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National Night Out promotes police-community partnerships. It needs police accountability.

It takes more than a cookout to build trust.

The Washington Post

On Tuesday, law enforcement and community members around the country will gather together for the 33rd annual National Night Out.

But the program’s commitment to fostering community-police partnerships gains new weight following a string of high-profile shootings of African Americans by police and separate sniper attacks on law enforcement in July.

“There have been some things that have happened that have shown police in a negative light,” Corey Schmidt, a Minneapolis police officer, told USA Today. “We want to show the community that we’re here for them and support them.”

Created in 1984 through funding by the US Department of Justice, National Night Out is a community-based crime prevention program organized by the National Association of Town Watch that takes place on the first Tuesday of August. Since its inception, the program has grown from 400 communities participating in 1984 to at least 16,000 communities this year.

Each city’s activities differ. The program can range from neighbors making a concerted effort to keep their porch lights on for the evening, to parades, cookouts, and block parties, all intended to build better community-police relations.

But today, when US crime and murder rates are at record lows, and racial disparities in policing have gained national attention, is there more that National Night Out can do to build a bridge between law enforcement and civilians than an annual street festival?

One way to build trust between communities and police is to hold police accountable

While the goal of National Night Out is to build trust, the annual community-partnership program has to address the fact that race plays a significant role in determining whether communities trust police in the first place.

A 2014 Gallup poll showed that while 56 percent of American adults have a great deal of confidence in police, 59 percent of white adults held this view compared to only 37 percent of African Americans.

Part of the difference in attitudes comes from the fact that African Americans witness a racially biased criminal justice system that over-polices them and rarely holds police accountable for the crimes they commit against African Americans.

A 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that in 2011, African Americans were more likely to report being pulled over (12.8 percent) than white drivers (9.8 percent) and Hispanic drivers (10.4 percent). The report also indicated that black drivers were nearly three times more likely than white drivers to be stopped and searched — 6.3 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

Police are also rarely indicted for more serious crimes like killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available. Rather, as Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out, the legal standards for lethal use of force "often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used (something that is notoriously difficult to standardize), regardless of how much of a threat actually existed."

The difficulty in prosecuting such cases is illustrated by reports like one in 2011 by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which found that only 32.8 percent of the 3,238 criminal cases filed against police officers between January and December 2010 resulted in a conviction — less than half the public conviction rate for criminal charges (68 percent). Among those rare convictions, only a little more than a third of them (36 percent) actually result in prison sentences.

Police officers are legally given the benefit of the doubt to determine whether use of force was reasonable in the moment. The criminal justice system likewise does not hold members of law enforcement responsible even if criminal charges are brought against them.

This lack of police accountability magnifies existing mistrust within African-American communities.

As of early July, police officers have killed at least 2,009 people since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. This is why many activists in the Black Lives Matter movement urge that discussions around use of force to account for racial disparities and implicit racial biases in policing practices.

So while it’s nice if community members are able to share an ice cream cone or a hamburger with law enforcement at the end of an August day, part of repairing the relationship between communities and police is rectifying the institutional inequalities that too easily let law enforcement off the hook. And that work is far less sweet.