Policing Strategy and Abuse: Two Sides
Police-community relations in marginal communities in many nations have blown up, as they have in the U.S. roughly every quarter-century lately. It goes beyond a few bad cops vs. a belief that all cops are only fighting crime. A deeper problem is that policing is fundamentally not understood by most people. That lack is distorting the search for solutions. That will delay solutions, or make them tenuous, and the problem will come back.
- Table of Contents
- > Despite the Worst, Police Are Mostly Supported
- > Police Murders as Worse than Gang Murders
- > Stopping and Solving Crime
- >> Hiring and Firing
- >>> Hiring
- >>>> Few People to Choose From
- >>>> Cultural Conformance
- >>>> Training Capacity
- >>> Firing
- >>>> Race and Ethnicity
- >>>> Virtual Tenure
- >>>> Gaining Power to Fire
- >>>> Forcing a Cop to Quit
- >> How Much Power to the Police
- >>> Too Little
- >>> Too Extreme
- >>> An Effect of Adversity
- >>> Desirable Limits
- >> Where Crime is Highest
- >> The Uniform
- >> Legal Powers to Question, Search, and Arrest
- >> Lethal Force
- >> Taser Weapons
- >> Militarization
- >> Backroom Support
- >> Minor Offenses, Too, or Only Major
- >> Talking with the Police
- >> Police as Credible Witness and on Credible Investigation
- >>> Police as Court Witness
- >>> The Believable Arrest
- >>>> Investigatory Methods
- >>>>> A Few Questions
- >>>>> First Info
- >>>> Pulling the Trigger
- >>>>> Disturbed but Shot
- >>>>> Unarmed but Shot
- >>>> Profiling
- >>>> Inside Houses of Worship
- >>>> Secrecy of Details
- >>> Trust Without Transparency
- >> Lasting Consequence For the Wrongdoer
- > Misunderstanding and Distrust
- > Solving For What We Expect
- >> Abolishment Unlikely
- >> Reforms and Budgets
- > Rebuild Trust
- >>> Stranger on the Stairs
- >>> Reticence to Report Crime
- >> External Sources of Trust
- >>> Political Control of the Police
- >>> Trust Among Criminals Toward Police
- >> Internal Sources of Trust
- >>> You Don’t Argue with Success
- >>> Other Jobs For the Police
- >> Anticrime Economic Inclusion
- >> Getting Hands Dirty in Politics
- > Conclusion
Video in convenient form has provided a new kind of evidence. This time, claims of abuse get credit from the sort of people who wouldn’t have believed it in the past, because almost all of us want police and we believe the people we ask to become the police and the police say it doesn’t happen, that almost none of the claims of abuse are true. But people in minority communities have been saying it does happen with much more prevalence, and saying it to anyone who would listen. Now they can say, “I told you so”, but that’s not enough. Videos are leading to more agreement between communities on which sources or kinds of sources can be trusted.
Despite the Worst, Police Are Mostly Supported
Marginal communities, like mainstream communities, want police to protect them. They don’t want abuse; but they still want to be protected. I’m white and I was reminded of this while I was volunteering in the campaign headquarters for a Black candidate with a Black campaign manager and a mostly-Black group of campaigners in a largely Black district which the candidate was reasonably likely to win at a time shortly after local police had shot and killed a Black in a situation widely described as murder and with community feelings still raw. Even then, one of the Black campaigners reminded me that the Black community still supports the police.
For confirmation, one can see that most electoral candidates, even in minority districts, rarely severely criticize the police as a whole, criticizing a particular action or policy or perhaps individual officers but not all policing. The reason they don’t level that degree of criticism is not because the police threaten to shoot them. If threats like that became just a little common, we’d hear about them, like we did about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous threats implied to Congressmembers (along the lines of “we’d hate for this indiscretion of yours to become public”). For other policing agencies, this kind of threat isn’t even rumored, so the police are not that hostile. But the reason that politicians running for office don’t criticize police to that intensity is that, if they did, they’d lose elections.
And consider the parents of a child. If the child is 13 years old, the parents may have The Talk, not only the one about sex but the one about what the teen should do if the police stop the teen and ask questions. The parents hope the teen stays on track for good schooling and a good career. But if the child is 3 years old, the parents often make sure the kid’s bed is away from the window, so a gang’s stray bullet doesn’t smash glass all over the child’s face one night. The parents wish the police would stop the gang warfare.
Across society, police enjoy some political independence. That is, they are among the government officials who are more respected by the public than are other government officials. First responders, along with the military, schoolteachers from prekindergarten through high school, and elected chief executives (the President, the local governor, and the local mayor) and legislators (the Federal, state, and local legislators representing a given individual eligible to register to vote), and judges receive higher levels of public respect and so can resist some directions from less-respected government officials without much negative consequence. At least one President found it advisable to cooperate with the FBI despite embarrassment and legal risk; mayors and governors who have challenged schoolteachers have faced political problems at the ballot box. The police have that kind of popularity with the public when it comes to fulfilling its responsibilities; most officials will think twice about disagreeing with the police in a political forum.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged discrimination and challenged police enforcement of discrimination, he did so while cooperating with the police when he was being arrested. For the Montgomery bus boycott, the police officer was nervous and he took over his own fingerprinting and provided clear prints for the police and then phoned other people, on a list supplied by the police at his request, to tell them to come to the police station for their arrests and bring other people with them to also be arrested. They came. He needed to show people across the U.S. that the police and the politicians behind them were wrong about denying civil rights but were right that policing is generally necessary. He needed to show his acceptance of what was generally agreed to across society and focus on the narrower issues requiring change.
The entire system of laws and enforcement, including the rule of law, courts for civil lawsuits, arbitration, lawyers, and methods of legislating, is a cornerstone of society. A company buys another for billions of dollars of stock and cash because that’s cheaper than just taking the company, and it’s cheaper precisely because laws against just taking it exist and are periodically enforced, creating a threat of future enforcement lest anyone have the idea to just take what they want. That, in turn, creates protection for property created and highly valued by other people. That, in turn, encourages us to build our economy and our ability to meet our needs for survival against larger challenges. That supports our present population size, impossible on gathering-hunting alone. By one estimate, hunting-gathering as the only economic system in use would force 34 out of every 35 people to die within about a month. I’ve not heard anyone call for that. Maintaining our present population, even without growth, requires allowing property, the exclusionary use of things. That’s possible only with law and a way to enforce it. Law enforcement is needed.
Police Murders as Worse than Gang Murders
Even where the chance of being murdered by gangs is more than the chance of being murdered by the police, stopping police murders may be easier, because the police are at least under some control by politicians elected by the communities where the murders occur. The police functionally have some exemptions, and some of them are unwarranted, but gangs don’t file reports on their killings and gangs effectively claim exemption from the law and public accountability on all their murders.
A contrary argument is that most gangs define their geographic areas of interest so that when someone within their reach moves out without an obvious trail to their address, a gang will likely lose interest in that person; but people should not have to move in order to be safe from any kind of murderer. Another is that some gangs seek and listen to some community input and sometimes circumscribe their conduct accordingly, but officially elected politicians should be more reliable and more effective at that.
If stopping or reducing killings by the police is easier, anger against the police to that end may be easier and less costly to justify and mobilize, and therefore louder. That doesn’t invalidate any of the complaints against the police, but it remembers from whence additional threats arise, how deadly they are, and how difficult they are to resolve. It makes sense to address whichever problem is easier to resolve. If the result is to clean up the police, that can strengthen the police, providing a stronger tool for suppressing the gangs.
Stopping and Solving Crime
Society wants crimes discouraged and solved. The desire to discourage crime brings up the issue of how much power the public should give to the police to deter crime.
Hiring and Firing
Managing police must include hiring and firing, both formal and informal. Both have problems.
Few People to Choose From
Hiring is generally hard in the first place; not many people qualify. Then, hiring for some agencies and missions is harder than for others. According to one professor who was previously a police officer (and in between was a prosecutor), “99%” of departments have stopped requiring that new recruits have college degrees. Apparently, college graduates have other plans, and that doesn’t leave as many candidates for consideration by police departments. Usually, only high school is needed.
The selecting and hiring is to protect a certain community, and that’s to protect its people, property, and way of life. Inherent in that charge is protection of its culture. While officers are not allowed to bring cases to court on the ground of culture, but only of violation of law, which cases are brought and why is heavily influenced by the local culture. Large areas of several states are infamously racist and relatively open about it. Alabama’s Constitution says, “[s]eparate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race” (this is not enforced but two amendments to remove the provision were defeated in this century). In the last few years, in Virginia, community members demonstrated and chanted “[y]ou will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us”. Assuming, as is probably true, that these represented each community’s mainstream and not a fringe, that community will hire cops who agree with its values, including on who can move in, visit, or do business in person there. The cops will not be required to segregate Alabama’s schools or literally prevent Jews from replacing local people, partly because higher law prevents both, but the police will be expected to understand local expectations and not rub locally important “very fine people” the wrong way. While cops there would never arrest for, literally, “driving while Black” and the communities who have to pay big bills for losing cases if that’s the charge will not stand for such race-based conduct (or so they’d say), perhaps traffic tickets could be expensive and issued mainly in Black neighborhoods without explicitly charging the drivers on the tickets with being Black. As someone said, the law against sleeping under bridges applies to rich and poor alike. Subtle racism can slip past legal reviews and thus be more effective than is gross racism. Subtle racism can also generate more income for a municipality, while the gross kind can be costly. Where racism is substantially present, the police have to share that value. The police have not much choice. If, by some accident, a nonracist cop is hired, that officer may not perform as expected by the community and, therefore, may not last long.
