crime as a problem. They have the highest rates of violent crimes victimization and they are seven times more likely to be murdered than whites. Grim statistics like these, along with impassioned personal accounts of violent encounters and heroic daily efforts to avoid such encounters, have led race and criminal law scholars, such as Randall Kennedy, to express a seemingly natural though unconventional claim: Frustrated and overwhelmed by gangs, drugs and crime, blacks in high-crime neighborhoods welcome disproportionately tough criminal sanctions and expanded police discretion. This claim, which I label the "urban frustration argument," remains unconventional because African Americans are broadly viewed to perceive law enforcement with suspicion and distrust. This perception of distrust has been significantly bolstered by recent reports of extreme police misconduct in major urban areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Philadelphia. In New York City, for example, community tension and distrust of police appear to be rising as residents struggle to reconcile a recent string of police killings of unarmed black men. These recent incidents notwithstanding, scholars have, noted that the general sense of police distrust among African Americans is giving way to "a demand ... for higher levels of law-enforcement,"—a demand that is supported by a new sense of equity and partnership achieved through growing minority political power in urban areas and new problem-oriented law enforcement approaches. These new approaches promise to give high-crime urban communities greater protection from criminal activity by vesting enforcement agencies with increased discretion. Proponents of this approach contend that law-abiding minorities in urban communities are willing to yield more discretionary powers to law enforcement because "the continued victimization of minorities at hands of criminals poses a much more significant threat to the well-being of minorities than does the risk of arbitrary mistreatment at the hands of the police."

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