After Ferguson, building police-community trust

In the wake of last year’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as other events in which the police’s use of force has been questioned, is policing in America facing a legitimacy crisis? And if so, what do we do about it?

Amy Farrell, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, offered these questions to kick off her lecture and discussion last week in the latest installment of the “Minds Over Matters: NUterm Faculty Speaker Series.”

The series features weekly presentations from top faculty scholars who discuss their research and examine timely topics of global importance. Farrell’s research focuses on the administration of justice, with particular emphasis on understanding the impact of race and gender on police, prosecution, and sentencing practices.

When people lose trust in police, Farrell said, research has shown that they are less likely to follow laws, assist police, come forward as witnesses, and obey police commands in situations where officers are attempting to use coercive force.

“I think what you see resonating across our country today is a widespread fear of the police,” she told students, faculty, and staff in attendance, “a fear of the police that may have long been held in communities of color that’s now being recognized by communities that have the privilege not to have feared the police in the past.”

In response to these legitimacy concerns, police nationwide have done some “collective soul searching,” she said, and implemented systems of transparency, like the Boston Police Department’s releasing of video footage following incidents. Yet, Farrell noted, “restoring that public confidence is a fundamentally difficult task.”

Of the handful of issues that have at times threatened police legitimacy over the past 100 years in America, she said two are present in the wake of recent events: discrimination and inappropriate use of coercive force.

Farrell pointed to four problems that have contributed to this situation:
1) The movement away from community policing over the past 20 years—“Community policing never had a heyday, but it was a little plant that was starting to grow.”

2) The increased reliance on technology to solve problems—the idea that police can collect data on “hot spots” for crime but aren’t measuring things like fairness and procedural justice

3) The militarization of police—she pointed to a 2014 ACLU study that examined the increasing number of law enforcement agencies that have SWAT teams. “They are being deployed for routine policing,” she said. “SWAT teams’ reliance on militarization and technology increases the social distance between police and community.”

4) Implicit bias—Farrell said this has been lurking under the country’s racial progress of the past half century. “These are not prejudices that we are born with, but we live in a racialized society,” she said.

Solutions to these problems won’t be easy, as history has shown, Farrell said. But she offered a few ideas, among them bringing community partnership back to policing and shrinking the social distance between police and community by having police forces that are not only diverse but that also learn from and share in each other’s personal experiences.

Farrell also echoed her earlier calls for developing accountability systems for police that go beyond crime statistics and integrate a wider range of values beyond crime like fairness, equality, and procedural justice measures.

“Otherwise, these are just ideals without action,” she said.