Nor is the most pervasive racism the only cultural characteristic that affects who is hired for the police force. Selective racism can have that effect, too. Many homeowners depend on their homeownership for their retirement funding and believe that people of African descent living in their neighborhood will lower property values. There’s a grain of truth in there: if white buyers look around the neighborhood and believe that Blacks are present and therefore a house has less value, they may refuse to pay top dollar, and if no one else does, then the homeowner trying to sell would have to accept a lower price. The prospective buyers are relying on racism when refusing to pay a higher price, and they may be wrong in their analysis, but the seller may not be able to do anything about it, and so has to accept a racist analysis for their own benefit and that of their children. Then they’ll believe their retirement threatened by African Americans, and probably many homeowners believe that even in communities where renters don’t feel threatened by Blacks as neighbors. Where homeowners are important to their communities because they pay taxes and stabilize local economies, they will likely have influence on who can become cops and, if not that, then at least on local policing strategy. Part of that influence will be from people who don’t share the racism; but, still, part of the influence on policing will be racism from homeowners.
Immigrants who become U.S. citizens but came from nations where racism is worse than in the U.S. are often seriously racist here, although one study of Latin Americans here found it ameliorated by the second and especially third generations, and that likely applies to people with other origins. Where there are concentrations of first-generation naturalized citizens and their children, racism and its effect on police hiring and strategy are likely significant.
The effects on strategy may fall into several main branches. If the presence of people of color is optional, the effort may be to drive them out by extending the unwelcome mat, on the ground that they’re probably up to no good. If their presence is unavoidable, the effort may be to turn them into ATMs for the local government, by levying fines and penalties, with some tossed into prison so the others don’t feel so badly about merely having to empty their wallets and tap out their credit cards. This way, White people can pay less in taxes. White people deserve to pay less in taxes, I imagine they’d tell us.
The hired police officers will deny any racism. The people of color will see otherwise and will share their findings with others of color. The two sides will not see eye-to-eye on whether the police are racist.
The amount of training required may become too much. It may take too long, requiring too much time off before or during police service. It, especially the total of all of the content, may be too hard to retain.
One U.S. Army manual (albeit not on military policing and probably meant for limited situations) told how to kill an enemy soldier approaching a base perimeter, which was to use a sidearm rather than a heavy firearm, and it didn’t say why. My guess is that, among soldiers who passed an exam (if any) on what the manual said and didn’t have to use the information for at least two months and then had the situation immediately in front of them used whichever firearm was handiest, and at least half of those violated the manual but anyone above in the chain of command didn’t care or didn’t know.
The more extensive police training has to be, the more there is to remember, and it can become too much to be useful. And if passion leads the way, the officer may be even less inclined to recall every last rule and may try simply to get the major job done (colloquially, “[d]o what you got to do”).
When a proposal is to add training, often for a salutary purpose, in public discourse there may be no discussion of what has to be dropped to make room for it or whether the total training will be longer and if that’s too expensive or too difficult for most officers’ memories, creating problems for supervision, employee retention, and recruitment.
There are anecdotal hints of the difficulty in recruiting. One was that working in law enforcement along the U.S.–Mexican border, where the weather often gets hot and the work is often outdoors, is less appealing to candidates. Another was that one department replaced a question to candidates, formerly asking them, Have you taken illegal drugs?, with Have you taken illegal drugs in the past year? Tattoos are allowed lately. Overall, recruitment, especially of the college-educated, may be getting too difficult.
A solution is to raise the pay, thereby attracting more people into the applicant pool, presumably raising quality and then effectiveness. This is most appealing mainly to a subset of residents, those who consider the neighborhood dangerous and are willing to stick it out for the improvements. People who were born and raised where they live now and intend to die there might find this especially appealing. So might investors in local business, such as retail and realty. But not many people feel that way. Some may dislike the police and not want more of them. Some will think attempts to improve will be futile. Others will move to safer neighborhoods, and will assume policing is good enough already in the new place. Others just have to move away, such as due to housing loss or employment change, and will lose interest in policing in the old place.
So, that raise would get not much support but would get objections from taxpayers. While taxpayers admire the police and want them and would not deny them good pay, if the argument is not about pay per officer but about the size of the payroll for an entire department, the payroll can easily look bloated (even if it’s not) and then the argument is that money is being wasted and has to be cut. Often, it will be cut.
While it’s likely that a particular cop may be more effective at lowering crime than colleagues are, it’s more likely that visible cops generally are seen that way and so the comparison is not valid, and if the comparison still stands the one-cop exception probably does not justify raising the pay of most cops. That would require all, or nearly all, cops to justify the higher pay. That usually needs better police management, such as more skillful executives, more up-to-date strategies based on scientific studies, more thorough data support, more sensitive community relations, and the ability to terminate anyone below simply because of lack of confidence (bars to firing should be limited to those applying to most jobs, such as not firing on the ground of race). That higher kind of police management, and the power that goes with it, requires accountability: acceptance of civilian leadership and monitoring, achievement of higher objectives, and susceptibility to being terminated due to politicians’ lack of confidence in the top leadership, subject to the inability to replace an executive in one position very often because doing so implies lack of skill in choosing one in the first place, encourages those under the new executive to largely ignore the replacement as being likely to be fired soon anyway, and weakens confidence in whoever keeps replacing the executive, leading to a breakdown in leadership’s effectiveness, often leading to a reduction in effectiveness of the entire police force.
Termination includes all the ways in which an officer is persuaded or required to leave the agency.
Race and Ethnicity
Many police officers are more afraid of some races and ethnicities than of others, are quicker to judge that they have to kill someone of the given race or ethnicity, and, if they kill someone in that situation, are hard to prosecute or even fire for it.
Firing has become difficult. Labor contracts tend to favor difficulty in terminating an officer. Police, especially the ones seen on streets, are popular and it’s hard for most politicians who negotiate these contracts to refuse job protection for people who are willing to die for the sake of the public. In a given locality, without job protection recruitment and retention likely become harder, raising costs for turnover and recruitment.
Gaining Power to Fire
We’d have more control if we could terminate as easily as the private sector can. To have that power, we’d likely need to raise pay to more attractive levels, to ease recruitment. There’ll be objection to using the private sector as a model, but the private sector also hires people for jobs specifically requiring risk to one’s own life, such as for executive protection and contracted protection, and they succeed in recruiting. Maybe we should study how they do it and see what we can adapt.
Forcing a Cop to Quit
Cops can get each other to leave, if they’re motivated enough to do it. Sometimes, they are.
The police do deadly work and they don’t know which day will be their last for breathing. Survival depends on teamwork in which one can’t see another but must depend on them. Knowing that another officer was screened and trained and that they’ve had chances to work together might be enough for some, but isn’t always. Prejudice can rear its head.
When forces diversify, sometimes the core members, especially when not themselves demographically like the diverse newcomers or sympathetic to diversity, are afraid that the new officers will be incompetent. That incompetence, if real, can threaten the lives of other officers. That will almost surely motivate the core officers to get rid of the newcomers and then of officers who advocated for the newcomers’ arrival.
Countless underhanded techniques are available for driving the undesirables to leave. Not backing them up is one; if one dies because they got shot by a bad guy, they’re a hero but no longer a problem; if the one without backup lives, they might be so disgusted with the lack of support they leave. Mission accomplished either way.
Other techniques are available. Exaggerated or false performance reports about undesirable colleagues, particularly if there are many reports from many other officers, will likely add up and harm the target’s career. Maybe they’ll have union protection, but that probably won’t help if the target was hoping for better assignments, a better choice between overtime and not, or a rise in the ranks.
One driven out may understand why and squawk about it, and may even sue and win over it, but they’re still out and likely not getting back in (other than for a pro forma return mandated by the lawsuit’s outcome and only brief). It may be time to start a new career.
It takes a few rounds of trying and a lot of support from executives before substantial numbers can get in and stay in. It takes substantial numbers before, for example, two African American women might be the only cops sharing their patrol car and working a shift so they back each other up and perform well.
It’s a struggle. And diversity has a lot to do with whom the public trusts.
How Much Power to the Police
Giving the police too little power is hardly under discussion.
London and, until recently, Shanghai had, or have, most of their police usually working unarmed. In New York City, traffic cops and private security guards are typically unarmed. Some other nations don’t arm most of their police. But I haven’t heard a proposal in years, or maybe decades, to disarm most of the police in the U.S.
Some people would empower the police to a point that’s too extreme. Many lay people, especially those who believe that law enforcement protects them, tend to believe that the police should be unleashed to do whatever they want to whomever they want. The most extreme might like to dispense with adjudication and kill every suspect. (There was a proposal decades ago for a bus that would bring a court to the scene and a defendant found guilty would be executed by hanging on the spot. It was only a proposal.) That would result in most families personally knowing members and friends who died at the hands of the police when relatively few families know of anyone dead at anyone else’s hands.
That level of enforcement would discredit stated grounds for the killings and build opposition to the police. Killing every suspect is not a modern practice almost anywhere, if anywhere at all, and the worldwide trend is toward less capital punishment even as the world population is growing.
