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The next frontier in police reform: training cops in empathy

It takes more than hugs to fix police-community relations.
It takes more than hugs to fix police-community relations.
Anadolu Agency/Getty

Last week, the Department of Justice rolled out a major new initiative to try to repair the relationships between local police departments around the country and their communities. It's an issue that has become especially timely after the militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Under the program, several leading policing academics will be working with a handful of "pilot site" police departments, training cops in new strategies designed to make them more aware of how their actions might be affecting their community's trust. The academics, and the think tank that's in charge of evaluating the initiative, will also be talking to residents to see whether these strategies are working — and giving their feedback to cops as they go, helping them improve over the course of the program.

The three main strategies the trainers will be using are below. Taken together, they're essentially the federal government's new curriculum for getting local cops to see their actions through the community's eyes.

1) Make residents feel they're being treated fairly

stop and frisk

Tactics like stop-and-frisk treat all residents as suspects — not a good idea. (Robert Nickelserg/Getty Images)

The theory behind "procedural justice" is that, in interactions with people in their community, police need to hold themselves to a higher standard than just what's legal for them to do.

Research has shown that residents don't necessarily know or care about the laws behind police interactions; if the residents feel they're not being treated fairly, they're not going to see the interaction as legal or legitimate. (For example, people of color look at how they were treated in an interaction with police as a clue toward whether they were racially profiled.)

So it's important for cops to be respectful in their interactions with citizens — to make sure they explain why they're pulling over a driver or stopping a pedestrian, for example, and to give the citizen a chance to explain himself or herself.

"The opposite of procedural justice," says Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute (which is running the evaluation of the new federal initiative), "is interactions with citizens that assume they're suspects, when they may not be." In other words, she says, it's the kind of policing that the NYPD has engaged in with stop-and-frisk. When a police department does something like that, it might reduce crime in the short-term — but in the long-term, it's going to keep victims and witnesses from reporting crimes, because they feel the police will just treat them as a suspect.

Yale Law School professor Tom Tyler is one of the leading researchers on procedural justice. He believes that procedural justice is the everyday behavior at the root of the legitimacy cops have (or don't have) in the eyes of their communities. If police are treating residents as suspects, it's going to slowly erode police legitimacy. If they're giving residents the chance to speak their mind, it's going to rebuild that trust.

Tyler's worked with several police departments on procedural justice — even the New Orleans Police Department, which doesn't have the best record on civil rights (and was actually under a supervision order from the federal government when Tyler worked with them). Now, he's going to be working as part of the new federal initiative.

2) Take a closer look at how bias influences cops' decisions

The criminal justice system disproportionately targets African Americans — in part because of implicit bias.

A growing body of research is showing how people subconsciously act on racial stereotypes without even realizing what they're doing — a phenomenon known as implicit bias. (My colleagues and I have written about implicit bias in depth, especially as it influences policing and criminal justice.)

Now, academics are working to figure out how to counteract those subconscious biases — and how to raise awareness of implicit bias in the real world, especially in police departments.UCLA's Center for Policing Equity has been working with police departments to figure out whether, and when, cops are letting their implicit bias guide their decisions about who to stop and arrest.

In Denver, for example, researchers are tracking the arrest records of individual police officers, to see which officers might be arresting people of color disproportionately and why. And in San Jose, they're working with a database of mugshots to check whether cops are more likely to arrest people with stereotypically African-American features — which are subconsciously associated with criminality and can even lead juries to give someone a harsher criminal sentence.

The UCLA center is another of the organizations involved in the new federal program; they'll be able to build on their own work, as well as the work of other key scholars, like new MacArthur "genius grant" winner Jennifer Eberhardt.

3) Make sure police and community leaders are talking honestly

Police brutality illustration

Street art reflects residents' distrust of the police. (Quinn Dombrowski)

Procedural justice and implicit-bias awareness are about stopping cops from screwing up their relationships with residents. But racial reconciliation is about clearing the air from the decades of distrust that have already built up.

Both police and communities of color feel they have reasons not to trust each other. People of color feel targeted by the war on drugs and treated like suspects in their own neighborhoods and homes — and feel that it's just the latest chapter in a centuries-long history of official white oppression. Police, for their part, feel that residents must not care about violent crime in their own communities, or else they'd be more helpful.

Both of these attitudes can lead to misinformation and conspiratorial "us-vs.-them" thinking. Racial reconciliation requires police and community leaders to openly air their distrust with each other, and talk it out honestly.

This might sound very abstract and touchy-feely — a good idea in theory, but not something that's likely to lead to actual improvements in police-community relations. But that's not the case at all. Racial reconciliation was first practiced in High Point, North Carolina starting in 2009, as part of a broader strategy by the National Network for Safe Communities (affiliated with John Jay College). It was so successful that both the broader strategy, and racial reconciliation in particular, have been adopted by the network in its work with several dozen other police departments.

How will this program work in practice?

The hope, La Vigne says, is that by the end of the three-year program, the academics and Urban Institute evaluators won't just have improved police-community relations in the pilot sites — they'll have developed concrete ways to measure how well police are doing.

What's more, they'll be building out, city by city, a national database of police interactions with residents — so that law enforcement executives in other cities can see how well they're doing.

It would be easy to think of the new program as just another federal attempt to get cops to engage in "community policing" — a term for policing tactics that focus on getting community members on board. Community policing is a little less popular among police departments than it was a decade or two ago: tight budgets have made it harder for police to do things they don't think are strictly necessary to their chief goal of fighting crime, and community policing just isn't usually seen as necessary.

But the new program isn't exactly an effort to reanimate community policing programs, or to get police departments to take on new programs in addition to the work they're already doing every day. Instead, using the three key strategies for self-awareness, the federal government is trying to get police departments to understand how the work that they do every day is already affecting their relationships with residents, and to get cops to be more self-aware about how their everyday interactions might be driven by bias and might end up reinforcing community mistrust.

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