IV. Latino/Immigrant Neighborhood Disadvantage and Police Research
Much of the recent research on race/ethnicity and crime has been conducted at the aggregate level, on the basis of official data reported to the police. This literature does not ponder individual variations in propensity to engage in criminal offending but instead considers variations in violent crime victimization or offending across places such as metropolitan areas or cities. Ecological research on crime and violence also draws attention to the relationship between race/ethnicity and place, whether that is the city, metropolitan, or community level, and proposes that racial disparities are linked to the varying social contexts in which population groups exist. A consistent finding in this literature is that violent crime rates, both offending and victimization, are higher in places with greater proportions of blacks or African Americans, and this finding persists over time. Most of these studies use homicide or violent crime rates or counts of racial/ethnic specific violence as the dependent variable, because homicides are routinely detected and reported to the police, but even these studies typically focus on black or white crime differences.
These aggregate-level studies have been valuable because they demonstrate the need to consider racial disparities in crime and in some cases encourage scholars to push conceptions of race and crime to include Latino composition in crime studies. Indeed, researchers have recently evaluated whether the neighborhood conditions relevant to black and white violence also apply to Latinos. At the forefront of recent ecological analyses of Latino violence is a series of articles based in the city of Miami, Florida, a heavily impoverished multiethnic city with large immigrant Latino and foreign-born black populations and high-profile inner-city communities (Peterson & Krivo, 2005). Latino-specific homicides were analyzed either alone or in comparison with models for native-born blacks and whites, and sometimes immigrant Haitians, Jamaicans, or Latino groups, such as the Mariel Cubans. All of these are racial/ethnic/immigrant groups that reside in high-crime and disadvantaged communities in need of police services, and that regularly encounter police officers, but the extent of positive or negative police–citizen interactions is not clear. Moreover, these Miami studies also noted that Latinos usually follow a pattern similar to that among blacks and whites in terms of the all-encompassing effect of concentrated disadvantage or heightened economic problems even though some predictors of Latino homicide are, to some extent, distinct. Thus, the basic linkages among disadvantage and homicide hold for African Americans, Haitians, and Latinos in the city of Miami, even in areas that are dominated by immigrants. This suggests that a need exists to further examine the interactions between police and residents and to explore levels of police treatment because, by extension, the study of Latinos and police encounters at the community level could vary from studies of blacks or whites.
This body of work is important because there is a strong relationship among economic disadvantage, affluence, and violent crime, and this connection has received a great deal of attention given the racial–ethnic differences in the strength of the association between crime and socioeconomic context at the community level. To a large extent, this notion is rooted in Robert Sampson’s and William J. Wilson’s (1995) claim that the “sources of violent crime appear to be remarkably invariant across race and rooted instead in the structural differences across communities, cities, and states in economic and family organization” (p. 41), which helps explain the racial–ethnic differences in violence. The premise of this claim is that community-level patterns of racial inequality give rise to the social isolation and ecological concentration of the truly disadvantaged, which in turn leads to structural barriers and cultural adaptations that undermine social organization and in turn shapes crime. Therefore, race is not a cause of violence but rather a marker deriving from a set of social contexts reflecting racial disparity in U.S. society. This has become known as the racial invariance thesis of the fundamental causes of violent crime. Still, the racial invariance thesis has rarely been applied to ethnicity, crime, and policing. Although other conceptual or theoretical overviews on Latino crime and delinquency exist, attention is directed to macrolevel approaches, because this is where the bulk of Latino violence research is located.
The study of neighborhood disadvantage and violence has generated similar findings for blacks and Latinos in the border cities of San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. Other researchers have compared and contrasted the characteristics of black, white, and Latino homicides in Chicago; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles or have controlled for social and economic determinants of crime thought to shape racial–ethnic disparities across neighborhoods (Peterson & Krivo, 2005). None have found evidence that more immigration means more homicides in a given area. For the most part, these studies also have led to the conclusion that the “disadvantage link” to homicide is similar for African Americans and Latinos.
Therefore, the impact of disadvantage holds in the case of Latinos on the border and might be extended to ethnic variations in terms of community-level causes of violence. By extension, it also appears that residents of heavily Mexican-origin communities might have enhanced contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents concentrated on or around the Mexican border who are increasingly engaged in aggressive crime control strategies designed to stop the movement of undocumented workers into the United States. Much like the case of young African American males, perceptions of unfair and disrespectful treatment by law enforcement authorities, hand in hand with increased targeting by police in search of immigration violations and undocumented workers to deport, might influence Latino males’ perception of police. As immigration crackdowns increase, young Latino adults are singled out regardless of citizenship status, which shapes their views of police and increases their distrust and negative interactions with criminal justice officials. The aggressive targeting by police typically occurs in extremely poor Latino communities and potentially strains relationships with community members and law enforcement officials.
This research discussed in this section supports the notion that structural disadvantage matters for violence across racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups, and it should also matter for police treatment. However, research on neighborhood contexts and police encounters remains in short supply for Latinos. In short, future research should pay closer attention to potential variations across and within groups of various immigration status, ethnic variations, and perceptions of the police at the neighborhood level.