Police-Public Relations in the Aftermath of Recent Community Upheavals

Fri, 26 Aug 2016 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

A few months ago, I attended a seminar in Washington, D.C. designed to improve police-public relations. Several police executives and academics presented papers on how best to reduce clashes between the police and community members (think: young Black males).

One particular comment that resonated with me was why some young Black males tended to not back down from law enforcement. The speaker postulated that, in many inner-city enclaves, RESPECT meant everything to the penurious residents because of the lack of employment opportunities and decent housing.

Thus, when dealing with a confrontation, some of these inner-city kids refuse to back down without a fight, taking umbrage at what they see as police officers’ blatant rudeness and/or DISRESPECT toward them. This is one of the fundamental sources of conflict between law enforcement officers and some young Black males.

Police-minority encounters will occasionally become violent because of the continued mistrust of the police by minority groups, especially the young Black male population.

To bring about real change, the police must learn about and implement evidence-based practices known to both de-escalate tensions and increase trust. Take Stop-and-Frisk, for example. While some studies have shown the program’s effectiveness, the disproportionate number of Latino and Black males targeted in Stop-and-Frisk raises questions about the police’s willful violation of these community members’ constitutional rights.

No wonder a judge in New York City had to clamp down on the NYPD’s use of the practice.

Back to the discussion on the seminar that I attended: In an unusually frank exchange with one of the police executives, I asked why the police were not exploring and implementing the many research findings that could engender better cooperation between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve.

I then provided the police executive examples of research studies that show that employing procedural justice in police-public encounters was known to increase police legitimacy, and hence public cooperation with police. I also reiterated the need for the police to turn to the academic literature for information on how to improve relations with the public.

To help the reader understand my argument in this piece, procedural justice is a concept that simply states that when the police treat people with dignity and respect during, say, a traffic stop, these community members are more likely to admit their traffic violations, hold the police in higher regard, and show a greater willingness to cooperate with the police.

In other words, the outcome of the interaction with the police may not be as important as the quality of the interaction itself. This, in a nutshell, is procedural-justice theory.

In the police executive’s retort, I was asked what I did for a living. I responded: “I am a criminologist.” To my surprise, the executive said that it was easier for me to understand all that academic mumbo-jumbo (not the exact words used, but that was the implication) than the freshly minted officer (and, to an extent, I agree), whose understanding of the academic literature was limited.

But is that not what police executives and police academies are for? Is that not why many police executives hold graduate degrees in criminal justice/criminology and why officers are trained in the academy? Implementing procedural-justice policing is as easy as getting a researcher over to a police academy to teach it in the plainest language that every recruit will understand!

The fact remains that proper procedural-justice policing would eliminate—or greatly reduce—the DISRESPECT that some Black community members say they experience when they interact with the police.

Does the reader remember what happened to Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. outside his own home a few years ago? What about the shocking police shooting in Miami a few weeks ago of Charles Kinsey, a Black mental health worker, even though both of Kinsey’s hands were FULLY RAISED as he lay on the street next to an autistic man he was there to assist? Incidents like these would only widen the chasm that already exists between the police and minority communities.

Because tales of police brutality tend to be passed down from one generation to another in the Black community, change may not occur until elected officials, police leaders, pressure groups, and community leaders work together to extirpate the mistrust on both sides.

Dr. Joseph Williams, a Black professor in the Counseling and Development Program in the George Mason University Graduate School of Education, made the following statement not too long ago at a seminar on race relations: “There is a perpetual history of police brutality and to every action there is a reaction.

I can tell you that I myself suffer from a ‘trans-generational trauma’ as the result of horror stories told to me by my grandfather about how his generation was treated by police, that has affected how I perceive police officers today. Those perceptions may make me more aggressive and cause me to be short and perhaps even angry if and when I am pulled over by the police.” In other words, the pervasive mistrust of the police may span the entire educational spectrum in the Black community.

It is true that Blacks have endured decades of abuse at the hands of the police, so eliminating the distrust and getting the two groups to work together will require a concerted and sustained effort by both parties. Indeed, it is difficult to forge a consensus when either party is agitated prior to an encounter.

There is certainly some good in the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, provided that the clamor for change does not give the rule of law a black eye. The goal, then, should be a gradual weaving together of BLACK LIVES and BLUE LIVES until we achieve a tapestry of mutual trust that leads to a safer society for all. Unless all parties are willing to sit down and discuss their concerns, it would be difficult to find common ground that leads to progress.

Police-researcher partnerships designed to pass on evidence-based research to police departments have not always worked because the police, like other groups in society, do not always welcome change—whether the change is proven to work or not. It takes some prodding by researchers to get police leaders to implement evidence-based practices in their departments.

That said, academics take part in evidence-based research for the betterment of society, so they have no choice but to continue to work closely with the police to bring about needed change in an increasingly troubled society.

In summary, research showing what works in American policing is not enough to prevent police-minority clashes. To effect real change, the police must apply evidence-based research in their daily encounters with the public. Additionally, the police and Black community leaders must engage each other dispassionately to reduce the age-old mistrust that is the catalyst for some of the violent encounters we have become accustomed to in contemporary America.

Because the provenance of the police-minority distrust dates back to more than a century, there cannot be a quick fix. But Americans should not wait for another senseless death to occur before starting a real conversation about stopping the violence on both sides.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, Ph.D., is a Ghanaian American, criminologist, and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at North Carolina Central University. E-mail: GoodGovernanceinGhana@yahoo.com

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.