‘Civilizing’ the fractured relationship between police and minority communities

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The video of a fleeing Walter Scott being shot in the back by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is chilling. Scott flees from Slager; Slager draws his sidearm and fires eight shots.

As the seemingly neverending list of minority citizens killed by police continues to grow, one death at a time, the pain of another stolen life is but one piece of the more profound, toxic damage that police-involved shootings do to the relationship between police and the public.

As horrible as these killing are, they are quite rare when considering the millions of interactions between officers and citizens in the United States. They take place, however, against a background of persistent, day-to-day injustices affecting the lives of people in many poor minority neighborhoods.

The deaths of Scott, Garner and Brown are deplorable. But such calamity is the extreme end of a spectrum of abuses that have had (and continue to have) a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The question now is - how to restore the relationship between the public and the police?

Daily cases of routine hassling

For every police-involved shooting, there are vastly more cases of hassling, stopping and frisking – “Where you going?”, or “Let me see some ID.”

Citizens live to tell the tale in the overwhelming majority of these cases but these experiences are not restricted to those directly involved. Instead, these innumerable infringements on liberty are re-created and re-lived by the families and friends of those that suffer at the hands of police.

This accumulated police experience undergirds the collective distrust and fear that communities of color often have towards police.

Both the deadly and daily incidents undermine the legitimacy of law and the officers who enforce it, further driving a wedge between communities and police.

This schism need not be our future, however.

Research on legal legitimacy consistently finds that citizens’ perceptions of fairness are key to compliance with the law and police. How officers interact with citizens, therefore, can make a significant difference in lessening the entrenched distrust people feel toward them.

By using procedural justice, and making sure that officers are neutral and consistent, respectful, and give citizens a chance to participate in the process (even if it doesn’t affect the final outcome of the interaction), police can begin to build the trust damaged over decades.

Building trust can keep police and public safer

Beyond building trust, procedural justice has the potential to make officers’ jobs safer.

The premise is commonsensical – interactions based on fairness are less likely to devolve into a struggle for dominance. Interactions that begin on the assumption of dominance are more likely to escalate and result in the injury of an officer or citizen.

By utilizing procedural justice in their daily encounters with citizens, police have the ability not only to improve their relationships with communities, but also to keep themselves, fellow officers, and community members safer.

There remain, of course, times when a suspect will resist, fight, or run.

As the case of Walter Scott highlights, it is vital that there be a record of what transpires between police and citizens. Without the dashboard and cell phone camera footage of the events in North Charleston, it is entirely possible that Officer Slager’s report of a struggle and a stolen taser would have exonerated him.

On the flip side, a 2002 survey shows that in cases of police misconduct where video evidence is available, 93% of the cases result in the officer being exonerated.

Research also indicates that body cameras can reduce police use of force, as well as citizen complaints.

A recent study in Rialto, CA, finds that police without a camera were almost twice as likely to use force, and citizen complaints decrease by a factor of 10 after camera use was implemented.

When ‘watched,’ police and citizens may act more ‘civilized’

As if this weren’t enough evidence, an Office of Justice Programs report finds that body cameras can have a “civilizing effect,” prompting better behavior from officers and citizens alike.

The benefit of this civility extends beyond reducing the potential for explosions of anger and violence.

If treating the public in a procedurally just way is a goal (and my argument is that it most definitely should be), body cameras can help to create situations conducive to respectful, neutral interactions.

Cameras can help maximize the chances for officers to interact with citizens in a way that builds trust and enhances the legitimacy of the law. And when things go wrong, they provide an important way to hold officers, and the public, accountable.

Potential pitfalls of body cameras

Without a doubt, body cameras do not solve underlying issues of race, implicit bias, or the deep structural factors that give rise to crime and violence in the first place. These problems are bigger than body cameras, not to mention the officers tasked with addressing their fallout.

An Oakland police officer with a Portable Digital Recording Device, which records both audio and video. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Further, there are very real concerns around the use of body cameras. Some are practical: Will officers be required to turn their cameras on for all interactions? If not all, which ones?

Some are technological. How long will the the charge on cameras last? For how long will terabytes of video data be stored, and on whose dime?

There are also fundamental concerns about privacy. As a recent LA Times article discusses, even though body cameras provide valuable documentation of what transpires between police and the public, officers answering to citizen calls could quite literally bring state surveillance into one’s bedroom.

What’s more, body cameras will inevitably record people during the worst moments in their lives - as noted by Peter Moskos in his study of policing in Eastern Baltimore: “Nobody calls 911 to report a graduation party, an anniversary, or another hard day at work. People don’t need police when they’re happy and everything is well. Police see misery at its best.”

We are right to be concerned about video of human suffering being leaked or misused.

How we can move forward

Despite the potential problems with body cameras, we cannot afford to be paralyzed into inaction. With innovation comes risk, but the stakes are simply too high to do nothing.

More police departments should employ body cameras. But while they are an exciting technology, they should not be embraced blindly. Echoing recommendatI ons made by the US Department of Justice, police departments (while taking into account their unique “resources [and] law enforcement needs”) must be ready to invest in well-researched departmental procedures that covers where and when cameras are to be worn, when they are to be turned on, when they can be turned off, who will have access to recorded video and for what reasons, and dozens of other concerns.

Clear departmental policies are critical for ensuring officers know what is expected of them and to ward off potential problems with body cameras that might arise. If departments can set strong policy foundations, their officers and the communities they patrol stand to benefit greatly from the civilizing effect of body cameras.

The stage is then better set for the kind of calm, fair, and respectful police-citizen interactions that are less likely to result in violence and may even improve the relationship between police and the public.

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