Police-Citizen Trust: A Path out of the Crisis
The murder of George Floyd and other high-profile incidents of police violence are part of a larger crisis of trust between U.S. police forces and the communities they protect. Yale SOM’s Rodrigo Canales, who has been conducting a long-term study on police reform in Mexico City, says that the solution is for police organizations to think of their mission not simply as reducing crime but as building trust with citizens.
This is a moment of reckoning for policing in general. What I observe is that, for a police chief, it has been natural to assume that as long as we are operationally effective, meaning as long as we have a good capacity to deploy force quickly and in a powerful way, then we are going to be able to deliver results. And when we deliver results, people are going to trust us as a result of that. So the assumption has been, we need to focus on building our operational capacity and our ability to deploy force. With that, we’re going to be able to reduce crime. And once we reduce crime, people are going to trust us.
What we’re finding everywhere is that that premise is just false, for a number of reasons. Number one, the crimes that governments tend to care about and that governments tend to record are not the same issues that communities tend to believe are driving their feeling of safety or lack of safety. There’s a mismatch in what we think the key problems are. That’s the first issue.
The second issue is that when you try to maximize deployment of force…think about what that means. You’re going to focus on equipment. You’re going to focus on tactics. You’re going to focus on speed. But if you’re just deploying a force in a community that doesn’t trust you, having quicker moving and more cops is not necessarily a good thing. If you don’t trust them, it’s a bad thing. You’re seeing more of the people who you feel not very safe around. And so when you just maximize deployment of force, in a way, you create a somewhat military approach to what it means to do policing. Whereas policing from its origins has always been conceptualized as a citizen endeavor.
“Because you are treating me like a criminal and using force in a somewhat indiscriminate way in my neighborhood, I trust you even less. I give you even less information, so crime increases even more.”
What’s been happening a lot in many countries, including the U.S., is that we have a minority community where crime is concentrated. And our only response is to move more force, more quickly, more emphatically to that whole area. And when you do that, basically, you’re criminalizing the whole community because you’re treating the place as a source of crime. This actually exacerbates the problem in a couple of ways.
The first is that, because you are treating me like a criminal and you are using force in a somewhat indiscriminate way in my neighborhood, I trust you even less. So I’m willing to call the police even less when I have an issue. And therefore I give you even less information, and therefore you have even less idea of exactly what’s going on in my neighborhood, and therefore you’re even less able to tackle crime. So crime increases even more. And that leads you to send even more cops, which makes me feel even more under siege.
When you take that dynamic and you bring it one step back from the perspective of the police, what they are observing is: We are devoting resources. We are sending police to do their job. There are violent people out here. There is violent crime. And I’m putting myself at risk. And the community not only is not thanking me for it but is actually blaming me for bad stuff.
And so I told you the dynamic from the perspective of the community that is observing this. From the perspective of the police organization, it’s the same thing. I feel like I’m putting resources and I’m putting myself at risk. And I feel like the community doesn’t understand what I do and actually blames me for things that I shouldn’t be blamed for. This, again, separates them even more and creates this us-versus-them dynamic that is hard to break.
There are a lot of polls on whether citizens trust the police. We ask police forces how they feel about citizens, and they don’t trust citizens. They feel like citizens can’t be trusted because citizens will lie and citizens are unfairly accusing them. There’s all these things. And it’s a mirror image.
So of course, the further apart these two sides are, the harder it is for them to converge. Except that also what has happened in some places is that these things reach a breaking point.
What is true is that we need each other. Police forces cannot survive if citizens don’t trust them. They just can’t. In a democratic process, something is going to happen where it’s going to bring in dramatic changes.
With too much frequency, the police has defined its mission as reducing crime, and that’s the mission. There’s nothing inherently wrong or nonsensical about the police saying, “Our job is to reduce crime.” It kind of makes sense. In general, the failed reform strategies tend to be centered around just tweaking our operations and trying to become even more efficient without acknowledging that citizen trust is a backbone without which you really cannot do your job well.
“One of the issues that police are going to care about is crime, but that’s not the mission. The mission is trust with citizens so that we can jointly construct what a safe community feels like.”
When we truly conceptualize citizen safety and citizen trust as the core of what we do, then we start saying, we need to have a trusting relationship with citizens. And one of the issues that they’re going to care about is crime, and we still need to make sure that we do something about that, but that’s not the mission. The mission is trust with citizens so that we can jointly construct what a safe community feels like.
Once you do that as the core of your mission, then that starts getting reflected in everything that you do. Instead of focusing on protecting myself from the bad guys, now I’m concentrating on reaching out to good citizens and building the type of relationship that helps us work together.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the capability to react when I need to, when there are violent people, but that’s not the core of what I do. That’s just one of the tools that I have to do the core of what I do, which is to have a trusting relationship with all the good neighbors of the city.
I think that’s a path out of the crisis that we have seen work across contexts. This is true in Mexico. It’s true in the police forces that have followed good processes of reform in the U.S. It works.