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Criminologist David Kennedy: if cops want the public’s trust, they must admit to centuries of abuse

A criminologist explains why addressing police shootings and high crime need to go together.

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A Baltimore police car. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

American policing is broken. Since 2014, cities around the country have exploded in protests and, in rare situations, violence over police shootings and misconduct. And the US Department of Justice has released report after report essentially proving many of these protesters’ criticisms — that police are racially biased, far too quick to use force, and frequently violate locals’ constitutional rights.

The Justice Department is trying to fix this. With the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, federal, state, and local officials hope to work to mend the broken trust felt in many communities — particularly black neighborhoods — in a way that will not only make the police-community relationship stronger, but also help fight crime as well.

To accomplish this, the Justice Department has tapped renowned criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College. Kennedy has worked on law enforcement issues for years to help make policing more transparent and effective. In particular, he’s known for his work on a policing strategy known as “focused deterrence,” which focuses on targeting the very few individuals and groups that drive almost all the violence in US communities. The strategy works: Study after study back it up, and the method got much of the credit for the “Boston miracle” that saw the city’s violent crime rate drop by 79 percent in the 1990s.

But strategies like focused deterrence can only succeed with the community’s help. In focused deterrence, the community — family members, church leaders, social services, and so on — is a key partner with the police in telling people at high risk for violence that they have two options: either stop the violence and get help from social services, or face jail or prison for potentially decades if they act out again. Without help from the community, that message can’t be conveyed clearly — and many people at risk of violence can’t be reached at all.

Given that, Kennedy said he has become increasingly convinced that the only way to really start building safer communities is by fixing underlying problems of distrust and lack of faith in police. Otherwise, police aren’t going to be able to get the community’s cooperation to deter, stop, and solve crimes — and relationships will keep languishing as people not only see the police as untrustworthy, but ineffective at fighting crime.

“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” Kennedy told me. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”

So how do police regain their communities’ trust? It begins “with a frank statement — it can be from a whole bunch of individuals, it can be from key figures,” Kennedy told me. “But there needs to be a frank statement from people in positions of power or representing institutions of power about the wrong that has been done.”

I spoke with Kennedy about these issues and more earlier this month. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How police can begin to rebuild their community’s trust and faith

German Lopez: What steps should policymakers and police be taking to address the vast distrust in their communities toward law enforcement?

David Kennedy: I’ve come to believe that particularly when it comes to police departments and African-American communities, police should really begin by taking on a pretty explicit reconciliation process.

There are lots of important things to be done. And there’s a long and pretty familiar menu of those things — recruiting and training, [changes in] use of force, protocols for deescalation, body cameras, and on and on and on. And all of that’s really important.

But I think that there is a very strong case to be made that even doing a really good job in those areas doesn’t get at and can’t get at the history and the experience of especially black communities and how they’re policed — the understanding, narratives, views of the police, very serious lack of confidence in the police, and the rootedness of that trauma, alienation, and distrust, [based on] real historical and recent events.

I don’t think we’re going to be able to build new relationships successfully between black communities and the police until the police say, “We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the Civil Rights Movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop-and-frisk. We have to recognize and acknowledge that very often we have not treated you well. We’re going to go out of our way to respect your experience and your views, and we’re going to work together to figure out how to do those things differently.”

That’s work being done in a few places around the country. I’ve got a big role in the Department of Justice’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, and we’re beginning that work in some of the national initiative sites. There are a lot of police departments that are thinking along these lines and beginning to do that kind of work.

The hope is that it can establish [and] reset new relationships. Without doing that work, all the sort of policy and practice changes that we can think of will not address the fundamental lack of trust that we’re facing.

A New York City police officer. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

GL: I’m wondering how that reconciliation process looks in action. South Africa’s reconciliation process is one example in which they had people who participated in the apartheid regime on television and national media, apologizing and admitting to the wrongs of what they did. But I’m curious how police in the US would communicate something like that. There are so many police departments — nearly 18,000. They can’t just all be on television telling people they’re sorry. So would this be something more local, such as community meetings?

DK: When you look at reconciliation processes, they are different everywhere people do them.

Sometimes what’s called reconciliation is really just a way of folks with power saying, “We’re going to pretend to address this and put it behind us.” It’s a way of creating an escape and exculpation rather than dealing with things. So let’s put that kind of thing aside.

The ones that seem genuine really all have some very similar building blocks. And they begin with a frank statement — it can be from a whole bunch of individuals, it can be from key figures. But there needs to be a frank statement from people in positions of power or representing institutions of power about the wrong that has been done.

For example, Chief A.C. Roper in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham is one of the national initiative sites [experimenting with strategy and policy changes to rebuild community trust]. The chief there recently convened small, relatively closed-door sessions with key figures from the old civil rights guard in Birmingham — Birmingham was one of, if not the, epicenters of the last big civil rights movement in the US — and with members of the LGBTQ community and with youth and a small number of people who work very closely with youth. He said to each of them in his own way that police have treated them poorly and went into some detail about that.

These reconciliation processes have some form of producing a record that says, “Here’s what happened, these are the facts, and we’re not going to say anymore that this did not happen.” So you can imagine a fact-finding process about the experience of being policed in any given city that captures what the people in that city think is important.

And if it’s to be meaningful, then one wants those things to be heard more broadly — somehow across the city. As important as face-to-face work is, there are other ways, other media that can be used to get those stories out.

When we think about why this is worth doing and why this is so important, what we come to is that as long as there is the degree of distrust and trauma and alienation that we have now, those communities, those cities, [and] those agencies can’t work together properly to try to do better. If enough trust and relationships are built so that folks, even if they continue to have real differences, can work together to do better going forward, that would be a success.