However, threats to kill are much more common and easily remembered. The threat, even though not fulfilled, can be life-changing beyond the moment, even for months, possibly years, leading to preemptive defensiveness against future likelier perpetrators even if the likelier perp is a cop. It can accumulate if knowledge of multiple threats is shared across a community, and it likely will be shared, because people will look out for each other, including family, friends, and work associates, to keep each other alive. The police likely also want the sharing, to deter wrongdoing generally.
It can be inconvenient to make a threat explicit. If the threat is illegal or if explicitness can cast doubt on a cop’s judgment and therefore affect job performance and evaluation, a threat may be implied. A lawful threat even if implied may be legitimate; but if it is taken so far that the police uniform itself is taken as a threat, and the police likely intend that their uniform be fearsome as a deterrent to crime in general, substantial numbers of people may sustain fear of being killed by the police. Some fear should linger; some improves safety; but excess fear of the police can lead to a counterassertion of fear-inducing power against the police and thence an undermining of the police mission. That undermining can be remedied by enlarging the role of the police to include a mixture of fearsome and less-fearsome missions; but, even if that works, it gets expensive, interfering with other uses of the money, public and private. A society that spends too much on internal security tends to fall behind in overall economic development, both macro- and microeconomic.
The effect of threats also wanes over time, if they don’t materialize even against other people who are close enough and if they’re not reinforced. With temporal and spatial distance, they can become less threatening.
But reinforcement can also create an underlying rhythm, a floor of threat that can lead to a permanent state of watchfulness, avoidance of immediate risks but not long-term risks, and pessimism, a pessimism that one will die somehow and sooner, with an inevitability that can make long-term planning wasteful. It is why people smoke cigarets without caring about cancer; the cancer may take years to develop and the smoker may doubt they’ll live that long anyway. It is why children who expect to be robbed of all their money and other property spend it on short-term consumption when long-term consumables will just get stolen, often buying drugs and alcohol rather than nutrition.
An Effect of Adversity
People who have had several adverse encounters in which they were innocent but, at least briefly, not believed and who have friends who have had similar experiences, mostly negative, may remember they don’t always have to talk with the police and decide they generally shouldn’t; and so respond by dodging police contact even if the police will see the dodges.
However, people who are factually guilty may do the same and the police couldn’t know the difference. If the police see the dodging, give chase, and catch the person, both parties are likely to be more hostile in the ensuing confrontation, the police because their fear and suspicion of the person’s possible wrongdoing is heightened and the innocent person because they believe the police will nail them regardless of the facts.
If the person dodging the police during innocence gets away, that’s a success that may appear useful in the commission of actual crimes, and some of their friends may encourage this, such as by suggesting doing a crime together, each confident in the other one’s teamwork and in their increasing wealth. I doubt crime from these circumstances is attributable mostly to the police; I think poverty, underschooling, and subcommunity willingness probably contribute more.
But police conduct intended to teach fear of becoming a criminal may be backfiring often enough to be of concern, although a solution may be difficult to work out.
Empirically, we see that even the most-pro-police communities generally want to place upper limits on the police. Globally, some outer limits are common. One is that the police themselves, at least officially, should not be punishers. The amount of law that one officer would have to know in the moment of contemplating an arrest or of adjudicating guilt is too much for an average individual who has probably never been to college, never mind three years of postgraduate law school. Even with that much education, it’s almost impossible for an individual who has arrested someone and maybe fought that person to the ground to handcuff the person to accept a defense lawyer’s view that the client is innocent. That’s why, once an arrested person is in custody and the potential for the arrestee to commit harm is reduced to ordinary manageability or zero, we separate trial and punishment from arrest and have the judiciary and other institutions, not the police, run those processes.
We recognize limits of humans, and police are humans. We recognize that giving police officers unlimited power would be disastrous and would be rotten judgment. Setting limits and teaching those limits to officers might be simple until the limits get complicated. Then, there may be no method for guaranteeing that all officers remember the precise limits of their authority for many real-life situations, yet we can’t exempt them from the duty to remember them. This creates contradictions for both managers and cops.
Where Crime is Highest
Where to fight crime can produce different ways of fighting crime, and then it can look discriminatory. The solution is not in isolationism or in identicalness of method. It is in going in, going at crime, and doing so, perhaps differently, but still nondiscriminatorily.
We generally know which neighborhoods are especially dangerous. One hotel one night by phone refused to give me walking directions and told me to take a taxi. (I walked anyway.) One specialized dry cleaning business refused to give me subway directions because, he said, it’s too dangerous to go there and suggested I use a trucking service for my one coat. Housing rents are lower because of perceived danger, due to reduced competition among potential renters. The police agency likely has good data on where crime is, and if the agency doesn’t it should get it; and the elected executive (mayor for neighborhoods, Governor for localities, or President for States and regions) should have it, too, or get it, because that executive has to request a budget for policing according to need. Which neighborhoods are more dangerous is generally no secret. The problem is not in identifying them; it’s in deciding what to do. That latter issue is what we usually debate.
Isolationism in international affairs has a domestic counterpart, when, for example, a gated community wants the local city to post the police where wealthy people live, as a preventive measure. But, in international preparations for war, planners prefer that a war be fought on foreign territory and station troops there. The U.S. did that in Germany during the Cold War, in case the Soviet Union’s nonnuclear military invaded from the Eastern Bloc into Germany. Likewise in domestic policing, police may be assigned not only where property should be protected but where much crime is originating, in order to suppress it at its source.
If a neighborhood that already has a large amount of dangerous crime is written off as incurably bad and then is underpoliced, crime will grow to its limit within the neighborhood; it will then become more powerful and so will likely invest in further growth, this time outside of the neighborhood. If it is backed by organized crime, the growth in crime outside of the neighborhood will be harder to break, stop, or contain. Communities considered by the public to be safer will be increasingly endangered and will be less safe, damaging not only people and property but realty values and local tax revenues. Thus, a big city cannot write off a bad neighborhood.
Instead, it must police it enough to break crime levels. It’s allowed to use more intensive tactics. It may need to study local crime and local culture. It may need more police officers per thousand local people. It may need tactics unlike those in low-crime areas. It may need more police-community communications. It may need to withstand more criticism while listening to critics, supporters, and neutrals.
The people in high-crime neighborhoods who want safety but don’t want the gangs to be the sole source of safety want the police to become more effective. The police must fulfill that wish. The politicians responsible both for the neighborhood and for the larger city enclosing the neighborhood and with oversight over the police need to support policing in order to keep democracy meaningful, the economy aboveboard, and tax revenues proportionate to the real economy and need to prevent and remedy abuse by the police, and therefore need to seek and respect input from people affected by the policing. Since abuse is often directed at convicts and suspects who are most likely to be convicted, even criminals have to have some reasonable amount of voice, subject to verification of validity of their complaints.
Strong enforcement may be both effective and resented, because of differential effects within a targeted community. Likewise, weak enforcement may be both ineffective and resented, for the same reason. While the Federal anticrime legislation enacted during President Bill Clinton’s administration has been criticized for the severity of prison time under it, and the effects of severe sentences may have damaged families and communities, it may also have reduced crime, a point I have not seen much addressed, never mind disputed. It may be that effective policing may have to be repudiated and replaced with other effective models and the leaders replaced in order to keep up the pressure that suppresses crime and lets communities grow. Maybe we need to recognize that a law enforcement system warrants both criticism and praise at the same time and act on both.
The UniformThe police uniform is necessary in a fight or other fast-moving emergency when its necessary for a cop to know who else is a cop. It also serves the public in identifying the embodiment of a law enforcement authority. Uniforms are largely similar across the U.S. You can visit a city you’ve never been to before and haven’t even seen pictures of, and usually still recognize who’s a police officer just among people standing and walking, even without a car or an introduction. That leads to a subconscious perception that the officers themselves are similar across the country. And, to a degree, they are. Not entirely, of course. But that sense of similarity means that when police in one jurisdiction cause a judgment about whether they can be trusted the same judgment tends to be applied to other police officers in other jurisdictions. That cross-border lingering view is hard to erase, except by new encounters leading to different judgments. If a cop saved your life and you’re grateful, you likely have good feelings about cops in general and they transfer to future experiences that don’t disturb that, even in other cities and even years later. If an officer arrested you for nothing and you’re angry, you likely have bad feelings about police in general and they transfer to future experiences that don’t disturb that, even in other cities and even years later. The near-uniformity of uniforms contributes to both. Thus, while police benefit from the near-uniformity, they are also hurt by it, and yet choose to maintain it (or their employers do and cops don’t much dispute the decision). The same is not true for other institutions; for instance, delivery workers wear different uniforms, so that FedEx, United Parcel Service, DHL, and U.S. Postal Service deliverers are easy to identify as such and yet tell apart. Police executives, however, generally prefer a national similarity. An exception is that New York State police wear uniforms very distinct from those of New York City police. There may be other exceptions. But some years ago the private security guards at Rockefeller Center, in New York City, switched from brown uniforms to blue, thus more like New York City police. Probably most private security guard uniforms in the city are blue. The policy for near-uniformity may be an issue, although probably the shared authority, in the minds of most of the public, is generally more important than the competition against a bad reputation.
Legal Powers to Question, Search, and Arrest
The police may question, search, and arrest. But when is not well known. Some people have some rough idea of when, of the circumstances under which each is permitted, and therefore are wrong about many instances, wrong both prescriptively and proscriptively.
