In a democracy, we expect that our public institutions will be accountable to us. Rarely are the implications of that trust as profound — or the results of its violation as devastating — as they are when it comes to the police.
As an institution, police are entrusted with the power to take away life and liberty in order to “protect and serve.” This system places an extraordinary level of trust in the people policing our communities. For many of us, however, that trust has been violated repeatedly with impunity.
Take the case of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Police were called to a Triple S store following a report that a man had “brandished a gun.” On arriving at the scene, they saw Sterling standing in front of the store and immediately put a gun to his head. When he asked why, the police threatened to shoot his “f*cking ass.” They threw him to the ground and shot him dead 90 seconds later. Then they went out of their way to hide what had happened. Police confiscated surveillance video from the scene without a warrant and claimed they didn’t have it. They obtained body camera footage but told the public the cameras had malfunctioned. And when residents took to the streets demanding answers from the public institution they fund to protect them, the police responded with mass arrests, tear gas, and militarized force. Two years later, after what they were promised would be a “fair, thorough, and impartial investigation,” residents were told the officers would not be charged with a crime.
Distrust of the police isn’t limited to Baton Rouge. We saw New York City police choke Eric Garner to death — on video — and then say they never choked him. We saw the police in Ferguson, Missouri, claim Mike Brown robbed a convenience store, only to learn three years later that there was no robbery. We saw five police officers in Chicago report that Laquan McDonald had lunged at them with a knife, only to see video showing he was shot 16 times while walking away. We saw police in North Charleston, South Carolina, say Walter Scott threatened an officer with a Taser, when video showed him unarmed and running away when he was shot. And we saw the police in Sacramento say Stephon Clark had a “toolbar” when he had been holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard. Each of these communities has good reason to distrust the police. We all do.
Trust has to be earned. Police can start by acknowledging the ways in which they’ve violated the public’s trust and committing to repair the damage they’ve caused. But so far, few appear to be trying. Instead, we continue to see police departments place the blame for their own violence on the very communities they’re supposed to be serving. “We just go where the crime is,” they say. It’s a convenient narrative—one that relies more on racist assumptions than on facts.
As an institution, police are entrusted with the power to take away life and liberty in order to “protect and serve.”
It’s a similar story when police officers kill. The standard narrative holds that police shootings occur because officers are protecting themselves and others from dangerous people in dangerous places. This, too, turns out to be a myth. At Mapping Police Violence, a platform I co-founded, we examined the data on killings by police and discovered that police are not only killing people in areas with higher crime rates (that is, “dangerous places”), but also in areas with lower crime rates. Moreover, most incidents in which people were killed by police began with officers responding to suspected nonviolent offenses; in other cases, no crime had been reported at all. And in at least 57 percent of police shootings, the victim was not threatening anyone with a gun. Community violence doesn’t explain rates of police violence. The police are choosing to be violent, regardless.
When you examine the data, it’s clear that police violence in the United States is a national crisis. The data shows that police kill about 1,200 people each year. Another 50,000 people are hospitalized annually after being injured by police. And that doesn’t take into account forms of police violence that do not often result in hospitalization and are commonly underreported, such as sexual assault. Black communities are disproportionately affected by this violence. African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts and twice as likely to be unarmed when killed. Black people are also more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and subjected to the use of force. The problem is so prevalent in black communities that a majority of black youth have either personally experienced or witnessed police violence in their lifetimes. And in 13 of the 100 largest U.S. cities, black men face a higher risk of being killed by a police officer than the average American has of being killed by anyone, civilian or police.
Police violence also affects communities in more subtle ways. For example, researchers have found evidence that police violence can consequently increase civilian violence within communities. When Milwaukee police officers brutally assaulted Frank Jude, an unarmed black man, in 2004, researchers documented a substantial drop in calls to police from black neighborhoods. During this period, homicides increased by 32 percent. It turns out the police not only harmed Frank Jude—they also traumatized whole communities and made the entire city less safe.
It’s no wonder, then, that black Americans are much less likely to trust the police, a disparity that appears to be growing in response to incident after incident of police violence. This isn’t surprising, when the majority of black people have personally experienced unfair treatment at the hands of police. How can you ask residents of Baton Rouge to trust the police enough to call them, knowing one of the officers who killed Alton Sterling might show up? Any effort focused on “improving police-community trust,” then, will not succeed unless it addresses the fundamental systemic factors—laws, policies, and practices — that reproduce police violence.
Any effort focused on “improving police-community trust,” then, will not succeed unless it addresses the fundamental systemic factors — laws, policies, and practices — that reproduce police violence.
