The ongoing debate and controversy around police-community relations, and particularly around police use of force and police shootings of unarmed community members, stirs strong emotions in all of us. Ronald Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), recently declared that the public reaction to incidents over the past 12 months, such as those in Ferguson, MO (Michael Brown); Baltimore, MD (Freddie Gray); and Staten Island, NY (Eric Garner) represents a new civil rights movement in America.
We seem caught in the tension between what we need from police (safety) and what we want from police (respect and fairness).
The tension is exacerbated by news coverage. Aggressive law enforcement in our most dangerous and violent communities can elicit strong, negative community reactions—especially when the perception develops that police tactics focus on the less-empowered members of our communities: the mentally ill, the LGBTQ community, youth, and people of color.
But it is also an important component of what we call “evidence-based policing,” which requires police to run, bravely, to the areas in our communities that are the most violent, most troubled and most underserved (except, perhaps, by the police themselves). In the world of science and data, we value such policing highly. How do we reconcile these different perspectives? We know, again from research and data, that negative and harmful police behavior represents a very small percentage of all police-citizen interactions. Typically, harmful police behaviors account for only a percentage point or two of all police-citizen encounters. Most police know and understand this, and most of them pursue their noble profession in the face of public criticism. We also know that bias, prejudice and racism exist.
The police are not alone. We find such bias in the medical profession, in social services, in education, in the legal profession, and in most American institutions. We are engaged in a long struggle to eliminate these shameful and harmful influences. Again, most professionals in these institutions agree with this assessment.
One of the first criminal justice courses I taught, a senior-level undergraduate course, focused on how to address the problems of the criminal justice system, and how to stimulate reforms. I remember, at the end of the semester, asking the students, many of whom aspired to be police, probation and corrections officers several questions:
“How do you reconcile your desire to work in this system, with so many flaws and problems?”
“What do you need to see in order to convince yourselves that you can be a good public servant in a flawed system?”
The answer I received from one young undergraduate, and the ensuing class discussion, stays with me to this day. The student told me: “I can live with the mistakes if they are rare.” What a refreshing comment. Our ensuing class discussion led us to the three “Rs” – Rare, Random and Reflective.
Here's how it goes, or should go. Yes, we make mistakes in the justice system: little mistakes, big mistakes, very serious mistakes. If we are not perfect, we have to accept that there will be mistakes. If we accept that there will be mistakes, we must hope that they will be rare occurrences, and we must do whatever we can to make sure they are rare.
But we must do more.
We must ask ourselves: “If they are rare, are they random?” If they affect one group, one community, one class of persons more than any other, then the mistakes are not random, and they are likely the result of some form of bias, even racism. So we must do everything we can to assess and hold our justice system accountable to the randomness standard (more easily said than done). Finally, if there are going to be mistakes, the justice system must be reflective; it must be transparent; and it must sincerely assess and investigate the sources of non-randomness (and perhaps, non-rareness) in its mistakes.
I believe we are on the positive edge of the three Rs, but not in the clear by a long shot.
We know, as I suggested, that instances of wrong and harmful police conduct are rare. Even if they are undercounted, we can be reasonably confident that they are rare. Think about the over 18,000 police departments in this country, and about the many interactions they have with citizens of all kinds (stops, arrests, calls for service, community policing, crime prevention, first responders to emergencies, facing and managing community protests, to mention a few). Research over the past few decades tells us that the vast majority of these interactions, even those that involve law enforcement against law breakers, are viewed positively by community members.
Now, we are not reasonably confident they are random. Media accounts aside, there is sufficient, rigorous research evidence to suggest that negative police contacts are non-random. This is a very difficult issue to tease out.
When we dig deeper into the data, we find that police (white police and police of color) respond aggressively in communities with the most calls for service for violent crime, with the highest rates of victimization of people of color, and with the most serious quality of life problems. Still, in some communities, data reveal that police use of force affects people of color disproportionately, that “stop and frisk” or “stop and search” practices affect people of color disproportionately, and that it actually results in lower rates of finding unlawful activity among those disproportionately stopped.
So there are biases in play here. They are not uniformly racial biases. There are class biases and other sorts of biases (for example, bias of homeowners against renters, biases against immigrants). We must all agree that this “R” (the randomness standard) is important and warrants much more serious attention in the justice system. I also believe that we as a society are becoming more sensitized to this issue, thanks largely to the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recently delivered an honest, useful and prescriptive assessment of policing in America—and which calls attention to this very issue.
We are improving on the third “R”: reflectiveness. For the past 10 years and more, police agencies (albeit the larger, better resourced agencies) have invested more—and been more open to—research partnerships and the collection and analysis of data according to rigorous scientific research methods. So we are developing better evidence about what is happening in the world of policing.
However, as the Task Force report indicates, we know very little about police shootings in this country. The data collection and analysis capacity to study and prevent police shootings is almost non-existent, and has been resisted by law enforcement for decades. This must change. More recently, transparency has become more valued in policing, and so has accountability in various forms.
Some examples: “Compstat” processes hold officers and supervisors accountable to crime prevention and crime reduction goals; early intervention systems scan police data and identify officers at risk of being over-aggressive or causing actual harm; and citizen oversight is becoming more accepted in police agencies. This is hopeful news. An agency, or an individual, that is purposefully reflective in the aftermath of mistakes made, and that searches, relentlessly, for ways to prevent repeated mistakes, is respected much more than those who ignore mistakes and repeat them over and over again.
So, on balance, our justice system scores better than average on the three Rs. Mistakes are rare; non-randomness is now squarely in public discourse and likely to improve (lessen); and reflectiveness is on the upswing.
We need the police. The police need us. Let us all embrace the three Rs and push forward to meaningful discourse and system improvements.
James R. “Chip” Coldren, Jr. is the Managing Director for Justice Programs at CNA, a nonprofit research and solutions organization in Arlington, VA; he is on leave from the Criminal Justice Program at Governors State University in Illinois to conduct research on and work toward improvements in the justice system in America. He welcomes your comments.