Some thoughts about building community trust of police

A local reporter sent me an email asking my opinion of proposals to increase community trust of police. My “some general comments” turned out to be really long, so I decided to put them in a blog post. Then I edited it a bit more. As I write, this has been a painful week with several public instances of of police killing people and then the incident last night where a sniper killed police at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas. My thoughts are not directly responsive to these explosive issues. This post is much more general.

First some general comments about trust. One of the hard things for anyone to realize is that others’ trust is based not only on what you do or who you are, but on the broader social context people live in. People whose larger experience is that strangers in general or police in particular are generally friendly and helpful will start with a higher baseline level of trust than those whose larger experience has involved deceit and betrayal. African Americans especially and also other racial minorities as well as low income people have typically had a lifetime of experiences that give them good reason to distrust that they will be well treated by police. It is a fact that, on average, African Americans are much more likely to be stopped and hassled by police when they are doing nothing wrong. It is a fact that African Americans have spent a lifetime of being presumed criminal by many Whites when they are just going about their law-abiding business. It is a fact that African Americans (and often other minorities) experience job and housing discrimination that both hurt their economic conditions and increase their general sense of distrust. It is a fact that some people who are willing to work cannot get jobs and are experiencing the stress of destitution and trying to get by doing things outside the regular economy. Then you add to all that the greater awareness people have of instances of overt violence by police against unarmed Black people. Many Black people I know have a generalized distrust of police, and it is really hard to blame them. All the Black people I have ever discussed the topic with tell stories about bad encounters with police. (As do some of the White, Latino, and Asian people I know, I should add.) At the same time, I’ve had many African American acquaintances remind me that they appreciate police and have family members who are police. Many people simultaneously are sympathetic to the job of police and still fear that some police officer who does not know them could humiliate, hurt or kill them.

All of this distrust is endemic to the United States and exists apart from anything Madison Police (or police in any other specific agency) have or have not done. It would be completely unreasonable for Madison Police or anybody else to expect people to “forget” their larger social knowledge and look only at what is in front of them in a particular officer’s face. THEN you add to that the fact that Madison and Dane County do, in fact, have extremely high racial disparities in arrest, that Madison has, in fact, been implementing social policies that have the effect of making police more intrusive in the lives and communities of poor and minority people. AND then you add the killing of Tony Robinson last year and the violent arrest of Genele Laird this year and the killing of Michael Schumacher (who was White and brandishing a pitchfork) a week later. Even though the actions of the officers in these events are open to multiple interpretations, it is just a fact that many people interpret both events as instances of police misconduct in which the officers were not only supported, but those in authority asserted that their actions were entirely appropriate. It does not matter whether you think community perceptions of police misconduct are correct or incorrect, it is a simple fact that those perceptions are out there and affect people’s trust of the police. There are factors that increase police distrust of the public. I’ll write about this another time, but I do think this is also part of the equation.

So how do you build trust in a climate of distrust? This is a really difficult problem. The most important thing to recognize is that there are no easy answers. It is utterly ridiculous for anybody to expect that people who have good reason for distrust are going to suddenly start trusting you because you ask them to, or play basketball with them once a month, or issue a statement about your trustworthiness. Building trust takes years and years and can be destroyed in a minute by one bad action. Recovering from a breach of trust takes a long time and a lot of effort. If I may offer an analogy, a marriage can recover from infidelity, but it does not recover if the one who was unfaithful says “look, the problem that you neglected me, just get over it” and expects to be treated with trust the next day.

First, it seems important to acknowledge that there is distrust on both sides. Police really do have stereotypes and prejudices about people in different demographic groups, just as people in different groups really do have stereotypes and prejudices about police. These are not going to go away, and it seems to me that genuine trust begins, paradoxically, in acknowledging that distrust is real and has a basis. I spent a lot of time in meetings with law enforcement (mostly deputy sheriffs, not Madison Police, but the issues are similar) where law enforcement folks talked as if the way to build trust was for them to educate the public on what they do, because if people understood them, trust would follow. But this will help only if police are willing to listen and really understand the perspective of people who are repeatedly stopped when they are going about their lawful business, and understand how people really feel when someone starts ordering them around, or puts a gun in their face. There will never be trust unless people on both sides of a relation can really listen and hear and acknowledge what the others are saying. If you are unwilling to really understand what is important to the other person and how they look at the world, they will never ever trust you. If you get angry and upset and yell at them and blame them when you find out what they really think, they will not trust you. This is a basic reality of all human interaction, and police-community relations cannot get out of the human reality.

Second, building trust requires being trustworthy. You can never build trust if you are unable to act consistently with integrity. Unfortunately, if you are an organization, your organization’s trustworthiness is based on the behavior of your least-trustworthy employee. Even one “bad” officer can destroy the trust for a whole police department. Black people and Muslims every day deal with the fact that other people treat them based on stereotypes derived from the behavior of a small number of Black or Muslim people, and there is no reason why Whites or police should expect to be treated any differently than minorities. Of course you are going to be stereotyped based on the actions of others in your group.  This is how society works, and you are just whining if you think it would ever be otherwise. Thus an organization can only build trust by having consistent organizational policies that are enforced throughout the organization and if violations of these policies are acknowledged, treated as mistakes or misconduct, and rectified. Treating an incident as a mistake or misconduct does not necessarily require firing the perpetrator, but it does require saying that the action was wrong and that you are taking active steps to make sure it does not happen again.

