The scarcity of research on Latinos and crime, citizens and noncitizens alike, is one of the most curious shortcomings in the development of race/ethnicity and social science scholarship. This oversight is interesting, because the 1931 Wickersham Commission report focused on police treatment of Mexican immigrants. Moreover, early research on Latinos and police by Julian Samora (1971) includes overlooked studies on Border Patrol mistreatment of noncitizens or illegal aliens and state police abuse of persons of Mexican origin in Texas. The contentious relationship between ethnic minorities and urban police departments during World War II was also highlighted by the “zoot-suit hysteria” and police misconduct in the 1940s, when the singling out of Latinos by various facets of the criminal justice system laid the foundation for protracted animosity between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the city’s Mexican-origin community (Martínez, 2002). In fact, Edward Escobar (1999) contended that, even in the absence of solid data on this topic, the LAPD and general community stereotyped Mexican-origin youth as inherently delinquent or criminal aliens for the last half of the 20th century.
Even though early research on immigrants and the police exists, contemporary research on Latino perception of local police, U.S. citizen and noncitizen encounters with federal police agents (i.e., Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents), or city police by residents of heavily immigrant communities across the United States is scarce. Scholars have understandably directed attention to black and white attitudinal differences toward the police and documented the perception and prevalence of police misconduct in some African American areas, in particular extremely poor communities, where aggressive police strategies are concentrated. Still, researchers interested in examining racial and ethnic variations in experiences with the police and other criminal justice agencies should extend attention to Latinos, because they are the largest immigrant group in the United States; also, almost one third are unauthorized, or illegal, making them one of the largest noncitizen groups in the nation.
This failure to conduct research is even more apparent when one considers that over the last two decades, social scientists have argued that not only is the Latino experience quite different from that of non-Latino whites and blacks but that distinctions also exist among Latino subgroups and gender. In addition to immigration and legality status, these include variations in terms of historical, cultural, political, demographic, economic, and religious patterns. Although a comprehensive discussion of these differences across the social sciences disciplines is beyond the scope of this research paper, it is important to recall that ethnic and immigrant groups require attention by criminologists. More important, a historical foundation on Latinos and crime exists, and that starting place should be used to inform contemporary studies while ensuring that the incorporation of Latino citizens and noncitizens is a routine development in criminological research.
The purpose of this research paper, then, is to remind readers that noncitizens, especially Latinos and other immigrant group members, usually reside in economically disadvantaged communities. Sampson and Bartusch (1998) noted that legal cynicism and dissatisfaction with police were both intertwined with levels of neighborhood disadvantage, an effect that trumped racial differences in attitudes toward the police, even after controlling for neighborhood violent crime rates. Moreover, ecological characteristics of policing also include the use of physical and deadly force at the city level, officer misconduct in police precincts, and slower response times in communities, highlighting research that attitudes toward the police may be a function of neighborhood context. These actions hit young black males harder than others, but the impact on Latino youths is an open issue, as is the impact of recent immigration and the role of immigrant concentration in shaping police encounters. These issues potentially appear to construct a different story with respect to Latinos, violence, and the police.
This research paper closes with suggestions for future research. U.S. society is now composed of multiethnic populations, and the time has come to routinely examine Latinos in police research as well as differences within citizenship status groups, including naturalized citizens, legal residents, and unauthorized migrants. Pioneering research, together with early immigration and crime studies, includes issues relevant to Latinos and the police. Before addressing what we do and do not know about Latinos and police, the consequences of ignoring the Latino population is emphasized.