Reforming police and rebuilding trust

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 11th of June, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today, policing reforms. 

Congress is considering enacting reform from the top down. But the nation’s more than 18,000 local police departments have been grappling with these issues for years. Some more successfully than others.

BASHAM: The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has highlighted the ongoing need for change. But where to begin? WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke with policing experts to find out.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: In the 1980s and 90s, national and local politicians took tough-on-crime stances as murder and crime rates climbed. Politically appointed police commissioners especially started cracking down on gang violence in poor neighborhoods. 

In 1990, Tom Nolan worked for the Boston Police Department. He was assigned to one of the new units. 

NOLAN: They call it the Youth Violence Strike Force now, and it was essentially the gang unit. And so I was one of the first supervisors who was assigned to the gang unit. 

The year before, Boston logged a record 152 homicides. Many cities including Boston adopted stop-and-frisk policies where police searched people for weapons and drugs—even without reasonable suspicion. The idea was that police could stop crime before it happened. 

NOLAN: How it was enacted at the time consisted of stopping young African American men on the street in large numbers and searching them with the hope that you might find some kind of contraband or a weapon or something. So on the street, civil rights and civil liberties and constitutional protections were largely ignored.

Nolan says historic and ongoing police injustices against black Americans have consistently eroded their trust in the police.  

A 2016 Pew poll found just a third of black Americans think police treat all racial and ethnic minorities fairly. And last year, another Pew poll found nine in 10 black adults said the criminal justice system favors whites. 

Today, Nolan is a professor of sociology at Emmanuel College in Boston. He researches how police can more fairly enforce laws.

NOLAN: I think that there is an awareness that there has been historically and continues to be a heavy handed presence of the police in communities of color and widespread instances of over-policing in certain communities. 

But some criminal justice experts argue today’s protests against police violence and bias ignore the progress law enforcement agencies have made. 

Rafael Mangual is the director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. He notes that nearly 50 years ago, New York City police shot their guns more than 800 times, killing nearly 100 people. In 2016, NYPD officers fired their weapons 72 times, killing 9. Other cities have experienced similar drops. And in 2018, less than half a percent of all police officers fired a weapon. 

MANGUAL: That doesn’t illustrate to me evidence of a police force out of control. That doesn’t illustrate to me the existence of a police violence problem that is on par with a pandemic, which is exactly how it’s been characterized by police critics across the country in recent weeks.

Mangual also points to a 2018 study analyzing more than 100-thousand criminal arrests across three departments. Researchers found police made 99 percent of arrests without any physical force. 

MANGUAL: I also acknowledge that we should and can fairly expect more out of our police officers—but by and large—I think that the institution of policing is being unfairly maligned and tarred with a broad brush. 

Violent encounters with police may be down, but other criminologists point out that when violence is applied, it’s used more often against black Americans. 

According to a Washington Post database, police are twice as likely to shoot and kill a black person than a white person.

A 2016 study also found that black men and women are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, or pepper-sprayed by police. 

To address this disparity, more departments are enrolling officers in implicit bias training. Laurie Fridell is a criminologist at the University of South Florida. She created an implicit bias training program called Fair and Impartial Policing. 

FRIDELL: With implicit bias, we still lead groups to various stereotypes, but it’s not based on animus and hostility. It can still impact on perceptions and behavior, but it can happen outside of conscious awareness. 

Fridell says bias isn’t bad until it prevents police from administering the law fairly. Fridell’s training teaches police officers to take their focus off people’s physical characteristics and consider all relevant factors. 

FRIDELL: You can take that into consideration along with the particular behavior of a person, the location of the person, the time of day… and collectively that might produce for instance, enough proof to make a detention or even an arrest. 

Although she believes the program works, Fridell admits there have been no studies on whether implicit bias training actually changes police behavior.

Policing experts also suggest law enforcement should use body cameras at all times, avoid situations that lead to violence like foot chases, create departments that reflect local demographics and use hot-spot policing. That’s where police heavily patrol a few, crime-ridden blocks instead of a whole neighborhood. 

Rachel Greszler is a labor scholar with the Heritage Foundation. She says local governments also need to reform police unions. They’re supposed to protect police salaries, but they often end up shielding bad officers. 

GRESZLER: You can have any number of new policies and prohibitions and police reforms that are put in place. But if that police department cannot or will not discipline or terminate officers who violate those new policies that you put in place, you won’t have compliance… 

All the criminologists I spoke to agreed on one thing: While police departments are making improvements, they lack relationships with their communities, especially communities of color.

Wesley Skogan is a policy researcher at Northwestern University. He says police should partner with local nonprofits and community organizations working in neighborhoods. They should even just go door-to-door and talk to people. When people don’t know their police officers, it’s harder to trust them. 

SKOGAN: When the cops are out there in the neighborhood watching and cheering people on,  stopping by for 15 minutes. That’s got a lot of benefits. 

With trust comes the ability to have difficult conversations, especially when an officer in another community—or in your own community—does something wrong. And conversations lead to understanding, and hopefully change.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/iStock) Los Angeles, California / USA – May 1, 2020: A Los Angeles Police (LAPD) Officer wearing a body camera stands watch outside of City Hall.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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