It is very hard to build trust between groups (rather than individuals) because each group is heterogeneous. Some people in the other group really do hate you or stereotype you. Thus, building inter-group trust involves being able to distinguish among the different individuals in the other group. Part of this, I think, involves being willing to publicly distance yourself from other group members who do things you disagree with. Minorities have to do this all the time. Muslim groups are expected to issue statements condemning any violence by a Muslim person; Hmong groups issued statements after a Hmong man killed White hunters; Black people were quickly issuing statements saying they don’t hate police after the Dallas killings. But how often have you heard police representatives apologize for or condemn the bad actions of other police? Or White people apologize for the bad actions of a White mass murderer?

Thirdly, structure matters much more than personalities. Policing in the US and most other places is intentionally structured to defend the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of the interests of the poor. Police forces were historically first organized to address the dual problems of poor people stealing from the less-poor and of suppressing urban rebellions by the poor. In the US, the first police forces were actually slave patrols, designed to enforce slavery. In the US today, different police forces have different “jobs.” Police forces in many areas are often assigned the job of containing crime in poor people’s neighborhoods and keeping it out of wealthy people’s neighborhoods. Or of “solving” crime problems by simply removing poor people from the sight of well-off people. Since the welfare “reforms” of the 1990s, and especially since the economic crash of 2008, there is a growing population of desperately poor people who literally have no place to live and not enough money for food. Many of them are living right here in well-off Madison, not just in the devastated segregated Black areas of major cities. They are willing to work, but there are not enough jobs, or the jobs they can get are too irregular and pay too little for them to be able to afford both housing and food. This is a plain fact. Our society is rapidly re-creating a 19th-Century Dickensian dystopia. If your only solution to people’s desperation is to arrest and punish them if they use illegal means to acquire money or obtain mind-altering substances to assuage their misery or sleep on a sidewalk or in a park, you are putting the police in a situation where it is their job to oppress people. Of course, oppressed people don’t trust their oppressors. As long as you have a society built around inequality where a major part of the job of the police is to enforce that inequality, the oppressed members of the community will distrust the police no matter how pleasant, respectful and fair individual officers are. If the job of the police is to do what the rich and powerful want, the poor and powerless will inevitably distrust police. If the job of the police is to keep middle class White people from having to encounter racial minorities or poor people, they will inevitably hassle and harass poor people and minorities and promote segregation.

From the perspective of low income minority communities, the only way out of this is for the police to work for and under the control of low income communities. I recently reviewed and article by Madison activist M Adams and Max Rameau proposing community controlled police. My review and their article address this issue.

For those of us who are neither  police nor members of the over-policed communities, our contribution to building trust should be to pay attention. We need to listen to and learn from the voices we are not hearing, be they police, and low income and minority members of our community, or both. We need to ask probing and pushy questions about the policies our police are being asked to enforce and the ways in which police are trained. We need to be prepared not only to hold our police accountable (which we should) but to hold ourselves accountable for addressing the social conditions and policies that put police and low income people in conflict. How much does our municipal budget depend on fines levied from “nuisance” arrests and traffic stops? What do our actual arrest and police stop statistics look like? What are we doing to be sure everyone has a place to live before criminalizing homelessness? Are we calling the police on “suspicious persons” every time we see someone of a different race in our neighborhood? Do we know what the economic situation is of everyone in our community? Do we know how many people need work who can’t find work? Do we know how long the waiting lists are for addiction treatment? For subsidized housing? For subsidized medical care or disability payments? Do we pay attention to the needs of people in the “high crime” parts of our city, or do we just want to be protected from having to know about them? Or worse, just want to “solve” the problem by driving people out of our city? Do we tell our police to hassle landlords to evict or not rent to tenants who have family members with criminal records? Or even bad credit histories? Do we hire people with petty (or even non-petty) criminal records, or do we force them to subsist on irregular sources of income?

A whole community of trust requires a context within which police feel that what they are being told to do by their employers is consistent with treating everyone as a human being of worth, not just White middle class people. This probably entails allowing some power and control to be taken away from those of us who do identify as White and middle class and given to minorities and low income people. Do we have the trust to do that?

And if you personally are a White middle class person who lives in a White middle class suburb, do you imagine you are not part of the problem? If you rarely see a non-White person, have you asked yourself why that is? Have you examined the arrest and traffic stop data for your community to find out whether you are paying your police to help maintain segregation and protect you from the consequences of social inequality?


  1. Hi, Pam,
    Thanks for this and for your other post here, which I will also read soon! So glad to have your perspective, which I *do* trust, on this issue.

  2. While listening to Trump criticize Hillary Clinton and members of the DNC for not giving voice to law enforcement it made me aware that without empathy people regress to “what about me?” or “what about you?” instead of what about us? And to promote that kind of understanding and awareness “we” have to really listen and hear what the opposition feels and thinks. To give each other a legitimate voice there has to be a desire for compassion, not a demand to place value on when it was said — who said it — and how. Trump would like us to ignore that and take sides, knowing that will only destroy our opportunity to create a diverse, inclusive community relations.

  3. Spot on here, Pam! We have so much work to do and I am simply stunned by the inability or unwillingness of police to do trust-building. In our own community we have seen questionable uses of force and little transparency and discussion of how those encounters could have been prevented or a lower use of force applied. Last mont the MPD issued a very good policy on de-escalation. My sense would have been to roll it out to the community for input and (I would expect) some praises for addressing the force problem. It was again a missed opportunity. We still have not heard from the MPD what just about every person of color I have encountered are asking about the East Towne arrest last summer — “Is this how you will continue to arrest our daughters?” “Is the Genele Laird arrest the new use of force standard if one of our daughters is acting out?” “Why won’t you talk to us about this incident and what we can expect in the future?” I am afraid you are right, nothing major will happen until citizens have more control of their police — not review boards, but policy and operational boards with power to discipline. Otherwise, the future will unfold to be just more of the same. And to write this saddens me greatly.

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