I doubt that the police are required to disclose their reason for questioning, searching, or arresting until much later. When someone, even sincerely, believes that an arrest is for no reason and therefore resists arrest, resisting does not make the cop’s decision and action illegal. If the concept of probable cause applies, the person believing that no probable cause existed or that it had an innocent explanation does not give that person the right to refuse to be arrested. The police officer’s decision to question, search, or arrest might be illegal, but often it is within the law even if the person subject to it is not told why.
The police likely get reminded at intervals of what the law says, although some of that training is likely aspirational about the law and some of it is ignored in favor of police passion for the basic mission of fighting crime, the reason they were hired in the first place. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges likely have more accurate knowledge, although disagreements remain, so that many are sometimes wrong. But most people are not any of these, and don’t have even that level of knowledge. The law on what the police may do is likely often violated.
Lethal ForceSome officers say they never shoot any adversary. That may not mean other officers can do the same. Some officers may be more confident and more skilled at resolving adversarial situations; or they may not face the same threats. They may not serve in the same loci. Those who are more skillful, however, may not be getting much emulation from other officers. Leaders may be training all officers in nonlethal techniques; but in a marginal situation some officers may turn to the decisiveness of lethality because they lack confidence in any nonlethal method at that moment. We can review what generally happens in a community and judge the quality of the entire police force; but we often don’t know enough to second-guess one officer on the scene of one situation. It’s rare that any adversary who intended to kill a cop says so later, and so, for our safety and the safety of the cops, we often have to rely on the evidence available from the event, including what the officer says happened. Doing so depends on trust. The police must nurture trust for when it will be used. On average, we hope they’re right.
Taser guns are a double issue. In use, they’re sometimes lethal but shouldn’t be and usually are not. A misunderstanding is that since they shouldn’t kill but sometimes do then the police shouldn’t have them. That’s supported by unpredictability; an officer intending only to temporarily stun might accidentally kill. But that’s also true of a defective police car, and we don’t disagree on issuing cars to the police. Since Tasers are designed to stun and not kill and, when used, usually stun without killing, when they’re issued to the police who already are authorized to kill, distributing Tasers is not worse than distributing guns that fire bullets designed to kill, as long as the training is appropriate and killings are rare.
When in the possession of someone who is not a police officer and whose good intent is doubtful, their potential lethality may be enough to put a police officer’s life at risk and the lives of other people at risk. While neutralizing the threat may be accomplished in a nonlethal manner, if not then a lethal means of ending the threat may be necessary and authorized. The police may be allowed to kill the holder of a Taser even though the holder may not have fired it. Numerous police officers misuse Tasers despite training; most people who are not police or in the military have not been trained in proper use of a stun gun and the risk of death at their hands is higher. An argument that a police officer should experience being Tased before being issued the weapon suggests that the experience will lead to more caution in police use of the weapon.
Possibly, Blacks are dying at higher rates when Tasered. The study was unclear on death rates as a percentage of Taserings in each race and for many people race was undetermined in the data studied, but the question needs further study.
Militarization has three forms: military-style academy training of all new officers; equipping the police with military equipment, reputedly increasingly common and intended to support arresting individual wrongdoers who are otherwise too difficult to arrest; and indoctrinating the police with military doctrine, to hold a community responsible for wrongdoing by a member who cannot be caught by nonmilitary policing.
Merely equipping and training in the use of the equipment raises a question of whether the equipment can be used safely enough that collateral damage can be adequately circumscribed. Police could have no equipment at all and still inflict collateral damage; adding military equipment should not be allowed to add more collateral damage.
But if war doctrine is added, so that the police attack entire communities and not just individual criminals on the rationale that the individual criminals cannot be identified by the police and so a community must be forced to identify and constrain the criminals or be killed, the targeted community turns against the invading or occupying force. Often, in war, the losing side never believes that losing was just and tries to eventually reverse its loss, the belief and effort lasting through generations.
It is possible that the larger society needs to apply that doctrine, but I don’t think anyone claims that the U.S. has reached that point in modern times. The Civil War ended in and I don’t think we’ve had a similar threat to the U.S. since then. And large parts of the Civil War’s losing side’s population still think its side should not have lost, and, over a century and a half later, say “the South will rise again.”
If that doctrine were necessary, it should not be applied by the police. A separate force should apply it. It’s too much to train any significant number people both to police individuals and to attack whole communities as if in war. The dividing line between the two functions will become fuzzy and supervisors will find it too difficult to supervise the front lines to separate the functions. The police will tend to apply the doctrine of war when they shouldn’t. They will do so out of perceived necessity and executives will be unable to confirm that necessity and will be unable to restrain the front-line police from applying the doctrine of war. Thus, the separation must be in the front lines and above it, with only the elected politicians overseeing both not having to be separate.
Backroom SupportPolice rely on support, some from clerks whose work is cheaper than a cop’s and some from scientists, technicians, and other specialists whose knowledge is too much to expect to find in a normal police officer. There are two kinds of nonsupervisory members of a police agency: those who risk their lives almost daily and those who risk their lives almost never. It is a human trait that respect among both groups of people tends to be higher towards those risking their lives almost daily in the interest of the society. Often, the one facing the greater risk identifies a likely suspect, and the others in the agency have no reason to doubt the judgment. They get passionate about catching the one who did the crime and believe the officer in the field already identified that suspect. This tends to pressure the safer people into making professional judgments that conform to the police officer’s suspicion of guilt. Even if the safer people are scientists, that is not scientific. If a fingerprint-matching expert is given copies of several people’s fingerprints and a copy of fingerprints found at a crime scene, the judgment about matching should not differ even if the expert is told that the person whose prints most closely match those from the scene has a solid alibi. One news report about a criminal case reported that the law enforcement agency had taped-recorded a phone call with the defendant and transcribed it, the defense prepared a different transcript of the same call, the jury had the tape and both transcripts in the jury deliberation room, and the defendant was acquitted. Other news reports have questioned the quality of forensics laboratory work and reported that some of it is wanting. Passionate commitment overwhelming accuracy contributes to distrust. The FBI for years testified about identifying the lead used in ammunition so precisely that it contributed to proving guilt. Eventually, a defendant, with a lawyer, showed that this was not known to be true, and, reputedly, that type of evidence is no longer offered. Some defendants are factually guilty despite bad support for the police and other evidential and procedural deficiencies. But some are factually innocent, efforts like those of the Innocence Project and some prosecutorial integrity offices are insufficient for collateral attacks in most cases and probably unavailable for direct attacks, the expense of a good defense is impossible for some defendants to afford, some communities have disproportionate numbers of poor people who cannot afford good defenses, and the resulting community distrust can accumulate.
Minor Offenses, Too, or Only MajorThe “broken windows” philosophy, roughly speaking that minor offenses should be enforced against in order to discourage major offenses, has been debated. I don’t think it’s ineffectual for that purpose, but it probably is applied in a way that singles out the people who have less political power to object, and that produces racist disparities that may, through greater arrest records, increase long-term poverty among people of color.
Talking with the Police
When should someone talk with the police? Obedient citizens and dumb criminals ponder this question unless they already have answers.
Public safety requires good police-community communications. At its simplest, that means civilians and cops need to talk with each other. An officer may be investigating a crime and so may need to know if you were on the other side of the street tonight, so they may need to ask and seek an answer. Not being willing to say if you were on the other side of the street tonight might indicate that you were but wish to hide it, and since the police have a report of a crime there then maybe you had something to do with a crime there and that’s why you don’t want to tell about it.
But if we have privacy rights, do we have those rights when the police have a few questions for us? Society thrives with privacy, because half-baked ideas don’t have to be revealed. Privacy can prevent a misunderstanding, like when I had been helping with a large outdoor event and, near the end, when I was heading to our organization’s office, a police officer asked if I’m going “home”, and my saying “office” when he said “home” again seemed to confuse him, probably because he has learned communications simplification that works for court proceedings, thus encouraging us to lie for the sake of simplicity, and maybe it’s a bad idea to leave a cop confused about our intentions, and so maybe I shouldn’t talk with him and make things worse. Or one morning when I asked another police officer where a certain street was located and she responded by asking why I wanted to go there, a question I would normally have blown away if someone else were asking, because my question is about where the street is and then I’ll figure out everything else I need, but this is a police officer, which makes it riskier to blow it away because maybe she’ll arrest me. So I told her why I was going there and she approved and told me where the street is (it turned out to be one block away). I’m sure that’s nothing compared to the experiences of many other people. People in sociological minorities tend to be distrusted by police officers and are more likely to have these experiences. The Miranda warning applies only to a subset of cases when its main meaning applies to many more cases. So the question arises about whether to talk with the police.
Families that have The Talk on how to respond to the police stopping you when you’re a teenager of color have to contend with what friends tell the teen, maybe the opposite. Both may be legally sound. That’s not so much confusing as it is a choice, maybe a discoordinated choice but still a choice. It’s about choosing between a right and an order, a Constitutional right and a lawful order supporting public safety and against crime.
But the police at the moment of needing information may not consider it a legitimate choice and may treat silence as revealing guilt. The exercise of rights may turn ugly. This, too, is hard to resolve.
