The Truth About Trust and Police

By Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, Thurgood Marshall Institute Senior Fellow

What would you do if you innocently witnessed an act of violence, but feared the police might hurt you when they arrived? Would you call them? Would you run when they showed up? Or would you worry that both were dangerous, and fill with anxiety as you chose between two impossible options.

This is the conundrum facing too many vulnerable communities. And scientists increasingly recognize that those impossible choices constitute the context that must be considered when studying community experiences of law enforcement. This is why it is so discouraging that the Heritage Foundation report on policing in America, issued last month, ignores this growing scientific consensus.

While there are elements of this report that are reasoned and responsible, like the discussions of community policing, reckoning with community violence, and de-escalation training. Other parts are less so. Particularly this: the report appears to have omitted the role of trust in policing.

First, the report suggests that the real issue plaguing policing is bad public relations, going as far as to suggest that scrutiny of police undercuts law enforcement’s ability to do their job. This is not only untrue, it is dangerous. Public scrutiny and oversight do not diminish trust in police. Nor does public protest hurt the reputation of law enforcement. Unaddressed misconduct and constitutional violations — again and again over decades — does. To argue otherwise is to argue that an unfaithful spouse needs a better alibi, not to stop cheating.

Moreover, the claim that scrutiny harms law enforcement can only be true if you ignore how community trust is essential for effective policing. Solving difficult cases requires the cooperation of residents. No one will provide a tip or report a neighbor’s wrongdoing if they do not trust the officers who patrol their community. Without those tips, law enforcement cannot clear cases. Crimes remain unsolved. Serial law-breakers continue tormenting communities. And crime goes up.

This simple logic has now been joined with nearly a quarter century of field and laboratory research demonstrating the importance of police legitimacy and procedural justice. That is why many cities and law enforcement leaders across the country welcomed the Obama administration’s efforts to help reform their police departments. They too understand that rebuilding community trust is vital for a successful police department, and they know that trust keeps both officers and community members safer.

Trust between police and communities is most tenuous where race is salient. And the Heritage report commits its second grave mistake in this area. Specifically, the report trots out the tired argument that police behavior is driven exclusively by crime and, therefore, cannot be racist. First of all, no. What our society has decided to criminalize has always been racialized — from where it was illegal for Black, Native, and Brown bodies to be to who was permitted to profit from the sale or enjoy the purchase of narcotics. But even if we were to assume that the laws of the nation were free of racial bias, there is mounting evidence that crime — and even poverty — are not sufficient to explain racial disparities in police outcomes.

My research has found that, even when controlling for crime demographics, racial disparities persist in law enforcement agencies use of a number of different types of force. While it is convenient to blame racial disparities in policing on racial disparities in crime, it is inaccurate and further erodes Black and Brown communities’ ability to trust those who are sworn to protect them.

Finally, the Heritage report is agnostic on whether there is a need for law enforcement to make amends for “past racial” indignities. As a matter of practice and science, trust is harder when past injuries go unacknowledged. For instance, how can a community trust a police force that continues to deny its role in voter intimidation? Some wounds do not simply heal with time. They are passed down from generation to generation until they are acknowledged and treated. For those who do not believe me, I urge you to ask communities who have suffered these ugly incidents.

The Center for Policing Equity has. And the response is overwhelming: the public wants law enforcement to right prior wrongs.

Then FBI Director Jim Comey said in 2015 that, “at many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.” However, as Comey also notes, racism is not just a thing of the past: “one reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either. So, we must talk about our history. It is a hard truth that lives on.”

The good news is that the majority of law enforcement leaders know much of this. They have been energized to do this difficult work and they have made great strides in changing the culture of policing to align better with the values of the most vulnerable communities that need them. This is work that was supported from the office of the President through the Department of Justice and many local leaders. Now that the federal government has retreated from this support, it is even more important that thought leaders take the full measure of the lessons we have learned.

The Heritage report does not. And when anyone fails to remember that compliance with the law begins with trust in it, not fear of it, they risk surrendering the truth that keeps us safe.