Aside from reducing unnecessary use of force, experts in policing are exploring ways to create large-scale change in American law enforcement. Here, criminology professor Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University and Deputy Chief Tarrick McGuire of Arlington, Tex., discuss new incentives for officers to alter their behaviors, and ways to convince communities that the police are not simply an occupying force.
Current events in Kenosha, Wisc., exemplify the challenges confronting police departments. They must navigate the challenges of budget cuts due to the covid-19 pandemic as they work to restore and build trust in communities after massive demonstrations. It is of great importance to identify a strategy and guidepost that is grounded in moving police and community forward toward progressive change. Our suggested guidepost borrows from the late Yale sociologist Albert Reiss. It is “Constructing civility and trust.” As Reiss observed, civility requires “that police be accountable to civil authority and the citizens protected from police tyranny.” But he also observed that “[the] trust and confidence the police and public have in one another is also of utmost importance to civil society.”
What steps are necessary to construct civility and trust? Four are foundational: (1) Replacing the warrior model of policing with the sentinel model; (2) Creating civility and trust to have co-equal status with crime prevention; (3) Measuring at a micro-level community trust and rewarding officers and police executives who are successful in building trust and (4) Ensuring communities respond to fundamental changes in the form and style of policing with civility in their interactions with police.
Police culture in America is dominated by the concept of police as warriors defeating crime. This conception has resulted in police being viewed as an occupying force – not a trusted partner – in securing the safety of person and property, especially in Black communities. While aggressive style may be required in confronting gang violence and such, this should be the exception, not the rule, in police-citizen interactions.
The rule should be a sentinel style of policing in which police work cooperatively to secure public safety and order. There is a large policing research literature on how to do this that includes tactics such as identifying and closing problematic bars or correcting environmental features such as poor lighting that create crime opportunities. The Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy’s Matrix offers an excellent catalog of these tactics.
The rising crime rates over the 30-year period from the 1960s to 1990s prompted a singular focus on the crime control function of policing at the expense of other vital police functions. One of these is creating trust and confidence in the police. Trust and confidence may help in crime control, but that is secondary to its importance in its own right.
If citizens fear and distrust police, and view them as an occupying force, that is a social cost in its own right that needs to be considered in the form and style of policing. The crime control objective of policing should not have the status of trumping trust and confidence. Both are important in their own right. The challenge for police executives and communities is balancing them in circumstances where they come into conflict.
The third piece of building civility and trust brings us to the basics of running any organization whether policing or otherwise — desired behavior must be rewarded, and undesirable behavior discouraged. Concerning undesirable behavior, much has already been written about preventing unwarranted use of force by police. We have nothing further to add except that such reforms are imperative.
As for rewarding desired behavior, a necessary first step is devising fine-grained systems for regularly measuring community trust in the police, including individual officers. No such systems of measurement currently exist but they are necessary for constructing systems that reward officers who are successful in fulfilling the mission of building public trust with tangible rewards such as promotion and intangible acknowledgments — such rewards are a necessity for embedding public trust as a core tenet of police culture.
The bottom line is that you can’t reward what you can’t measure, and more fundamentally, community trust cannot be constructed unless we measure it as we already regularly do with the crime control function of policing.
Returning to the introductory quote of Reiss, he reminds us that police-community relationships are a form of a two-sided game in which both sides are reacting to the behavior of the other. At present, the resulting equilibrium in many communities is distrust on both sides.
The focus of the first three foundational changes has been on what police need to do to move to a new equilibrium of trust. For that equilibrium to be achieved, the community’s response to police will also have to change fundamentally. That will require that the police be the first movers in the game, which in turn will require that communities play a constructive role in shaping the changes in the foundations of policing in America.
The road to restoring trust in police in some communities and building it de novo in others will be long, but the guidepost of “Constructing civility and trust between police and citizens” can help light the way.
Daniel S. Nagin is the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University
Tarrick McGuire is Deputy Chief of Police of the Arlington,Tex., Police Department