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After Ferguson, building police-community trust

A photo of a police officer watching a community protest.

Amy Far­rell, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice, offered recommendations on how police can build community trust during her lecture last week in the latest install­ment of the “Minds Over Mat­ters: NUterm Fac­ulty Speaker Series.”

In the wake of last year’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Fer­guson, Mis­souri, as well as other events in which the police’s use of force has been ques­tioned, is policing in America facing a legit­i­macy crisis? And if so, what do we do about it?

Amy Far­rell, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice, offered these ques­tions to kick off her lec­ture and dis­cus­sion last week in the latest install­ment of the “Minds Over Mat­ters: NUterm Fac­ulty Speaker Series.”

The series fea­tures weekly pre­sen­ta­tions from top fac­ulty scholars who dis­cuss their research and examine timely topics of global impor­tance. Farrell’s research focuses on the admin­is­tra­tion of jus­tice, with par­tic­ular emphasis on under­standing the impact of race and gender on police, pros­e­cu­tion, and sen­tencing practices.

When people lose trust in police, Far­rell said, research has shown that they are less likely to follow laws, assist police, come for­ward as wit­nesses, and obey police com­mands in sit­u­a­tions where offi­cers are attempting to use coer­cive force.

I think what you see res­onating across our country today is a wide­spread fear of the police,” she told stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff in atten­dance, “a fear of the police that may have long been held in com­mu­ni­ties of color that’s now being rec­og­nized by com­mu­ni­ties that have the priv­i­lege not to have feared the police in the past.”

In response to these legit­i­macy con­cerns, police nation­wide have done some “col­lec­tive soul searching,” she said, and imple­mented sys­tems of trans­parency, like the Boston Police Department’s releasing of video footage fol­lowing inci­dents. Yet, Far­rell noted, “restoring that public con­fi­dence is a fun­da­men­tally dif­fi­cult task.”

Of the handful of issues that have at times threat­ened police legit­i­macy over the past 100 years in America, she said two are present in the wake of recent events: dis­crim­i­na­tion and inap­pro­priate use of coer­cive force.

Far­rell pointed to four prob­lems that have con­tributed to this sit­u­a­tion:

1) The move­ment away from com­mu­nity policing over the past 20 years—“Community policing never had a heyday, but it was a little plant that was starting to grow.”

2) The increased reliance on tech­nology to solve problems—the idea that police can col­lect data on “hot spots” for crime but aren’t mea­suring things like fair­ness and pro­ce­dural justice

3) The mil­i­ta­riza­tion of police—she pointed to a 2014 ACLU study that exam­ined the increasing number of law enforce­ment agen­cies that have SWATteams. “They are being deployed for rou­tine policing,” she said. “SWAT teams’ reliance on mil­i­ta­riza­tion and tech­nology increases the social dis­tance between police and community.”

4) Implicit bias—Farrell said this has been lurking under the country’s racial progress of the past half cen­tury. “These are not prej­u­dices that we are born with, but we live in a racial­ized society,” she said.

Solu­tions to these prob­lems won’t be easy, as his­tory has shown, Far­rell said. But she offered a few ideas, among them bringing com­mu­nity part­ner­ship back to policing and shrinking the social dis­tance between police and com­mu­nity by having police forces that are not only diverse but that also learn from and share in each other’s per­sonal experiences.

Far­rell also echoed her ear­lier calls for devel­oping account­ability sys­tems for police that go beyond crime sta­tis­tics and inte­grate a wider range of values beyond crime like fair­ness, equality, and pro­ce­dural jus­tice measures.

Oth­er­wise, these are just ideals without action,” she said.

-By Greg St. Martin

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