Addressing Distrust Between Cops and Communities of Color

A conversation with a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, a retired police chief, and the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters

How can trust be rebuilt between police and communities of color?

On Monday, three observers of American policing considered that question: Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (who questioned whether there was ever a period of trust); DeRay McKesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement; and Roberto Villasenor, a retired police chief from Tucson, Arizona.

All three participants expressed frustration with the way that police officers are perceived in American culture, though they emphasized very different sorts of portrayals.

“What really bothers me,” said Villasenor, the retired police chief, “is that law enforcement is bearing the brunt of all societal issues right now because we're the most visible arm of government.” Why should police be blamed, he wondered, when policymakers or Supreme Court justices make poor decisions that put cops in no-win situations on the street? He lamented the narrative of  law enforcement as brutal and abusive, arguing that most cops do a good job trying to meet the impossible expectations foisted on them.

McKesson, whose activism has emphasized the need for policy changes more than attacks on bad cops, nevertheless felt the retired chief’s complaint failed to acknowledge the misbehavior of individual police officers that he’s seen on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities; the bad policies undertaken by police departments of their own volition; and dubious contract provisions drawn up by police unions. In his estimation, the policing community has not “come to the table” in a spirit of openly acknowledging their flaws and attempting to remedy them.

Ifill, the NAACP leader, declared that individual police officers must be held accountable when their actions lead to outcomes like the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore (a city where police are known to give “rough rides” to informally punish arrestees).

Addressing the perception of police more broadly, she pointed to the ubiquity of shows like Law and Order, which almost always portray cops as honorable professionals, and the tendency in American life to regard cops as heroes. “There is a constant media narrative that's positive about police,” she said, even as most Americans long ignored the counternarrative in minority communities  where most police abuses happen. She felt the emergence of that counternarrative is overdue, reflects real abuses, and ought to prompt citizens to work for overdue reforms.

In fact, in Ifill’s telling, the failure of citizens to understand and remedy flaws in the criminal justice system is the most important impediment to reducing many injustices.

She compared democracy to owning a house: “It always needs repairs.”

And making those repairs is everyone’s civic responsibility, she argued, from studying up on flaws in your local police department to casting informed votes for local judges. “If you regard yourself as a citizen or a person within the borders of this country,” she said, “it is your job to be working toward the perfection of this democracy.”

McKesson did not disagree, but emphasized a different approach to change. An architect of the Campaign Zero policy blueprint for police reform, he believes that seemingly small changes in policing policy at the local level can change the culture within police departments and make police officers significantly more accountable. Some of the changes that McKesson advocates for could be implemented within law enforcement, without even having to consult a mayor or City Council.

Almost all of them can be accomplished at the municipal level.

Meanwhile, Villasenor emphasized flawed policies that are imposed on police departments. In Tucson, he felt that the role of the police department should be to protect everyone in the community. But state lawmakers compelled police officers at the local level to double as immigration enforcement, something he described as “"the last thing that police should be involved in,” because it causes a significant segment of the community to refuse to call, talk to, or cooperate with police.

If I had to distill common ground in the world views of all three panelists, it would be this: when an injustice occurs, the cop on the scene may have done something wrong, but at least some of the responsibility usually lies elsewhere, sometimes within the employing agency, other times with legislators and policymakers or the general public.

I’ve argued that proliferating video technology has exposed bad apples in law enforcement to the general public, and that relations between distrustful citizens and police won’t improve until the latter abandon their posture of blue solidarity for more earnest and effective attempts to punish misbehavior and abuse in their ranks. Perhaps cops would be a bit less defensive, and a bit more likely to engage in that sort of introspection, if critics of law enforcement abuses made a special effort to apportion blame properly and vocally when it doesn’t rest with people in uniform.

There is, of course, a much broader debate about the relationship between police departments and communities of color. The Obama Administration has pushed “community engagement initiatives” as a solution. RAND has tried to figure out the best performance metrics to look at. In The Wire and elsewhere, David Simon argues that the War on Drugs and the sort of policing that it led to is the biggest factor poisoning the relationship between police and the policed in urban environments.

Heather Mac Donald of City Journal argues that police officers are unfairly maligned as racist, and that the higher rates of crime in minority communities account for the disproportionate stops and killings of blacks and Hispanics. In her analysis, irresponsible “race demagogues” misuse the statistical disparities to stoke distrust.

New Haven’s police chief, Dean Esserman, has mandated that the police officers beneath him walk a beat and form interpersonal relationships in the community rather than only interacting with people that they are ticketing, interrogating, or arresting.

The Department of Justice demonstrated in its Ferguson report that the local police department and court system was designed to extract money from poor, black residents, and urged an end to policing for profit to improve relations with residents.

Matt Welch has persuasivley argued that diversity in the Los Angeles Police Department helped it to win more trust from the community than it had during the 1992 riots.

In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy makes a compelling argument that black residents of high crime neighborhoods lack trust and confidence in their municipal police departments in large part because police fail to solve so many of the murders that plague their communities. Civic leaders don’t care enough about the lives of young, black men in high crime neighborhoods to properly staff and resource homicide bureaus, she wrote, and the media often ignore killings in those same neighborhoods, so that there is little outside pressure to get clearance rates where they are elsewhere.

Other insights and arguments abound––email to add yours.