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Anti-police violence is a horrific byproduct of a long history of broken trust

How a justice system that all communities see as fair and equal will keep everyone safer.

A police officer stands watch in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
A police officer stands watch in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

On Sunday, something horrifying happened again: At least one shooter killed three police officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While an investigation is still ongoing, it appears shooter Gavin Long targeted officers on purpose — the second high-profile act of anti-police violence in the past month, after the Dallas mass shooting.

As worrying as yet another anti-police shooting is, events like it are unfortunately likely to continue happening as long as police-community relations remain severely strained. As people on the left and right have written, from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Leon Wolf, the tragic violence is fueled by the same troubling force: When people feel like they can’t trust the law, they take the law into their own hands.

This doesn’t mean that anyone who distrusts police will act violently. The great, great majority of people involved in the Black Lives Matter protests abhor violence. (Activist DeRay Mckesson said, after Sunday’s shooting in Baton Rouge, “The movement began as a call to end violence.”) Anti-police violence is instead carried out by fringe extremists who don’t represent the broader movement.

And to be clear, anti-police violence is still rare. Between 2012 and 2015, there were fewer than 50 on-duty officer deaths from gunfire each year nationwide, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Those are historic lows, and relatively small compared to the 11,000 or so gun homicides each year. But there has been a spike in 2016, with 31 on-duty deaths from gunfire so far causing a 94 percent increase compared to 2015 — although, again, starting from a historically low base. And not all of these deaths are explicitly anti-police; there are cases in which an officer was killed while, for example, conducting a drug bust or answering a domestic abuse call.

Still, we’ve now had two high-profile anti-police shootings in just one month, coming at a time when protesters around the country are demonstrating against racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system more broadly. Why this is happening now — and why it may keep happening — is worth thinking about.

The justice system is supposed to prevent unnecessary violence — but many feel it doesn’t with police

Police in Baton Rouge. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

At the very fundamental level, laws were established to help people settle disputes without resorting to violence. This was well summed up by journalist Jill Leovy in her incredible book, Ghettoside:

In the dim early stirring of civilization, many scholars believe, law itself was developed as a response to legal “self-help”: people's desire to settle their own scores. Rough justice slowly gave way to organized state monopolies on violence. The low homicide rate of some modern democracies are, perhaps, an aberration in human history. They were built, as the scholar Eric Monkkonen said, not by any formal act, but “by a much longer developmental process whereby individuals willingly give up their implicit power to the state.”

Apply this concept to how many people now view police. Many think — based not just on news reports and their own accounts but increasingly video — that police officers shoot and kill black people in a systemically biased way, often without any punishment from the legal system.

In this context, it seems like the justice system fails to achieve one of its most basic goals — prevent unnecessary violence — while abusing the state’s claimed monopoly on violence in the process. So some people turn to tactics outside of the law to settle their criticisms of the system — with their own violent acts, sometimes against cops.

Even if you don’t agree with it, minority communities’ distrust in police is real — and it can lead to violence

Police officers in Baton Rouge. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It’s very difficult for many people outside minority communities to understand the full level of distrust people in these places feel. But just imagine that every few weeks you see a murderer get away with killing people, despite solid evidence against him. Surely, that would cause you to lose a lot of trust in the justice system.

That’s how many felt when they saw police officers get away with killing, for example, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford. And now add in that they feel such killings — which you might not agree are wrongful, but they do — can happen at any time to them.

Now put that distrust in a country with lots of guns, which research shows means more gun violence, including more gun violence against police.

None of this justifies anti-police violence, of course. There’s no question it’s wrong. If the justice system is broken, the way to fix it is policy reform — not vigilantism.

But this helps explain why some fringe extremists are acting violently. As conservative writer Leon Wolf wrote after the Dallas mass shooting:

The most important safety valve to prevent violence like we saw in Dallas last night is the belief that when officers do go off the rails, the legal system will punish them accordingly. If minority communities (and everyone else, for that matter) believed that, resort to reprisal killings would be either non existent or far less frequent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes about racial justice issues, made a similar argument after Dallas:

In black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence. A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable.

Rebuilding community-police relations could have other benefits

All of this suggests that a big way to change the widespread negative sentiment that can lead to anti-police violence is by rebuilding trust in the criminal justice system.

There are many ideas for this, from equipping cops with body cameras to encouraging community policing that focuses on reaching out to and working with members of the community to solve or prevent crime.

Police could also improve how they target crime — to focus more narrowly on certain hot spots, groups of people, or individuals instead of taking broad police actions on whole neighborhoods in a way that can feel like harassment for the people living there. And they could improve training to limit whether police act on potential racial biases and improve cops’ ability to see genuine threats by, for example, paying less attention to a suspect’s skin color and more to his body language.

If we get this right, it can work better for both police and the people they protect. The evidence shows that police work best when the communities they protect trust them and cooperate with them. So by better targeting crime, and limiting any racial disparities in police use of force, law enforcement can increase faith and trust from the public, boosting cooperation in solving and preventing crimes to make everyone safer.

This is, in other words, a potential win-win: Not only can it rebuild trust in police and potentially prevent more anti-police violence, but it could have the added benefit of reducing crime more broadly.