Police gather in a neighborhood

How Does Police Presence Influence Neighborhood Preferences?

Located Institutions: Neighborhood Frames, Residential Preferences, and the Case of Policing
Monica C. Bell
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Where we choose to live is often considered an individual preference, but a growing body of research shows that complex structural and institutional factors influence our preferences. This suggests that residential segregation, neighborhood inequality, and other structures and institutions shape housing market choices, thus reinforcing residential selection.

A study published earlier this year explored how institutions such as police shape how people select their neighborhoods. Policing differs by location and demographics, and research suggests this is the direct result of both the origins of policing as a tool for maintaining white supremacist racial hierarchy and long-standing, well-documented racial disparities in experiences of policing and police violence. Author Monica Bell analyzed 73 in-depth interviews with family heads in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, to generate deeper understanding of how policing shapes neighborhood perceptions and contributes to the reproduction of residential segregation.

Bell thoroughly reviewed literature on these topics, and then analyzed the transcripts of 73 semistructured, in-depth interviews collected as part of the “How Parents House Kids” study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and Northwestern University. Unlike most neighborhood frame studies, “How Parents House Kids” is race and class heterogeneous, which allows researchers to explore the links between racial positionality, police perception, and neighborhood frames and how these three dynamics interact to reproduce residential segregation. Low-income and Black families were intentionally oversampled to ensure an in-depth exploration of their decisionmaking processes. Women were overrepresented in the sample because of gendered parenting norms. In this sample, 47 respondents were Black or African American, 18 respondents were white, 4 respondents were Hispanic or Latinx, 2 respondents were Asian, and 2 respondents identified as two or more race and ethnicity groups. Sixty-two respondents were women and 11 respondents were men. Of the block groups respondents lived in, 30 were predominately Black, and 43 were predominantly white. Forty-three block groups had a median income below $25,000, 18 had a median income between $25,000 and $50,000, and 12 had a median income above $50,000.

The research team transcribed and coded the interviews using Dedoose qualitative analysis software and Excel, pulling out police-related segments that illuminated the emerging arguments about policing and residential preference. Bell then examined the demographic interactions for both respondents (race, gender, age, and income) and their neighborhoods (racial composition and median household income). Bell’s analysis revealed two common lenses through which parents in this study used policing to inform neighborhood preference. In interviews, parents’ comments on policing could be categorized as either viewing police as a community amenity or a public nuisance. Importantly, the purpose of this research is not to extract quantitative correlations, but to instead communicate patterns to generate deeper, more sustained investigations into how police presence as an institution shapes where people live and why.

Drawing on larger bodies of work on residential preferences and cultural sociology, Bell argues that people’s preferences for and perceptions of the institution of policing are deeply formed by race and class and function as a microlevel mechanism for residential segregation reproduction.

Key findings
  • Thirty-four of the families described policing as an explicitly spatial phenomenon in their interviews and discussed differences in policing in neighborhoods throughout Cuyahoga County. For these families, certain policing approaches, practices, or reputations specifically contributed to whether or not they were attracted to living in a particular neighborhood.
  • Forty respondents identified idealized police institutions as a desirable neighborhood attribute (23 of 47 Black respondents, 12 of 18 white respondents, 3 of 4 Latinx respondents, both biracial respondents). For parents who viewed policing as a community amenity, multiple subframes arose with distinctions across gender, race, and class. Parents who viewed policing as a community amenity saw policing as either a positive neighborhood amenity, a commodity wealthy residents purchase with tax dollars, a way to destigmatize neighborhoods and reframe them as “wholesome,” or an exclusionary amenity that distances residents from “undesirable” people.
  • Higher-income respondents framed their relationships with police as a form of social support and described police as community oriented. These responses often aligned with wealthier, white respondents’ assertions that policing produced greater property values for them.
  • Twenty-nine respondents described police as an obstacle to living in or spending time in certain neighborhoods. Of this group, 17 respondents applied both a “nuisance” and “asset” frame to police, and 12 exclusively described police as a nuisance.
  • Most parents who viewed police as a public nuisance were Black. When discussing police as a nuisance, respondents discussed both overpolicing and police violence in communities of color as well as the ways police make predominately white neighborhoods off-limits to Black residents through the hypersurveillance of normal daily activities. Police absence and unresponsiveness also constituted nuisances.
  • Societal ideals of police service as protective persist, similar to the “American Dream,” even when residents acknowledge this does not align with the realities of policing. This was particularly seen in respondents who expressed both “nuisance” and “asset” frames, as their experiences spoke to how police were a negative obstacle to their neighborhood choice, but they also offered that ideally, police institutions aspire to be a positive amenity.
  • Questions of policing in neighborhoods are particularly salient for Black parents who, because of anti-Black police violence, must pay particular attention to their children’s interaction with law enforcement at home and school.
Research and policy implications
  • Scholarship on residential segregation and neighborhood preferences tends to emphasize factors in the express domain of housing (zoning, landlord discrimination, social ties, housing quality, racial composition of neighborhoods), but a broader view of segregation that extends to institutions (like policing) opens the door for researchers to explore how these institutions are deeply embedded within complex frameworks and contribute to the reproduction of segregation.
  • Research on policing as a neighborhood frame must adequately attend to how this institution is often named as a proxy for racial dynamics and the history of policing as a tool for maintaining racial hierarchy.
  • Future research could consider the many ways residents interact with institutions (frequency of contact, degree of access, perceived power over the institutions, perceived importance of the institution’s role) when considering institutions’ relationships to neighborhood frames.
  • Whiteness must be discussed in regards to neighborhood preferences and policing because it does not only produce social distance from police activity but also connotes power over police and racial privilege.
  • Policing as a commodity aligns with the idea of police as “government.” The concept of police as a form of government is used to describe the complex duality of police being tasked with both punitive social control and service delivery.
  • Research and policy on the sociology of policing should extend beyond simplistic comparisons (that Black people distrust police more than other racial groups) and take care to not overlook structural and cultural processes, such as neighborhood selection, that “give race meaning.”
  • Importantly, institutions like policing are subject to changes in law, policy, and governance in ways that some other structural factors are not.

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