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The Liberal Solution to Police Violence: Restoring Trust Will Ensure More Obedience

Stuart Schrader Jun 30

"No justice, no peace,” goes the chant.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, widespread protests over police killings of unarmed Black men and women have not only denounced the crimes of individual officers but have called into question the very legitimacy of law enforcement institutions that claim to “serve and protect” the public.

The upsurge in protests against police violence has brought back memories of the urban rebellions of the 1960s, which were frequently ignited by incidents of police brutality in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In response to the current round of protest, President Barack Obama appointed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in December 2014 to investigate what was happening and to propose solutions. The 13-member Task Force brought together law enforcement officials, community activists and academics. Yet the Task Force was not designed to lessen police violence, nor to reduce Black people’s encounters with the police and entry into the criminal justice system. Instead, like the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice and the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago, today’s solutions will strengthen police, expand their budgets and insulate them from public criticism.

In the 1960s as much as in 2015, charges of police brutality have never been answered with justice. Instead, the police try to quiet protests with modest procedural changes and new technologies. The United States we live in — the United States of Mike Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Mya Hall and hundreds more — is the result of these so-called reforms, adopted throughout the past half-century: an unjust system protected by procedurally fair cops.

The Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued its final report in May. The report advocates a range of reforms geared toward a “foundational principle”: “Building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide.”

But why are trust and legitimacy important? Does justice flow from police legitimacy? No. What about the bodily integrity of Black and Brown people or economically exploited folks? No again.

The Task Force is clear that the legitimacy of the badge is aimed at getting people to “obey the law.”

People are more likely to comply, the Task Force declares, when they perceive police authority to be legitimate. Police reform, therefore, is designed to make you and I more likely to obey the commands of police because it will make those commands seem to issue from an institution worthy of respect.

Why People Obey the Law

The Task Force takes the idea that trust in police leads people to obey the law from a Yale scholar named Tom Tyler. His writing is well known and widely cited. But the way the Task Force uses it should give us pause. Tyler has investigated, at the junction of legal theory and psychology, why people obey the law — or don’t. In the hands of the Task Force, Tyler’s central ideas about trust and legitimacy become menacing. The Task Force is interested in compelling people to obey the law, and it orients all of its inquiries toward that end.

A slate of reforms, it claims, will make the police more efficient and less error-prone. The reforms include requiring standardized curriculum for officer training, using cutting-edge technologies in data collection, adopting body-worn cameras, deploying “less than lethal” weapons, making cops interact with “community residents” regularly and more. Many of these and other new recommendations to increase diversity of police forces and raise education standards, including through loan-forgiveness, revive ideas first proposed 50 years ago. As the Princeton scholar Naomi Murakawa has shown, this tendency to reform procedures is at the core of the long history of liberal thinking on improving criminal justice. Such reforms are designed to increase the legitimacy of the police.

But they will also make the police’s powers more extensive. By creating consummate professionals, reform makes police less susceptible to scrutiny by citizens, elected officials and social movements. It wards off demands for democratic, civilian oversight. Police forces accountable only to their own expert guidelines: that is legitimacy in a nutshell.

In New York City, the police department has diversified by every measure over the past 50 years. Yet the identity of individual officers does not change how patrols operate. Training and tactics dictate police activities. Further, although crime rates remain low in New York City, elected officials jockey for position ahead of the next election by calling for a boost in the number of cops on the streets, in the name of increasing “collaborative” police interactions with the city’s communities. Officials describe such interactions as conversations meant to build trust. Critics see them as intelligence gathering on already vulnerable city residents behind a smile and a handshake.

The Task Force recognizes that not all Americans trust police equally. Based on a national survey the Pew Research Center conducted soon after Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, there are sharp racial disparities in perceptions of police legitimacy. For every question, white people overwhelmingly had a more favorable view of police, with sometimes double the level of confidence of Black people.

The Task Force cites this research. Yet it cannot ask what the roots of this lack of legitimacy among Black and Hispanic people might be, because its guiding principle is to increase legitimacy across the board, not to investigate racism underlying the system that police power maintains.

The very idea of procedural justice, which is so important to the Task Force, rules out investigation of the overall system’s patterns, how the police enforce and reinforce large-scale inequitable relationships like class, race and gender. Instead, procedural justice is based on the belief that outcomes will necessarily be fair if the individual processes that add up to the outcomes are fair. You may ask yourself, after interacting with a cop, whether you were treated politely. If so, the Task Force would judge it a success. You may not ask, for instance, whether this interaction was the result of police deployment to enforce quality-of-life prohibitions in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Procedural fixes among police are aimed at your compliance with the system they protect and serve.

Body Cameras

Body-worn cameras are a perfect example. As a result of prior efforts, combined with the Task Force’s recommendations, police in the United States will begin using the cameras more widely. The Task Force argues that to have cameras recording interactions between police and citizens will cause a clear result: “everyone behaves better.”

But, as Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee has argued, these cameras individualize interactions and sever them from the sociopolitical context in which the interactions occur. Individually, a stop may proceed fairly, but it is a mere slice of social reality. The camera can never capture broader patterns. Worse, what the camera captures can be used against defendants or even bystanders caught in its gaze. As if Americans aren’t already surveilled enough.

Body-worn cameras also exemplify how superficial reforms will strengthen the police by summoning budget increases. Already, as the technology’s introduction has begun, police executives are complaining that they are swamped with too much data. Every interaction is supposed to get recorded, but to be useful the recordings need to be easily identified, cross-referenced and viewed. The cameras themselves are not the expensive part. Hiring staff to index, manage, store and safeguard the data becomes pricey, chiefs claim. Luckily for cash-strapped municipalities, the Department of Justice has recently opened its wallet, to the tune of $20 million, part of $75 million Obama requested in December. And no amount of money guarantees that an officer presses record before pulling his or her pistol.

The result of digital advances that also enable our smartphones, body-worn cameras are only the latest technological quick-fix police professionals have devised. For decades, the talisman of the technical solution to a set of interlinked political problems has been irresistible for police reformers. And the companies behind these fixes earn a lot of money.

“Less Than Lethal”

Obama’s Task Force replicates the commissions of the 1960s with its reliance on “less than lethal” weapons to defuse tensions between police and the policed. After cops and National Guardsmen killed and injured scores during unrest in cities and towns throughout the 1960s by shooting their guns wildly into crowds and at buildings, the federal government began recommending CS tear gas, a chemical weapon, instead of guns to disperse boisterous crowds — crowds that had, in many cases, gathered to protest prior incidents of police brutality. In 1968, new expert guidance recognized how shooting guns at crowds made the police seem even more illegitimate. CS, which had been tested widely in South Vietnam, came to be deployed in many U.S. cities, including with some of the same delivery systems soldiers in Southeast Asia were using.

During the unrest in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967, the National Guard fired over 10,000 bullets. Less than a year later, almost 40,000 Army and National Guard soldiers suppressed unrest nationally in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. They fired only 16 bullets, but used nearly 6,000 CS grenades. This shift was a procedural victory, and it soon trickled down to municipal police. The new “less than lethal” technology represented reform then. Today, protesters and bystanders are choking on it.

Once we recognize how such reforms have ushered in the present, we will be prepared to see through the rhetoric about trust and legitimacy. We will understand that what the police and their appointed reformers desire is simple: compliance.

We demanded justice in the streets. The response was an order to obey. When we ask why, the answer is: trust us.

The history of police reform teaches us that making the police more legitimate means making them more powerful. And that power will bring no justice — and no peace.

Stuart Schrader is a postdoctoral fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. He is writing a book about the relationship between U.S. empire and the policing of American streets during the Cold War.


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