Neighborhood climates of legal cynicism and complaints about abuse of police power

Bill McCarthy*, John Hagan, Daniel Herda

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Research findings show that legal cynicism—a cultural frame in which skepticism about laws, the legal system, and police is expressed—is important in understanding neighborhood variation in engagement with the police, particularly in racially isolated African American communities. We argue that legal cynicism is also useful for understanding neighborhood variation in complaints about police misconduct. Using data on complaints filed in Chicago between 2012 and 2014, we show that grievances disproportionately came from racially segregated neighborhoods and that a measure of legal cynicism from the mid-1990s predicts complaints about abuse of police power two decades later. The association between legal cynicism and complaints is net of prior complaints, reported crime, imprisonment, and other structural factors that contribute to the frequency and nature of interactions involving police and residents. Legal cynicism also mediates the influence of racially isolated neighborhoods on complaints. The mid-1990s is the approximate midpoint of a half-century of police scandals in Chicago. Our research findings suggest that contemporary complaints about police misconduct in highly segregated Chicago neighborhoods are grounded in collectively shared historical memories of police malfeasance. They also suggest that persistent complaints about police misconduct may represent officially memorialized expressions of enduring racial protest against police abuse of power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)510-536
Number of pages27
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020


  • cultural frames
  • neighborhoods
  • police complaints
  • police misconduct
  • racial segregation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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