Police as Credible Witness and on Credible Investigation
Police as Court Witness
Solving crimes requires more than that cops have arresting power. It requires methods of solving a crime that are compatible with proving the solution in court. Courts, at least in the U.S., permit accused persons and the prosecuting publics to be present and represented in court before juries and judges and to support their respective claims with evidence and argument, and allow defendants to win by establishing reasonable doubt about claims of criminality, including by doubting the trustworthiness of prosecution witnesses, including the police. That can put police behavior on trial even without the police being defendants.
This applies not only when the police shoot someone. It also applies when the police comment on their work and the comment is available as evidence. This applies to anything of which a juror or judge is aware or believing to be true about the police, even police who are not involved in the instant proceeding.
To be persuasive as witnesses, the police generally need to be trusted. The amount of trust needed is enormous, since we trust the police to know whom to kill without a court preview and to get it right. By the time a case gets to court, because court proceedings can be fairly quick, as when a trial takes only a few hours or a few days, most of the trust must precede the trial’s beginning. Thus, the police, including the whole force, the top executives, and the individual officers, must go through their careers largely building the trust that they’ll need on occasion, such as at trial. Trials are adversarial and thus defendants, through counsel, bring out flaws and weaknesses in what the police say. When defendants challenge the police, the police cannot take offense at being challenged and refuse to cooperate. They need to answer the questions. While the police do not need an ironclad guarantee that they will never be doubted, society asks people to be police and so will, largely, trust them and should (if society does not trust them with the power society vests in them, society should change people, doctrine, or something else until trust is restored). And the trust must come from the general public and from most people in court.
Once the trust is acquired, the police involved in a case must not blow it, must not lose it. Once it’s lost, nerves are exposed, the police are untrusted with public safety, the police are disqualified to do the jobs they were asked to do, and the society is on the verge of chaos until order is restored, perhaps through unpredictable means.
The Believable Arrest
Getting the right defendant in the first place is also challenging. It’s no good to arrest just anyone lacking an alibi. It’s vital to public safety that those who actually did wrong be found and taken away from where they can harm the public, while the innocent must be free to go.
In the U.S., someone hijacked a jet, got money and a parachute, and has never been found or identified, alive or dead, even though some of the money was found later and some people gave tips on who the so-called “Dan Cooper” or “D. B. Cooper” could have been. That and other cases remain unsolved, years later. Arresting the wrong person leads the police to stop looking, and that makes it easier for the real criminal to get away. That’s why the police have to be more careful before arresting, even if that means the police have to annoy more people who seem to fit a description.
Therefore, the police need methods that will uncover crime and criminals.
A Few Questions
For acts that are well known to be crimes, like murder, some people who commit them deny it. If the cops ask everyone “did you kill Joe?” and people say “no”, most of them will be telling the truth, but at least one of them will be lying.
The police have to figure out who’s lying. Often, when people lie, they first remember the truth and would say it but catch themselves and instead tell a lie. Even if the lie was previously rehearsed, there’s a fraction of a second for remembering the truth and then switching to the lie. The police have to catch that fraction of a second and get that first statement. That’s hard.
It usually requires getting someone to be off-balance, off their game, to lose track of their lie, to not arrive at the lie, and then to keep talking on the basis of having already admitted a truth, in order to reveal more truths. So, the police ask, interrogate, in ways designed to interfere with lying, and maybe that’s by instilling fear and demanding that answers be rapid. Being grilled this way can be so uncomfortable that most of us hope not to have to go through it again, and probably don’t want to see the same officer again, and maybe any officer for a while, but it probably works, so usage continues.
Other methods are also available, such as records analysis and high technology. But they are not always a substitute for interrogation; and the police generally hope that people who commit crimes do not defeat those other methods. That often requires that many of the methods be secret.
Related to this is the first impression. At a Federal office, a security guard used, I think, an X-ray to check my bag, then demanded to see my can opener from one end of the bag. No problem; it’s at the other end but I can show it to him. No, he insisted I had to get it from this end. I can show him what’s at this end but it isn’t a can opener. No, he insists I have to show him the can opener from this end. I don’t have one at this end; it’s at the other end of the bag. (I packed the bag myself.) We go back and forth like this several times. Finally, I get out my can opener from where it is, the other end, and he studies it (it’s a type often used in the military). Just after, he’s holding my wallet. He wants to see my wallet. He has it in his left hand. I tell him this several times: “It’s in your left hand.” Finally, he looks at his left hand and stops disputing that it’s my wallet. It’s not branded by Calvin Klein and it probably cost around 50¢, but it holds my currency and my ID and it goes into my pocket, so it’s a wallet. The problem? He formed an impression and he’s protecting the Federal government from people doing bad things and, as far as he knows, maybe I’m one of those people, so, therefore, nothing I say that contradicts his first impression could be true. It was minor; it cost me about five minutes or less and there was no consequence after that.
Contrast: In a large department store, a young fellow, maybe teenage, was frantically talking to a guard. He told the guard, “Sometimes the hand is faster than the eye.” The guard then grabbed him by the lapels and took him down the escalator. If this was about shoplifting, it sounds like he made an inculpatory statement, and the guard did well by listening.
Maybe people try to confuse the police by saying something is something else, so probably the police hold onto the first impression and let nothing shake it. This supports preserving original evidence for recording into written records later. But can it get out of hand? Yes, of course, and it does.
Pulling the Trigger
Shooting to kill or disable is an authority given to the police, an authority that is broader than that given to the general public. The authority for the police is limited for who can be shot and why, but the authority has to exist. It has to, because the police need to have more power than the adversaries, and, in the U.S., large numbers of adversaries have guns for killing and use them for criminal purposes, and those adversaries have to be controlled by a greater power, and that’s often the police, and should be the police, well armed.
Yet gunshots are so dangerous that we don’t stand idly by even if we’re in the right and even if the shooter is skillful and trusted and only shooting near us, not at us. And someone might be a bad shot. If the police are bad shots, or if they’re usually good shots but not when afraid, or only when doing a prescheduled practice at a target range, then it’ll take more shots to kill the target, especially a moving target, and, meanwhile, some shots may penetrate other bodies that were alive a moment ago, maybe our own, followed by a police report that we bystanders must have been criminal.
Sometimes, the threat to the police is so high that the usual police firearms and training are not adequate to assure overpowering the adversary. But we generally don’t issue tanks to the police, because most adversaries are not powerful enough that overpowering them requires tanks or anything almost as powerful, and anything that powerful is likely to risk much more collateral damage, to require advanced training of the police, and to be expensive. On the rare occasion when that kind of weaponry is needed, it may be smarter to bring in people already skilled with that kind of weaponry and place them under police leadership for when and where to apply that weaponry, so that, for example, legal standards are met. The law related to civilian crime is generally different than the law of war. The people who know how to fight with tanks generally know about international war and much less about domestic law enforcement. But coordination still leaves a problem: Coordination between a military unit and the police, especially when they’ve had no contact before an event in question, can easily leave critical gaps, with disastrous consequences, and potentially even less public accountability than with police-only operations. It may be nearly impossible to sue the military for its role in a police operation, and gain accountability.
That the police need guns is settled. That the public supports the police having guns is also settled. Whether enough of the police can be trusted with them is not.
Disturbed but Shot
The unarmed man is often talked about. He was unarmed, had something innocent in his hand or was reaching for something innocent, and was shot dead by the police. Afterwards, we are told that some are mentally ill, and let’s assume they are. Let’s assume that the mental disability was substantial and not exaggerated.
We should speak of someone holding a bent short pipe in a position as if it was a gun and acting as if it was at least a toy gun, someone described as mentally disabled. People do shoot people, some of the shooters are not the police, and some of them shoot at the police. In this case, the police arriving on the scene might have seen nothing more of the pipe than a round darkness above a hand and that could be the barrel of a gun, and therefore could be loaded. Whether the pipe-holder was mentally ill or not may have no effect on his ability to aim the pipe or gun (he may already have aimed it) and pull a trigger (and, as far as the cops could see, there probably is a trigger within his hand). Perhaps a family member or friend he liked could have walked onto the scene without a bullet-proof vest or a weapon and walked up to him and said “give that to me” and disarmed him of the dangerous-looking pipe, but once the police arrive he could pull the trigger faster than a cop can dial a call and, if he dislikes the person who comes, the new arrival could make things worse.
If his mental disability was already known, and already believed to impair his judgment so that he might aim a gun-like thing at a cop, he should have been kept under control, so that he couldn’t do anything that dangerous to self and others. Most people are capable of doing dangerous activities but have the good sense not to, when that would likely be adverse. A second is enough to pull a trigger, It is unreasonable to expect anyone else to judge anyone’s mental qualities within a second. It can take a psychiatrist an hour or a week. We wish a cop could do it in a second, but that cop hasn’t been born yet.
That kind of control is hard, is long-term, and will often be resisted by the person being controlled in ways that other people his age are not. The person asked to do the controlling will likely find it too burdensome or impossible, and too expensive. But we can’t say that it’s too hard and, at the same time, that a police officer is supposed to recognize the personal problem within half a second and refrain from shooting him when he looks like he’s about to shoot a cop. That could leave a cop either angelic or dead. That’s too much to ask of the police. Most of us don’t ask that of new recruits.
Unarmed but Shot
Take the same kind of case but without a mental problem. For cases involving objects that, when glanced at under dim lighting, could look like guns, it’s not enough to say that there was no gun. To judge the case even with hindsight, one must determine, not if there a gun in fact, but if the police could reasonably have concluded that the object was a gun based on what they could sense.
