Why Girls Fight: How Perceptions of the Police Contribute to Inner-City Violence

Graduate Studies Essay for CRJ 610: Advanced Topics in Juvenile Justice (3/29/2012)

Why Girls FightThere are a myriad of factors that contribute and lead to delinquency and violence in the world. It often varies depending on the context – who is involved, what are the power dynamics between certain groups, what is the history, etc. One area that has not been extensively researched is female juvenile delinquency, more specifically violence between inner-city female youth.

In a review of the existing theories of research on female delinquency, Hoyt and Scherer (1998) conclude that, “The most prevalent impressions left from [this] review of the female delinquency literature are the ambiguities and piecemeal nature of the research. As a result, we have little conclusive understanding of the important etiological factors contributing to female delinquency (pg. 101).”  In “Between Good and Ghetto,” Jones (2010) offers several factors that may contribute to delinquency and interpersonal violence between African American girls in the inner-city, such as lack of parental supervision, poverty, lack of occupational opportunities, the “war on drugs,” racism,  a deeply entrenched “survivor mentality,” and a lack of trust in the community, to name a few. One of Jones’ (2010) main points is that many inner-city youth’s perspective of police and law enforcement contributes to increased violence in the community. Specifically, Jones (2010) states:

“Too many [inner-city] girls…conclude that the law does not work for them or their neighbors because neither the police nor the legal system as a whole values the lives of Black people. Within this context, adolescent inner-city girls learn the importance of using a set of personal resources to negotiate conflict and violence in everyday life. In other words, these adolescent girls, like their male counterparts, become socialized into the code of the street (pg. 45).”

Whether it’s a valid or invalid perception, Jones is indicating that the black community’s (specifically among adolescents) negative opinion of the police and legal system results in them using violence as a form of personal protection and security.

Several research studies seem to support this notion. In an extensive review of more than 100 articles on perceptions of the police, Brown and Benedict (2002) made the following conclusions:

  •  “The most commonly studied minority has been blacks and the majority research indicates that blacks view the police less favorably than whites (pg. 547).”
  • “The vast majority of studies which included age as a variable indicate that younger persons view the police less favorably than older persons (pg. 554).”
  • “There is no consensus about the affects of gender [regarding police perceptions] (pg. 554).”

While their research did not specifically focus on how these negative perceptions contribute to violence, Brown and Benedict (2002) made a related inference, stating:

“Citizens who are dissatisfied with the police are less likely to contact them or provide officers with information about criminal activity…Thus, it is conceivable that negative perceptions of the police contribute to a cycle of reduced police effectiveness, increased crime, and further distrust of the police (pg. 545).”

Furthermore, in a study that examined the perceptions of black and white juveniles as it related to police order-maintenance, service, and law enforcement, Hurst, Frank, & Browning (2000) concluded that, “African-Americans perceive the police in a less favorable, more negative light than whites. Similarly, with few exceptions this pattern is observed when looking at adults and juveniles, with adults having more favorable perceptions of the police than juveniles (pg. 49).” This further strengthens the argument that black youth tend to have a more negative view toward the police.

Additionally, from an in-depth survey assessing African American men’s perceptions of police, Brunson (2007) reveals some further insights. For example, Brunson reported that:

“Several study participants commented that they did not expect much from the police when it came to protection and responsiveness…Moreover, young men felt that police resources were disproportionally directed toward specific neighborhood problems such as drugs and gangs instead of toward assisting crime victims (pg. 82).”

This seems to indicate that it is not the lack of presence from the police in inner-city neighborhoods, but their lack of perceived effort towards assisting victims, or those in danger, that contribute to these negative perceptions. Discussing how this may contribute to increased community violence, Brunson (2007) argues:

“Unfavorable views of the police may contribute to community residents acquiring an overall lack of faith in the criminal justice system…A lack of confidence in the justice process may increase the likelihood that residents will feel compelled to settle disputes on their own, thereby increasing levels of community violence (pg. 93).”

While these particular findings were from a study of all young, black males, it isn’t unreasonable to presume that similar thoughts may be felt by young, black females.

From an ethnographic study of girls in West and Northeast Philly, Ness (2004) offers some alternative perspectives to what causes inner-city violence amongst females juveniles. For example, Ness (2004) states: “Not every fight between girls in West and Northeast Philly…is related to issues of self-defense. As with boys, fighting for girls in poor urban neighborhoods provides a venue for identify enhancement (pg. 38).” Ness (2004) further states, “This is not surprising as identity for the majority of these girls is negotiated on the street not in school or jobs, which are scarce (pg. 38).” This indicates that many girls aren’t necessarily resorting to violence for protection, but to form their identity and reputation. Ness (2004) also makes the argument that many fights between inner-city girls are instigated from envy and jealousy, and that social and cultural norms lead these feelings to physical violence. Contrasting girls in middle-class neighborhoods to those in inner-city neighborhoods, Ness (2004) argues, “Whereas middle-class girls negotiate jealousy and envy through what has been termed ‘relational aggression…’ these same issues in West and Northeast Philly get staged and settled through force (pg. 40).” Ness (2004) also states, “Girls who engage in violence in West and Northeast Philadelphia are not viewed as defying feminine norms (pg. 45).” These findings seem to indicate that the perception of the police and legal system don’t make much of a difference on whether or not young, black juveniles decide to act violently.

An additional potential counter-point is found from Brown & Benedict’s (2002) study, in which they cite a study by Frank et al. (1996) that found that “Detroit blacks hold more favorable attitudes toward the police than do whites (pg. 549).” This was attributed to the fact that blacks constitute the majority of the Detroit population, Detroit has had a black mayor since the 1970s, and the Chief of Police and over half of all the police officers are black (Brown & Benedict, 2002, pg. 549). This suggests that it’s not simply that black adolescents don’t trust the police and legal system, but that it depends on the demographic and view of those in power.

In conclusion, it is clear that negative perceptions toward the legal system from the black community are prevalent, and may contribute to violence among inner-city, adolescent females. However, more research and inquiry is needed to better understand how closely connected these elements are, and how varied contexts impact this connection.


Brown, B., & Benedict, W. (2002). Perceptions of the police – past findings, methodological issues, conceptual issues and policy implications. POLICING-AN INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POLICE STRATEGIES & MANAGEMENT, 25(3), 543-580. doi:10.1108/13639510210437032

Brunson, R. K. (2007). Police don’t like black people*: African-american young men’s accumulated police experiences. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(1), 71-101. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9133.2007.00423.x

Hoyt, S., & Scherer, D. G. (1998). Female juvenile delinquency: Misunderstood by the juvenile justice system, neglected by social science. Law and Human Behavior, 22(1), 81-107. doi:10.1023/A:1025728822468

Jones, N. (2010). Between good and ghetto: African american girls and inner-city violence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Publishing Press.

Ness, C. D. (2004). Why girls fight: Female youth violence in the inner city. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595(1), 32-48. doi:10.1177/0002716204267176

Yolander G. Hurst, James Frank, & Sandra Lee Browning. (2000). The attitudes of juveniles toward the police. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management,23(1), 37-53. doi:10.1108/13639510010314607

One thought on “Why Girls Fight: How Perceptions of the Police Contribute to Inner-City Violence

  1. I saw a lot of this in a PBS documentary The Interpreters that documents the black community in Chicago. Its unreal how they don’t see life as any different or that change is possible at the young raw age. Makes me wonder what my life would have been like growing up in a less fortunate family.

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