In the wake of Baton Rouge, Dallas, and St. Paul, our nation is once again in heated debate over what we do and do not want from law enforcement. The Republican National Convention opened with a parade of speakers vowing to “Make America Safe Again,” while President Obama has caucused with both law-enforcement and racial-justice advocates calling for reform. But if we are to truly make America safe, our discussion about different forms of policing must be informed by the same communities in which policing has become such a flashpoint. Rather than discredit those who feel marginalized, we need to provide platforms that empower communities to have meaningful input into how they are policed.
We recently did this. We traveled to American cities heavily impacted by violent crime—particularly gun violence—and had extensive sessions with over 100 community members where they discussed solutions to make their communities safer. A majority of participants were African American and Latino. They included law-enforcement personnel, social-service providers, former offenders, elected officials, activists, religious leaders, and others. We then tested what we heard against a national survey of 1,200 African Americans and Latinos.
While we learned the vast majority of African Americans and Latinos believe the police make things more safe, 54 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of Latinos responding to our national survey said that police brutality is an “extremely serious” problem.
During our sessions, community members told us that transforming policing is a key element of making America safe. Specifically, they offered five realms in which they’d like to see law enforcement take a different tack.
#1 Be respectful and de-escalate conflict
Police legitimacy shapes public safety for both civilians and police. The more communities view police as legitimate, the more likely it is that community members will comply with the law and assist police, which helps reduce crime.
Police officers should engage with citizens in “procedurally just” ways. A person’s perception of how they are treated by police—whether the officer acted respectfully or in a demeaning manner—shapes perceptions of police legitimacy. Procedural justice requires that police be neutral, have and appear to have trustworthy motives, and demonstrate respect for citizens. Departments should also recruit, hire, and promote people who can work effectively with communities, and screen out those unable to do so.
Police departments should also adopt de-escalation practices that encourage officers to avoid escalating tensions during interactions with citizens. Departments should make available to officers well-established de-escalation tools, such as “slowing the situation down” and looking for opportunities to resolve the interaction without unnecessary conflict or resorting to force.
#2 Address implicit bias
Addressing and mitigating implicit biases among police are also critical to making communities safe. Implicit biases are automatic reactions in response to negative stereotypes. Stereotypes about black-male violence are prevalent in American society. Research shows that this bias can prompt police to arrest, use force, and shoot African Americans more quickly than whites. Departments should assess implicit bias in new recruits and in current officers, provide training that teaches officers how to mitigate their biases, and screen out those who are unable to address their biases. On our national survey, 90 percent of African Americans and 92 percent of Latinos supported evaluating racial bias among new police recruits before hiring them, and providing additional training to police officers about how to avoid racial bias while on the job. The Center for Policing Equity has important tools to help police departments address bias.