Building Trust Between Police and the Policed

The non-indictment of Officer Wilson, in Ferguson, for Michael Brown’s death, was justifiable. Brown had just committed a robbery and was being violent. Maybe Wilson didn’t have to kill him; but no way could a jury properly have convicted him “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

UnknownEric Garner’s case is different. His crime was the relatively minor one of evading cigarette tax. He wasn’t violent. And the police conduct clearly violated policy. How was his death not at least, arguably, criminally negligent homicide?

That grand jury failure to indict disserves not just Eric Garner but society as a whole, because it undermines confidence in the justice system, a key underpinning of civilization. It tends to validate an idea that the police are literally out of control, a law unto themselves, acting with impunity, unaccountable to the society they’re supposed to serve.

The bars are US, UK, Germany, Australia

On left: US, UK, Australia, Germany

American cops kill many hundreds annually. In other civilized countries it tends to be in single digits. Something is drastically wrong here.

With respect to black communities in particular, the relationship between citizens and law enforcement is poisonous. Rather than the paradigm of police serving people, it’s closer to one of war, at least in how it’s seen – on both sides. The mutual hostility is toxic.

Saying we’re a racist society is too simplistic and mostly wrong. Few whites are actually prejudiced. But I wrote recently of unconscious racial bias. Evolution programmed our brains to make snap judgments extrapolating from tiny bits of information; doing so could be life-or-death for our ancestors. It still can be for cops, and ethnicity is one such bit.

Painting by Norman Rockwell

Painting by Norman Rockwell

I heard someone interviewed on the radio saying police should understand their job not as making arrests, but building trust. Actually, they shouldn’t have to build it, community trust should be integral to the very fabric of policing, ab initio. But, again, particularly for black neighborhoods, not’s not what we’ve got, so it does need to be built.

I read recently about a pilot program, in one of Brooklyn’s worst crime-ridden housing projects where, with some visionary leadership, the police really did try to change the whole dynamic of their relationship with the community, into a joint enterprise aiming to improve quality of life and outcomes. Unknown-1They sought to enlist crime-prone youth as partners rather than targets. The police even knocked on doors distributing Thanksgiving turkeys.

Maybe that’s a sad commentary on just how bad the police/community relationship had gotten, requiring such extraordinary efforts to overcome. There was indeed a deep well of distrust. But it seemed some progress was made in undoing that. Crime went down. And a lot of kids who would have wound up in prison did not.

When I heard that comment about making arrests versus building trust, I thought of Israel and the Palestinians. The analogy is imperfect, but here too we see a thoroughly poisoned relationship of recrimination and mistrust. Indeed, way too far gone to be fixed with turkeys. Yet it actually doesn’t have to be this way. Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors and both would be a lot better off if they could see their way to cooperating rather than battling. images-3History isn’t destiny; people can rise above it. They could, instead of tolerating zealots stoking conflict, work toward mending their relationship and building trust, so both can improve their quality of life.

Yes, that’s optimistic. And maybe too rational.


6 Responses to “Building Trust Between Police and the Policed”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Cliven Bundy is a white rancher who this past spring was not forcibly arrested for illegally grazing his cattle on public land without paying the requisite grazing fees. We are talking about thousands of dollars in fees not paid to us, the public, for the use of our federal land. With Eric Garner we are talking a mere pittance in non collected taxes compared to Bundy. Both committed similar crimes. Where is the justice?

    I don’t know what was the final disposition of the Bundy case, but, couldn’t the same resolution have been used on Garner? Perhaps you can clarify and elaborate on this.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, the law does not say you are supposed to be killed for selling untaxed cigarettes. But, as columnist Jonah Goldberg points out in his latest, every law we enact as a society is ultimately backed up by the potential use of force. Thus incidents like Garner’s — being killed for a minor infraction — are always a possibility. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have such laws, but we must recognize the power we give to government with every law that’s enacted. (Similarly with Obamacare — its proponents don’t want to see it put this way, but the deal with the penalty for non-insurance is that if you don’t pay it, you can be put in jail. Again, we always must recognize that government’s monopoly on use of violence is the way laws are enforced.)

  3. Carl Strock Says:

    The picture of the kid with the Palestinian headscarf arm in arm with the other kid with the Jewish skullcap is touching and surely conveys a message we can endorse, but unfortunately it is fake, i.e. staged. Actually both kids were Jewish, dressed up and posed. See this article in Haaretz:

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks Carl. Of course it’s not a genuine picture. That indeed is the sad point — it’s an “if only this could be true” picture.

  5. Greg Says:

    Isn’t it a bit much to expect the police to be responsible for solving problems that are systemic to our society? They are on the front lines of where the problem becomes manifest, but they can’t effectively change the larger social dynamic which disenfranchises many African-Americans.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Disenfranchises”? A way-overused word. In fact, I think for black Americans, to the extent they are aggrieved, the police & criminal justice system loom large in that. It actually seems to me that THAT’s the one area of society where racial disparities in treatment are arguably manifest.

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