In an ideal world, everyone would trust their police officers and police officers would feel trusted. There are a lot of good men and women in blue doing a lot of good work who deserve our trust. Many of us do trust the police. Yet, we do not all trust equally. According to Gallup, in 2016, 58 percent of white people and 29 percent of persons of color have either quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the police.
What explains the difference? In our learning module on Trust and Mistrust, we explain that fairness and accountability are two of the more essential factors behind trust in our government.
It is widely known that fairness is an issue. Most police officers serve and protect us very well. The streets can be dangerous in some locations and the police sometimes need to make split-second decisions. Despite this, very few have ever fired their weapons at a suspect in their entire career. Yet, according to Gallup, while three-quarters of white people believe they are fairly treated in their community, only half of black people believe so. Persons of color are stopped, searched, arrested, jailed, and killed by police officers far more frequently per-capita than white people. The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, was only the latest widely publicized injustice.
Less well known is that accountability is an issue too. Very few deaths caused by police result in convictions for wrong-doing. One of the reasons why so few police are held to account is a series of Supreme Court cases that provide officers with “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity protects police officers (and many other government officials) from lawsuits alleging that they violated a citizen’s rights – unless that citizen can show the officer violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. In practice, legal precedent is used so narrowly that the broad civil rights protections found in the amendments to our Constitution do not seem to apply. Consider the report published in USA Today from Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell, attorneys for the libertarian Institute for Justice. In late 2019, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against a citizen who had been bitten by a police dog after having surrendered. The victim cited a case where the same court ruled earlier that it was unconstitutional for officers to use a police dog against a suspect who had surrendered by lying on the ground with his hands to the side. That was not sufficient, the court reasoned, because the victim had not surrendered by lying down as in the previous case.
There are two additional obstacles to accountability. Many states provide their police with additional legal protections via police union contracts or the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. These protections were well-intentioned, but they further complicate the ability of citizens to hold errant officers accountable. Accountability is also obstructed by a lack of information. There is no official national database of police behavior. (There are over 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, well within the capacity of today’s big data capacities. The bigger problem is the willingness and administrative capacity of each agency.) That absence makes it difficult to resolve the debate about whether there is a systemic problem across the country.
To improve trust, fairness and accountability must be more evenly distributed along lines of race and ethnicity. Politicians are currently considering changes. It remains to be seen if this will be enough, or if much more must be done, as many of our fellow Americans are now saying in peaceful protests and rallies across our nation.
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