The current system ensures police are rarely held accountable for their actions. Ninety-seven percent of police officers who killed someone between 2013 and 2017 were not criminally charged for these killings. And the small number of officers who are charged are only half as likely as civilians to end up being convicted or incarcerated. That’s because the existing laws and court cases establishing how and when police can legally use force — even deadly force — give officers so much discretion that it makes prosecution nearly impossible. For example, deadly force laws in 46 states make it legal for police to shoot people even when there are reasonable alternatives, like deescalation or a Taser.
Moreover, the local prosecutors charged with seeking justice in these cases tend to have close relationships with the police departments they are investigating. An analysis from the Guardian found 85 percent of all killings by police that were ruled justified had been investigated by local prosecutors who work alongside the officer’s police department — prosecutors who depend on the same department to give them the evidence and testimony needed to do their jobs. Meanwhile, in the small number of cases where the Department of Justice has decided to step in and independently prosecute officers for civil rights violations, they are forced to meet an even higher burden of proof.
When criminal prosecution fails, administrative discipline is often the only avenue left for communities seeking justice. Here, too, accountability is virtually nonexistent. Consider that only one in every 13 excessive force complaints filed against officers ends up being substantiated by police investigators, with an even smaller proportion resulting in discipline. A different system protects police from administrative accountability—a system composed of statewide “police bill of rights” laws in 14 states and police union contracts in almost every city that impose arbitrary restrictions on a department’s ability to effectively investigate and adjudicate allegations of misconduct. For example, under one such law in Louisiana, officers are allowed up to 30 days to give their statements to investigators, but investigators are only given 60 to 120 days to complete their entire investigation, or the officer cannot be disciplined. In Maryland, the police bill of rights law prohibits police departments from considering most of an officer’s past misconduct history when deciding how and whether to discipline them.
Civilian review boards can make a difference, but of the 50 largest departments, more than half have no such oversight. And police bill of rights laws and police union contracts are designed to shield officers from such discipline. For instance, Florida law now prohibits community oversight structures from compelling officers to appear for questioning. Austin’s police union contract goes further, ordering that disciplinary decisions are “within the sole discretion of the Chief of Police,” and the Citizen Review Panel “shall not be used or permitted to gather evidence, contact or interview witnesses, or otherwise independently investigate a complaint of misconduct by an officer.” If members of the Citizen Review Panel “publicly express agreement or disagreement with the final disciplinary decision of the Chief,” the contract requires they be “permanently removed.”
The communities most impacted by police violence should be empowered to oversee this process.
In the rare instance when an officer actually does get disciplined for misconduct, the system makes it easy to reverse these decisions. For example, police union contracts in the majority of America’s 656 largest cities give “arbitrators” the authority to reduce or completely reverse discipline against officers and allow the officers and their unions to help select these arbitrators. Which explains why seven in every 10 officers fired for misconduct end up getting their job back (plus back pay) after appealing to an arbitrator. This, even when their own supervisors view them as unfit and want them removed from the force.
And then the system covers up the fact that these complaints were made in the first place. Laws in 23 states keep police misconduct records completely secret. And police union contracts in nearly half of America’s largest cities require the police to destroy these records altogether. For example, Cleveland’s police union contract mandates that all “verbal disciplinary warnings and disciplinary written reprimands shall be removed from a police officer’s record after six months and all other disciplinary actions or penalties will be removed after two years.”
In other words, the system is designed to ensure that police are not accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. It’s no wonder why communities that interact with this system have such a hard time trusting in it.
The good news is that we already know much of what needs to be changed. Unfortunately, police leaders and politicians either believe the current level of police violence is acceptable or lack the courage to implement the necessary systemic changes. For example, we know that appropriate use-of-force standards can reduce killings by police by as much as 72 percent. But few states or local police departments have adopted them. We know that Department of Justice–initiated reforms — which usually implement new reporting requirements, civilian oversight, training, and policy guidelines — reduce police shootings by 29 percent. But instead of expanding this program, the current administration has ended it.
If the police and politicians are truly interested in “building trust,” then they must do the work that trust requires. State legislators should be working to repeal police bill of rights laws, strengthen deadly force standards, and open records of police misconduct to the public. Federal and state departments of justice should be systematically investigating, reforming, or replacing the police departments with the highest rates of police violence. Mayors and police chiefs should be presenting comprehensive plans with evidence-based solutions to reduce police violence, including clear benchmarks and data reporting to prove they’ve made progress toward this goal. Personnel records identifying officers with histories of misconduct should be available for public inspection, along with data showing what progress has been made to hold them accountable. Police union contracts should be changed to make police accountability a nonnegotiable requirement. And the communities most impacted by police violence should be empowered to oversee this process.
In the end, police departments that are unable or unwilling to make progress toward these goals should lose funding and be replaced with entities that actually have the trust and legitimacy to keep communities safe. If police departments want the trust — and the tax money — of the communities they serve, they need to earn it.