The job of the police is to protect the public, and that includes protecting the police who protect the public, from people who seem about to shoot. It can’t be necessary to wait until the potential shooter says “I’m going to shoot someone.” Not everyone who pulls a trigger says they will, and our society wants the police to stay alive, healthy, and fit and to stop crime, and authorizes the police to kill to save their own lives and the lives of others. So, people should not be threatening police lives.
Yet, even a justifiable killing drains political capital from the police. They can’t detail for the public everything they do, so, at other times, they have to build the trust for when legally justifiable shootings do happen and a partial explanation and trust are needed.
Profiling has been grossly misused, but a version of it is necessary. People develop expertise over time and through training and build careers around their expertise; criminals are no different. If the police find out about a burglary, recent burglars are suspects. If the burglary was expertly done, experienced burglars are strong suspects. If someone remembers the perpetrator had a short nose, that narrows down the list of suspects. A linguist read a note that was written for a crime and deduced from the wording that the writer had come from Akron, Ohio, and told the detective why; and that narrowed down the list of suspects from three to just one.
Profiling, however, has become so infamous it’s become a buzzword for racism. The whole concept of profiling is subsumed under racism. An officer is looking for someone and the description includes that they’re Black; people remember that Blacks are routinely assumed to be criminals by pedestrians, employers, and landlords; and the police description of the as-yet-unnamed perpetrator sounds uninformed of the possibility that a criminal could be white. But the police probably can’t go public yet with why they think the perpetrator fits a certain description, including one race and not another. Trust of the police is needed because the description is made public in order that the public will assist the police in locating the perpetrator, such as by providing a location or other information. If trust is short, some members of the public who might have been willing to help will decline, because they’ll assume that a person they see who fits the description is likely innocent. This is an example of where trust being abused is costly and can lead to an increase in unsolved crime, and therefore in all crime.
Inside Houses of Worship
Mosques dot the U.S. They’re for Muslims to pray in and probably they’re centers for building Islamic communities. While Muslims in the U.S. tend to be good contributors to our society, many Muslims around the world believe it is permissible to kill people simply for not being Muslim. Many Muslims support going anywhere there are non-Muslims so they can convert them or use their services in the interest of Islam as they understand it. If the work’s purpose is good, bad, or in between, so be it. If that destination is the U.S., so be it. And mosques may provide a convenient platform for that work.
The police know this. They may ask imams and other Muslims to tip the police to anyone in a mosque who may be preparing to commit crimes, including asymmetrical warfare, but the information from such sources may not be enough. So, some of the police may present themselves as Muslims wishing to pray and meet other members of the faith community in the mosque. Some may be Muslim but some may not be. Those who are not may be violating an expectation among Muslims that anyone who says they are Muslim (and apparently met the requirement for admission, the uttering of a certain sentence) must conform to Islam and may be killed for failure to adhere to Islam and for leaving the faith, and presumably for pretending to be Muslim when they are not. I presume that insincerity as a Muslim by a non-Muslim pretending to be Muslim is a violation of Islamic law. If so, those police thus are violating Islamic law.
I have heard complaints by Muslims that the police infiltrate mosques. I’m sure they do. But probably at least some of them are doing it to enforce U.S. law against, for example, terroristic acts. That infiltration is likely lawful. In general, Islamic houses of worship may exclude anyone they wish to exclude, including anyone so rude as to be insincere as a Muslim, but the undercover police officers passing as Muslim can pretend to comply with all requirements of a mosque in order to try to enter and stay. There is no secular right to require the police to identify or exclude themselves if the law enforcement need is sufficient. There is no need to treat all faith communities as if the criminal risk is identical among them. Knowledge of differences is admissible for the strategizing of law enforcement.
We see this with other faith communities. Mafiosi commit major crimes, many are Roman Catholics, and probably many attend Roman Catholic church services with some regularity and contributing to Sunday collections, some handsomely. But, if a mafia member commits either a murder or a burglary and thinks the police are about to make the arrest, so he (rarely, she) ducks into a favorite church and asks for asylum, the priest will likely call 911 and thank the police for taking the suspect away. There probably were exceptions, but I don’t remember ever hearing of mafiosi hiding from police in churches. Evidently, as far as the police in the U.S. are concerned, Roman Catholic churches are not a crime problem.
But some mosques are. This combines profiling (what descriptions apply to perpetrators who have not yet been identified) and spying (not what the police would call it but what some critics call it) to find what people reveal when they don’t think the police are listening. Islamic law may be Saudi Arabian law, but it is not U.S. law and U.S. police enforce U.S. law and should. There is no exemption for a house of worship in general or because it is Muslim.
Secrecy of Details
If the main methods can’t be secret for long, probably some details can be. Even a computer geek who depends on computers to commit crimes probably can’t stay up-to-date on computer technology well enough to maintain a perfect defense. Edward Snowden is smart about computers, but he was likely living alone in Russia (until he married), so he probably couldn’t protect himself against major compromising of his computers by skillful, motivated, well-financed adversaries, and he has a couple of those.
Trust Without Transparency
Those two issues constrain the police.
The need to be trusted in court makes it against the police’s interest to let trust in them get too low in court, as that would impede getting a conviction and deterring other bad actors.
The need to conceal methods of detection and collecting confessions makes it against the police’s interest to reveal methods when doing so could facilitate the disappearance of evidence and impede solving a crime or the next crime.
The police fulfill these needs by deploying secrecy, to the point of secrecy becoming a cultural norm across the police, whether discussing a particular case by name or discussing their work in general, often using vagueness or generalization to conceal particulars.
Lasting Consequence For the Wrongdoer
When someone has committed an offense and punishment is applicable, how long the punishment should be for is a question for society to answer. Some societies say it should last through generations of a family, but other societies, including the U.S., refuse to do that, probably leaving that to much older societies. However, the U.S. does do a version of it: it blames a race, one, partly for criminality in past generations, although diffusing the blame across familial lineages.
There was a tradition that a wrongdoer could complete a sentence, move, start afresh, and not do wrong again. Texas often embodied that tradition. Perhaps a community’s drive to make money leads the community to consider a newcomer’s negative past against the probability that the newcomer can help the community make money and not be bad locally.
But also, long ago, most workers in the U.S. were entrepreneurs, such as farmers. Now, most workers are employees. Increasingly, employers are able to be picky in whom they hire and, as technology costs drop, can access a wider range of information. That includes information about legal offenses, including older offenses. Employers are pickier. We can no longer assure that every adult who wants a job can get one. Maybe every adult can get financial support through transfer payments assured by governments, but jobs that both support workers’ costs of living and employers’ needs for the jobs to generate revenues sufficient to pay for the jobs, including taxes to finance the transfer payments to people without the jobs, seem to be in short supply. People who are less trusted are less likely to be hired. People with histories of committing legal offenses are less likely to be trusted. They may not find paying work.
At the same time, communities want income, governments look for income sources, and politicians choose income sources. Since people prefer not to pay without getting value and governments will want people to pay for government, an income source usually has a downside, and politicians usually seek the highest income with the least downside. If there are two sources and all else is equal, the source with less political power to object is more likely to have to pay. Offenders have less political power. Therefore, offenders are often required to pay. Offenders often have less money and that’s a limiting factor, but they often have some money and can be denied some benefits of society if they don’t pay, which is often.
Turning past offenders into revenue sources has another advantage: If further punishment is desired, prison costs a government money but fines, fees, and other revenues bring governments money.
But punishment should be to deter, on the basis that the punishment is unwanted by almost anyone, so seeing that an offense gets a proportionate punishment should deter most crime of like kind. And punishment, except for sentences to life or death, should be followed by reintegration into society, including the ability to pay one’s own way and to pay to support one’s dependents. Even sentences for life or death should allow for the possibility that the condemned prisoner might communicate with and directly influence other prisoners who might be sentenced to less than life or death and thus might contribute benefit to society.
That prospect for reintegration is furthered by employment readiness training (e.g., showing up daily for work on time), job skills training, entrepreneurship skills training, and higher education.
If past offenders are treated as revenue sources to a level that keeps them in poverty, they become less likely to be able to invest in their own employment or entrepreneurship, such as clothing suitable for work, transportation, a telephone, Internet connectivity and a computer, and other purchases often needed just for consideration for employment or to receive investment in entrepreneurship.
Perhaps these barriers are popular among people who believe that they, the good people, should get the advantages of employment and past offenders should not, and, if so, politicians likely sense that sentiment and decide accordingly. But that acts against society’s long-term interests in maximizing what everyone can contribute to the society if suitably rewarded (compensated) and the allowing of individuals’ economic surplus for the creation of new possibilities by individuals.
Increasing damage to offenders tends to decrease offenders’ trust of those the offenders believe began the chain of events leading to punishment, and that’s usually witnesses and the police (albeit incorrectly). Thus, limiting post-offense extractions from offenders can benefit society and decrease the loss of trust, even among offenders, of the police.
Misunderstanding and Distrust
But, because of that secrecy, the public often does not understand how policing is done or needs to be done. That secrecy and that failure could be due to police illegality; but often it’s not. If the secrecy and the public’s resulting failure to understand are due to legitimate grounds, but even the legitimate grounds are shrouded in secrecy, then the police have to rely on the public trusting in the police. If trust has not been banked, sometimes it’s lost.