And that’s how you then get into the, happily, really long list of how we can do better.

There are some specific reforms cities and police are trying out to help rebuild trust

A Washington, DC, police officer hones a body camera. Win McNamee/Getty Images

GL: What are some of the items on that reform list?

DK: Thankfully, the list is something that could go on all day. It’s impossible to capture really quickly.

Just for example, there are places that have eliminated money bail — the argument being that people should not rot in jail because they can’t make a relatively small fee when people who have the money walk out. And that’s right.

They’re figuring out ways to get rid of the huge overhang of warrants that people are walking around with, which is of course an artifact the way we’ve been doing policing and criminal justice. They’re looking at ways to routinize and ease the expungement process of criminal records, so people aren’t permanently damaged by their criminal histories.

They’re eliminating a lot of enforcement for low-level offenses. Lots of things that people are doing, police are just not making those arrests and moving them to civil action instead of criminal action.

They’re moving folks into support and diversion rather than straight into the criminal justice system. They’re issuing instructions to school police officers that under almost no circumstance are they to arrest kids in school — if somebody has a gun in their hand, that’s exceptional and different, but [school police officers] shouldn’t be part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

They’re looking at practices that are clearly breeding grounds for biased policing — like vehicle stops, which are regularly found to produce hugely disproportionate stops of minority drivers. They’re saying, “Okay, we don’t do that. If this goes badly so often, and we’re not seeing any public safety return on it, we’re not going to do it.”

And on and on and on and on.

So there’s a real willingness in a lot of places to make the changes that communities are clamoring for. Minneapolis just changed its use of force policy — it included deescalation, a number of other things, and a new sanctity of life principle. When [Police Chief Janee] Harteau talks about this, she says, “Officers have always said to each other, ‘We’re going to go home safe tonight.’ And the value of the Minneapolis Police Department is now, ‘Everyone’s going to go home safe tonight. You are. We are. Everybody is.’”

Rebuilding police-community trust is crucial to fighting crime

A police car blocks off an area in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Thomas/Getty Images

GL: One thing I’ve become very convinced of is that rebuilding this trust is crucial to actually fighting crime in these communities. Jill Leovy, another journalist, captured this well in her book Ghettoside. Fixing the distrust by itself is important, but another problem is that because communities are not willing to work with police and because they don’t trust the criminal justice system, they often take the law into their own hands — and that’s one of the reasons we see more shootings and violence in these communities. I know the explicit goal is to mend trust, but how important do you think the crime-fighting part is?

DK: I wouldn’t even separate them like that. I wouldn’t say that the overall goal is to mend trust. The overall goal is public safety. That’s what everybody wants.

This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong. What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.

So it’s all the same thing.

Ghettoside is brilliant because better than anything else that I know it makes that so very clear. Jill writes about moments in which heroic, saintly homicide investigators in the LAPD fail to get family members to say who killed their child, knowing full well that those family members know who killed their child. Grieving, fantastically distressed parents say, “You don’t care about my kid,” even though [the detectives] are standing there in front of [the parents] caring about their kid. And that’s not about that parent and that detective. That’s about literally hundreds of years of the experience of black communities being damaged by and not being helped by the police.

That’s the point Jill writes eloquently about: how these cases need to be given higher priority in police departments, and how these folks need more time and resources and equipment. And that’s right.

But even if they got all of that, that wouldn’t go very far to change the conviction of that mother that the police will never care or help her. So we need to work on both of those things.

GL: One thing we haven’t talked much about is specific crime-fighting policies that could make police more effective. In the past, you and I have talked about strategies like focused deterrence and hot spot policing. How effective do you think these ideas are not just for fighting crime, but dealing with distrust in these communities?

DK: Doing better at addressing violence, if it’s done in a way that communities find welcome, is hugely important at building better relationships. That’s absolutely right.

What these new approaches do is create a way in which police and others in law enforcement can say to communities:

“We’ve gone about this wrong. We understand that you feel you’ve been overpoliced and underprotected. We agree with you about that. We have not been as effective as you and we want to be at producing public safety. We have stopped and frisked and locked up way too many of especially your men. We understand that’s disrespectful at best and actively damaging at worst. That’s on us. We explicitly acknowledge it. We have for a long time said that these are communities full of dangerous people. But what we now know is what you’ve always known — that in fact nearly everybody in this community is a good person, and hardly anybody in it is at any meaningful risk for hurting anybody else.”

So we’ve talked about this [last part]. The violence in a community is not driven by the community. It’s driven by very small numbers of extremely high-risk people. So we’ve been acting like this is a bad place full of bad people, and police have been policing it that way. It’s not.

The record on this is really clear: Communities like that [sentiment]. That makes sense to them. That also is a way of conveying that the police recognize what the community is and is not. It’s a way of respecting the community. It’s a way of respecting even the high-risk young men. And it is a way of starting to build new and different relationships with the community.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

GL: The transparency in the entire process seems to be really key. To me, it sounds like it’s basically enforcing the tenets of procedural justice. Is that right?

DK: That’s exactly right.

The key tenets of procedural justice, which everybody is recognizing more and more and more, are that the public that’s being policed — those having encounters with police and the criminal justice system — feel that what’s being done is unbiased and equitable, that they have an opportunity to give their own voice about what they think and want, that they’re being treated with respect, and that what’s being done is well-intentioned and will be helpful.

The way we have been policing way too many of these neighborhoods violates every one of those standards. The new way of doing that work honors every one of them.