Race-ing to Control Space?: Community/Police Relations in a Latino/a Barrio

Edwardo L. Portillos, Arizona State University

Law enforcement is charged with the important task of maintaining social control in fair and equitable ways. However, communities of color are more likely to report problems with policing than are white communities, suggesting possible racial discrimination. The major problem with the extant literature is that it has focused largely on blacks. Because of the narrow focus of the existing research, little is known about policing in impoverished Latino/a communities. The purpose of this research is to explore the racialized, classed and gendered ways in which space in a Chicano/a community is controlled.

This research project is set in a predominantly Mexicano/a and Chicano/a communited located in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. This site has been chosen because it reflects the diversity of Latinos/as in terms of immigration status and income and because the media have depicted this area as a "hot spot" for crime. To assess how space is controlled in the barrio, a qualitative research approach is utilized. Research tools include 100 observation hours of police work during ride-alongs and 17 semi-structured interviews with officers/administrators in a precinct in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. Fifty-five semi-structured interviews have been conducted with Spanish speaking and bilingual residents, including high school students. Interviews were also conducted with high school teachers and security personnel.

Research findings reveal that the type of space--public or private--helps explain how space is controlled in racialized, classed and gendered ways. The police have implemented new policies and made organizational changes that have helped improve community-police relations in private space (i.e., residents' homes). However, interactions with police officers in public space (i.e., vehicle stop) increase the perception of racial discrimination from the perspective of the community. in interactions in public space there is an increased perceived threat to the officer. Moreover, in an economically disenfranchised barrio, one's ethnicity, gender, age, assumed legal status in the U.S. help inform the perceived threat, especially in public spaces. As a consequence, officers rely on racial/ethnic stereotypes causing them to use a harsher form of policing to control space in Latino/a communities.

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Updated 05/20/2006