Liking and trust are not the same thing. People don’t like being the target of law enforcement. Millionaires don’t either, and I’m not sure they violate laws any less often than does anyone else, on average. However, wealthy violators tend to violate different laws. Pressing a knife into a stranger’s side and demanding their wallet may work among poorer people but it fails among millionaires, whose wallets tend to have credit cards that the thief can’t use unless they also kidnap the wallet’s owner, and that would be legally and logistically difficult. (I met someone who said he carries credit cards and no cash at all, so he couldn’t lend a store the quarter needed to use a shopping cart, and, considering the store, he probably wasn’t even a millionaire.) Instead, millionaires who commit crimes commit tax fraud, securities fraud, and insurance fraud (I’m sure I’m missing other big categories). That’s how Bernard Madoff took billions. People signed papers; no one said Bernie pointed a gun at them. Those are not crimes that concern the local police. Those crimes are under scrutiny by the IRS, the SEC, state insurance agencies, and the FBI. Wealthy homeowners who commit crimes also violate suburban ordinances, like by subletting apartments in housing zoned for single families only. Maybe the suburban police will write tickets, but those cops and local courts answer politically to the wealthy, so maybe they won’t write tickets and, if they do, a ticket may cost only twelve minutes’ salary. Meanwhile, the big-city cops are not fearsome to the wealthy individuals who like that the cops protect their property and families in those cities. So the wealthy, even wealthy criminals, experience the big-city police much more positively than the poor and nearly-poor do, and people with low incomes are more likely to be concentrated in big cities, where they have more problems with the police. And, when people with low incomes complain, the wealthy assume that the complaints are motivated by desires to commit crimes without getting caught. Wealthy criminals are especially likely to think so, as they’re often pretty good at not getting caught.
Trust is about relying on the trusted party, even if disliked, staying within certain boundaries, such as those set by law and by elected politicians who have oversight.
Recent events have badly damaged that trust and it is at a worrisome nadir. The distrust is at a crisis level, where mainstream political institutions and leaders are perceived as unable to supervise policing. The damage did not begin a few weeks ago; it has been simmering for decades. How many people deeply believe the police are worse than the alternatives fluctuates; both the depth and the breadth of opposition to the police are greater recently.
Solving For What We Expect
While some people associated with Black Lives Matter have called for the abolishment of the police in general, that does not appear to be a position taken by the core organization of Black Lives Matter, either after the recent events or about a year earlier, when I looked at its website, and one call for abolishment included that an alternative would be developed for public safety first. One U.S. Representative, in Congress, called for the abolishment of the Federal immigration police (ICE), but unless she believes in open borders, in nearly-zero enforcement, or in a replacement agency, and I didn’t hear her call for any of those, that call to abolish will go nowhere further. Calls from any people anywhere to abolish the police are not dominant in the criticism of the police, so far, although they are noticeable outside of the movement.
No society has no police for long, except perhaps for the tiniest societies. But if an abolishment movement grows enough, a society could tip into demanding a new government. I don’t think we’re there yet, or even close, and I don’t think most of us want to go there.
Reforms and Budgets
Reforms will likely precede that step. One type of reform called for is defunding of the police, the distinction from abolishment apparently being the preservation of some funding for the police, thus the preservation of some kind of policing. Other reforms are being proposed.
Our nation’s history is that if reforms generally take hold they’ll restore some confidence until the next breakdown. Hopefully, the reforms will include some benefits or some controls and the controls will be consistent with the general mission of policing and the general expectations of society for safety and thrival. Today, that’s within reach.
What’s needed now is to rebuild trust, and then to keep it high enough. The public demands that it not stay low. A question is how we get there, how we regain trust in the police, not necessarily the same police but some police.
Stranger on the Stairs
An anecdote in two parts:
I’m in a political campaign, volunteering at the headquarters storefront. Another campaigner, a Black man, arrives. He seems dismayed. He was just stopped by a police officer in a patrol car and the officer had asked if he had been across the street. No, the campaigner said he had not been. The officer then said he had asked because he matched a photo, which he showed to the campaigner. The campaigner had short hair. The photo showed someone with dreadlocks. To the campaigner, this warranted criticizing police misconduct, and probably most people in the campaign room agreed. Most were Black. I knew something else: the police are trained to look for characteristics that are immutable, or at least hard to change. That’s usually things like chin shape, nose shape, and eye color (except hazel, which is sometimes a catch-all term for unknown colors). A dreadlocks wig is probably easy to get and put on for a robbery, so the police officer may have been just out to hassle a Black man or the police may have been focused on immutable characteristics and the campaigner may have looked similar to the person in the photo until the officer got a close-up look at the campaigner and decided there was no match, so the campaigner’s denial, about not being across the street lately, was believed by the cop.
Did I say anything? No. I’m white and my experience is different because of that, so I would have lost credibility by disagreeing with his perception of what the cop was doing and making it uncertain. And there was another event involving the same campaigner and myself, although I don’t remember if it was earlier or later. The other campaigner and I are in the front room when someone comes in the front door and takes the front stairs down to the basement. I don’t recognize the visitor, apparently the campaigner doesn’t either, and the visitor is now out of sight. The campaigner follows the visitor down the stairs. I, however, take the back stairs down, to sandwich the visitor between us. It turns out the visitor was just going to the bathroom and he’s okay, and he’s been here before. (In campaigns, many people drop in only once in a while, not everyone knows everyone, and it’s still safe.) But the campaigner who followed the visitor down the front stairs wondered how I knew to take the back stairs. I explained that I had helped a progressive organization with security. The campaigner seemed relieved. I think (he didn’t say) that he was concerned that I was actually from the police department and had not told anyone. I was not from the police department or an informer, but there’s no way to prove that.
Trust is difficult. The police have to foster it and maintain it. The public already does; the police have their share of responsibility for trust.
Reticence to Report Crime
Calling 911 is at a caller’s discretion. So is, usually, any contact with the police. People who trust the police to do right are more likely to report. People who believe the police will too often do wrong are less likely to report. Which is better depends on many things, such as the safety of the community and whether the police are needed to maintain or help it.
If the police are doing too much that’s primarily harming people’s lives, such as by lengthily imprisoning people for minor charges, laws probably should be amended or the politicians performing oversight should probably reprioritize the policing or reduce the size of the police force until its size is suitable for the important work.
Loss of trust may lead to people refraining from reporting crime they believe is important and happened if they are not sure of who is culpable. People may be more likely to report when they believe something is a legal violation, when the violation is substantial, when the perpetrator is at least partly identifiable, and when, in the public member’s view, the proof is clear. Loss of trust may lead to people hesitating to report if they doubt the proof would be enough to convict and they don’t trust the police to investigate properly. They’re happy for the police to ask a suspect some questions. But they don’t want the police coercing false confessions that don’t get cleared away until, say, decades later through DNA evidence.
What people believe about what the police will do with their trust will determine when they talk to the police. If they talk less, the police may be stuck with higher expense in identifying crime or be largely unable to draw a picture of crime in the community the police are supposed to serve. If people call politicians complaining about crime, the politicians will want to know why the police don’t know much. Something will have to change.
External Sources of Trust
Because policing must be partly mysterious, one route to trust is from outside the police.
Political Control of the Police
It can be from an authority that is committed to assuring that the police are trustworthy and that can be ousted by the public from authority if the assurance loses public confidence. That public must be the general electorate, not a specialized subset but an electorate formed from the governed. Thus, that political authority has to be major political leadership, generally an executive, generally the mayor, Governor (e.g., for State police), or President (here considering the FBI, DEA, and other Federal law enforcement agencies as police forces). The political leadership would have to supervise the police, so it would know some of what the police are doing in the fulfillment of their responsibilities to the political leadership. While police chiefs could be elected, as many sheriffs are, that could result in their answering only to specialized electorates while practicing law enforcement on larger communities that therefore would be politically almost voiceless; minority communities would often have to dilute their political attention to focus on deficiencies in education, employment, and entrepreneurship, while majorities have more people to pay political attention to various concerns, thus likely capturing police elections. Electing police chiefs would weaken other electeds who have general authority. Therefore, the elected political authority over the police should be a more general authority.
Trust Among Criminals Toward Police
Hostage cases illustrate trust, also from outside but from an unexpected source. In those cases, police have a doctrine of trying to keep everyone alive, rather than just running a game arcade shoot-’em-up. The hostage-taker has gained the upper hand; the taker can kill a hostage and the police will be blamed for having failed to keep the hostages alive. The police deal with this by talking with the taker, maybe delivering a phone. The police try to build trust toward getting a successful outcome. The trust is between the hostage-taker and the police. If the police promise to deliver lunch, they fulfill the promise. If the police make any promise, it is one they intend to fulfill. It is not supposed to be a ruse to get the hostage-taker to give up. That is why they deliver the lunch, and the hostage-taker doesn’t even have to provide a credit card to get it. It’s a carrot-and-stick approach: The taker gets the minor concessions (the carrot) and sees the police power (the stick) and usually winds up accepting the arrest rather than trying to shoot their way out. Creating a calm space lets the hostage-taker see some ambiguity and the result is some trauma but everyone out without serious physical injury.
