Unfortunately missing from the raging national debate over recurrent police killings of African American men and boys — defined as an issue pitting blacks against whites — is the question of where other minority groups stand. This omission is particularly unfortunate in the case of Latinos, who bring their own substantial experience to questions of racial discrimination, the use of force by authorities, and the need for oversight and accountability.
At the heart of how Latinos view law enforcement are nuanced attitudes revealed by a major new national poll conducted by Latino Decisions for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF). In spite of widespread optimism among Latino adults regarding the opportunities they see ahead, and in spite of the overwhelming majority’s belief that local police are there to protect them and their families, two out of three Latinos worry that law enforcement will use excessive force against them.
Such worries are grounded both in history and in recent experience. For example, in the summer of 2012 the Southern California city of Anaheim was the scene of a week of protests over two separate police killings of Latino men on a July weekend — protests that led to rioting and a militarized response by police, and which erupted in the midst of a legal battle over how the white-run city conducts its elections.
In Anaheim, as in the killings this year of unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York, the white officers responsible for the two deaths were never charged or tried, and they went unsanctioned by their department. Anaheim, like Ferguson, is a majority-minority city — in this case, majority Latino. But again like Ferguson, Anaheim is governed by a white mayor, with no minority representation on its city council.
Nevertheless, Anaheim has taken a new path since the upheaval of 2012. Last year, a Latino became the city’s chief of police for the first time, and he has instituted a series of internal reforms. Furthermore, the city settled a voting rights lawsuit brought by the ACLU, and as result, following voter approval in last month’s elections, Anaheim’s city council will be expanded and its members elected by individual districts, instead of at-large.
Change is also afoot in neighboring Los Angeles, where the partially renewed County Board of Supervisors just voted to establish a civilian commission to oversee the sheriff’s department. This motion, which failed to pass last summer, was again sponsored by the board’s only minority members: an African American and a Latina, who introduced it at the first opportunity of the new term.
In the case of Latinos, immigration issues have come to color concerns about law enforcement. The passage of legislation in several states that would require local police to enforce immigration laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070 in 2010, provoked concern among Latinos across the country. A Latino Decisions poll conducted that year in Arizona found that 85% of Latino voters believed it likely that the law would lead to Latinos who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants getting stopped and questioned by police.
That November, the 2010 Latino Decisions election-eve poll found that 75% of Latino voters nationally opposed the Arizona law. When the constitutionality of the law was argued before the Supreme Court in 2012, another Latino Decisions poll found that 79% of Latino voters nationally believed that the law would lead to Latinos who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants being stopped and questioned.
That 68% of Latino adults – fully two out of three – worry that law enforcement authorities will use excessive force against them makes Latinos’ concern over the enforcement of immigration laws especially clear and relevant – and their support for immigration policy reform abundantly understandable. Simply put, the great majority of Latinos feel that (1) the enforcement of immigration laws subjects their entire community to being suspected of being undocumented, and (2) encounters with law enforcement authorities puts them physically at risk.
Some answers to the problem of Latinos’ evident lack of confidence in law enforcement are plain enough to see: the need for representation in government at every level, the need for effective oversight and accountability of law enforcement, and the need to fix our broken immigration system and resolve the status of undocumented immigrant residents of our communities.
African Americans and Latinos should recognize the relatedness of their law enforcement concerns and the urgent need to work together to resolve them.
David R. Ayón is Senior Strategist and Advisor at Latino Decisions, and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University