But is buying trust from criminals too big a price for the police to pay? Why should the police ever build trust from people on their way to jail, if not the electric chair? The reason is that, when the hostage-taker releases the hostages and is arrested and imprisoned, the now-former hostage-taker residing in prison talks with other prisoners. They tell about what got them into prison. They describe the whole adventure. They say they even got the police to bring them lunch. They even got to choose a lunch, which was a lot better than what they get in the prison mess hall. The convicted hostage-taker is telling this mainly to other prisoners. Some of those prisoners will eventually leave prison and some of them will commit new crimes, and maybe that will be to kidnap someone for ransom. And maybe the police will show up and interrupt the ransom plan, and that’s terrible for the crook, but the crook knows how to make the best of a bad turn of events, and so the crook takes a hostage. The police try to negotiate. The hostage-taker has learned, from the prison grapevine, that the police, in these situations, can be trusted. If the police promise pizza, there’ll be pizza.
In other words, the police cultivate trust among criminals toward the police so that future criminals will trust the police, even though they’re different police in a different city and the criminals are different ones in a different city and there’s no master criminal in charge of this and the police probably don’t do case-by-case coordination among departments. And yet this works.
If police can develop trust toward the police from felons in the middle of committing crimes while the police are checking the handcuff supply, the police can try to cultivate trust with other people, even people who have been felons in the past but are now just walking to a grocery store for some chips. It’s conflicting for both sides. For the person walking to the grocery store, the police may offer the best choice for safety. By the same person, who committed a felony and maybe was locked up for it, the police may be hated. For the police officer, the past felon is likelier than the always-innocent to commit a future felony, but the person walking to the grocery store, the same person, may be helpful to the police in maintaining community safety, such as through tips and 911 reports. It’s a difficult decision, but a necessary one.
Internal Sources of Trust
Those are external paths to trust. There’s also an internal path.
You Don’t Argue with Success
When police have existed for a while, and almost all agencies have, trust in the police can come from a recent track record of success by the police itself. That latter is most fundamentally measured in a public perception of a relative level of public safety. When someone’s unrecognized eight-year-old child can walk alone to the corner store with a $10 bill visibly in her hand, buy a quart of milk, and walk back home with the milk and the change, no one challenges her, and no one is even worried, that’s the safety we’d all like.
Other Jobs For the Police
Rethinking complementary missions raises the issue of what else the police should be doing and how the missions interact. Do they help or interfere? If they require too much additional skill, they may not be done well enough and, worse, they may degrade the performance of the core work of the cops. But a good fit may result in success with the complementary mission and stronger community ties, more solutions to crimes, and greater deterrence from crime.
Maybe cops are the only people who can do the complementary missions. But, often, a different group of people can be trained and responsible for them, either under police executive leadership or independently of a police department.
Among these missions are school security, through which probably fewer students carry knives with which to threaten other students; but some teachers believe the school security officers are too heavy-handed, and social services, even if limited to initial referrals, can require a lot of training and a different persona, including a greater willingness to overlook some admissions of criminality in order to achieve a more important goal through social services, such as housing or schooling.
Anticrime Economic Inclusion
Poverty being a driver of crime, since people must take care of themselves and their dependents and crime is socially generally more acceptable than suicide, an economic solution would reduce crime.
And deeper causes of crime must be remedied at the same time. Employment and entrepreneurship must be built up to levels found in middle-class and upper-class communities, so that few people are left idle and unable to meet their economic needs, because, in reality, they’re probably not idle, but engaged in criminality that may include armed robbery and pen-and-ink fraud for government benefits.
Since unemployment is often due to possession of lower skill sets due to weak education, education must be remedied. It is not enough to say that students must work harder. Yes, they probably should; but if studying appears to be futile because they don’t understand the material anyway or because they can’t read or do arithmetic at grade level or don’t have the support (e.g., a pencil, an Internet connection, or a tutor), then droning on that students ought to study is not a good enough answer. The military complained years ago about high school graduates being unable to read (probably meaning unable to read near grade level, even allowing for national variation in graduation standards). Businesses have complained to like effect. Schools that are particularly good are reportedly ignored as models. Some teachers have had the audacity to complain about other schools when those other schools are better at educating. Principals, administrators, and teachers who do mediocre work or worse, even if qualified and sincere, have to improve enough and fast or be fired and replaced. Some students, even though homeless, disabled, in possession of different abilities or different ways of learning, or with little money, get great educations. Always some will fail, because some students are simply interested in other things only and no system is perfect even for all those students focused on learning, but the percentages who fail can be quite low while standards for graduating from each grade can be upheld. We’ve already seen that, empirically.
However, even eliminating poverty does not eliminate a need for cops. Some people will stop committing crimes when they have the means for economic security without it. Others, however, will likely decide that they have to make up for lost time, and so will continue on crime sprees. Law enforcement is needed to keep their numbers from being augmented.
Although some affluent well-educated people also commit crimes, we don’t need to give them an economic solution, but more certainty that they’ll be caught.
Resolving these deeper issues can reduce crime, reduce the role of police, and reduce the number of police.
Getting Hands Dirty in Politics
A larger solution is in politics, but it’s underutilized. People, even middle-class people with the exposure to the issues and the time to do something, complain about the police enforcing laws (“why don’t you go after the real criminals?” is there an officer who hasn’t heard that from someone irate?). Many of the complaints about police misconduct are partly complaints about different substantive laws being enforced. When possessing, using, and selling marijuana was illegal for any purpose in New York, people doing so anyway and then complaining about being arrested were partly complaining about the law the police were enforcing. When they didn’t involve police misbehavior about individuals, they often involved singling out minorities in general, probably because majoritarian users (whites) used at home and not in public spaces, to avoid being in plain sight of a cop, and people in minorities didn’t see a difference in where they used.
But many of the complaints arise even without police abuse being alleged. A common instance without abuse is about driving over speed limits. Some argue that they’re driving at the same speed as do other drivers and need to for safety. But probably most ticketed speeders (specifically those who agree before adjudication begins that they did speed) don’t ask lawmakers to raise speed limits anywhere. And most of those are people who could safely ask without risking retribution and who might be listened to, especially if they can find other drivers who would openly agree and form a small political movement to improve road safety with higher speed limits (let’s assume they’re sincere in their beliefs). If people in majorities are unlikely to follow up their annoyance with law enforcement, sociological minorities are even less likely to be persuasive of politicians and therefore to contact legislators to ask for reform.
Not that political parties seriously welcome input. They want the people on their side to register to vote, to vote, and to donate, but they want the people on the other side to stay home, so to speak, and they probably don’t want ideas from anyone they didn’t ask. Black Republicans have a hard time getting their ideas into the Republican mainstream; they’re expected to just accept the mainstream and get votes and dollars for it. Democrats have similar problems, if not specifically on race. Since those two parties have been, between them, highly successful at winning almost all major and mid-level elections, they continue working the way they have for a century-plus. So, change is discouraged and input is discouraged and people who are not insiders are discouraged from being effective.
If changing the law is impossible, the remedy is to make it possible, such as by persuading possible supporters of reform to get on board and to narrow the opposition so that lawmakers come around; challenging a legal provision in court because of contradiction with higher law; persuading political leadership to deprioritize the unimportant for law enforcement resources, to achieve an effect similar to that of one state that almost never enforced the criminal law against adultery (enforcing it just once in a century became a news story); or persuading the public, especially the potential jury pool, so that when a court fills a jury panel and a case comes up jury nullification will follow (this works better when the community supplying the jury pool is only a small part of the polity for legislative purposes). Black Lives Matter, through its public communication through demonstrations and other means, may be doing what the law allows in swaying a jury pool before potential jurors are selected and ordered to report for screening.
Civil rights battles are still needed, voting rights being major, as solutions crafted in the s are broken down under pressure from the people who have more power and can add to it and election results determine who represents whom in government and for whom these political representatives do their main work. In modern practice, Black districts, as legally defined by geographic boundaries for elections, may be represented by people who take their concerns seriously but those representatives tend to be outnumbered, while rarely are white districts, similarly defined, represented by people of color (the only recent exception coming to mind being the U.S. as a whole when it was represented by a Black President for both terms allowed by law). Historically, African Americans have been under- and disenfranchised; in modern times, their ability to vote is often challenged as part of political campaigning. Disenfranchisement reduces confidence among the disenfranchised and their allies in the government and therefore in the prospects for reforms in criminal laws and enforcement. That damage to the political process reduces trust in the police.
We’re hundreds of millions of people, almost bumping into each other every day. We need some order. We don’t need to walk in formation or only think authorized thoughts, but we do need assurance that when we pass a stranger we won’t bite each other’s head off.
Most of us self-police for obvious issues. Babies self-police. And some complaints are too trivial to report to anyone. But some among us need help. Thus, not trusting the police is not much of an option.
We have to trust the police most of the time. If we don’t, we have to fix something, maybe replace people, so we can trust them again. Most of us want to trust them. But, if the police abuse the authority we give them, part of trusting the police is trusting that the police will correct their own errors before we even notice, even when that means prosecuting officers and firing commanders who should have known what was going on.
Independence of the police from other political institutions can be helpful in strengthening trust but cannot be an excuse for not strengthening trust.
The police and the politicians overseeing them need to identify deficiencies of trust, among whom are the deficiencies, and the reasons, shore up trust, and maintain it. Saying that takes one sentence. Doing it takes many people striving almost constantly to fulfill these goals. It’s not just about asking for trust; it’s about fixing individual and institutional problems that undermine trust and then asking for trust.