Legitimacy is the currency of policing and democracy. There will never be enough police to be on every corner, but most Americans believe our government is legitimate and our laws are at least mostly just, and hence they follow them even when no one is looking. Most are also inclined to report crime and cooperate as witnesses.
Even so, a recent study found that only 30% of Black Americans trust police. Besides being a moral imperative, trust between police and communities is also a public safety one. Consider this: after highly publicized police shootings of Black Americans in Milwaukee, residents in these neighborhoods were less likely to report crimes.
Producing public safety is not a spectator sport, and neither is maintaining a democracy. Yet even with record turnout in 2020, a third of eligible Americans did not vote.
Much more ominously, the January 6 insurrection revealed how a dastardly delegitimization of our election supplied militias, white supremacists, and other dead-ender miscreants with the sense of grievance, entitlement, and license they needed not just to be barbarians at the gates, but heathens marauding through the temple of our democracy.
Despite comparisons drawn by some commentators, the “autonomous” zone created in Seattle after George Floyd’s killing in June was not of the same scale or seriousness, partly because it was neither a national threat nor an attempt to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power. Nonetheless, it was also precipitated by people challenging the legitimacy of our current form of government, though in this case it was not triggered by debunked conspiracy theories of a stolen election, but by a small, longstanding anarchist movement that saw an opening for itself amid protests against the painfully real problems of police brutality and racially disparate application of the law.
While prosecuting individuals for serious crimes after the fact is necessary, it does not address the broader challenge. We must take steps to reinvigorate confidence in the legitimacy of our system despite its flaws, so that America’s extremities do not infect the core of our body politic. In both policing and democracy, legitimacy cannot be established with a wave of a hand; it must be earned. Instead of trying to strongarm athletes to stand for the National Anthem, which, if done by government would be unconstitutional, what if we had seen kneeling as a canary in a coal mine, prompting us to double down on creating a country even more Americans can be proud of? Likewise, we cannot pretend that a divided nation can channel epiphanies of consensus on every, or even most, controversial issues, but we should seek to dull the sharpest edges of polarization.
What does success look like? We recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day, which reminded us that Dr. King, despite all that he and those he fought for endured, did not view America has hopelessly irredeemable. Instead, he couched his advocacy in the powerful truth that the country was failing to live up to its stated principles and better angels. In his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King memorably termed our founding documents a “promissory note” that, as it relates to Black Americans, the nation had defaulted on.
Interestingly, few lessons of police reform can be instructive in how we can heal our divisions rather than discarding our entire constitutional system of making and enforcing laws or revolting against each other. First, when it comes to improving police and community relations, research has found that forms of engagement that build long-term relationships and agency are most effective. For example, a study of a program in which police were assigned for a five-year stint at public housing complexes in Los Angeles found significant gains in trust and reductions in crime. Not only did police participate in activities such as walking with kids to school that provided a dual benefit of protection and relationship building, they held sessions in which they heard residents’ priorities and incorporated those in their work.
A sense of agency begets action, which also means police departments and local governments overseeing them must adopt police policies and practices that foster transparency. Like the live cameras that showed ballots being counted from Atlanta to Philadelphia, police body cameras promote confidence by illuminating potential misconduct. However, best practices around equal and prompt access to recordings must be developed and implemented. Furthermore, the Policing Project recommends using a formal rulemaking process and holding a hearing, just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would before issuing a regulation. At the intersection of both trust and transparency, in December 2020 the Chicago Police Department launched an online dashboard that tracks the degree to which the public trusts police across different districts and demographics.
Strengthening that trust is one goal of the Task Force on Policing, a diverse panel of law enforcement and civil rights leaders, community advocates, researchers and others. Convened by the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, the Task Force is evaluating more than two dozen common reforms to determine which are supported by evidence and will have the greatest impact on the problem.
Evidence matters, as some well-intentioned programs like DARE, in which police lectured kids in school not to use drugs, turned out to be counterproductive. While skepticism is therefore healthy, we need not dismiss projects like an initiative in Atlanta where cops and kids play baseball as simply a feel-good dalliance. Building relationships has value. But emerging evidence suggests sustained gains in safety and trust are most likely to occur when such activities are combined with real opportunities for feedback on police practices and coordination on delivering safety through efforts such as neighborhood watches and graffiti removal. This is fundamentally different from an occasional, unstructured conversation that does not involve police sharing power with the communities they serve and the mutual rolling up of sleeves to do much of the actual work of public safety together. Indeed, it was for this reason that George Kelling, the late policing expert, expressly rejected the “thin blue line” metaphor, as it conflated police with the military and sidelined community partnerships that, at a minimum, blur any such demarcation.
Lo and behold, the same applies to democracy. Bill Bishop, co-author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” explains that research on civic engagement and bridging divides shows that, while there may be some benefits to having rural, conservative Americans shoot the breeze with their urban, liberal counterparts, the tangible gains in solidarity come when people of disparate backgrounds and ideologies undertake tangible activities. Bishop describes how a wide spectrum of Texans came together after a massive wildfire in 2011 to raise money, distribute food, and rebuild structures.
Of course, as the 2020 county-by-county election results map demonstrated, Americans are more likely than ever to live around those with similar experiences and perspectives. Fortunately, some organizations are seeking to bridge this divide through collective undertakings. Urban Rural Action, for example, pulls together Americans from contrasting communities to not simply listen to experts on criminal justice and education policy and then discuss these issues, but also to jointly pick a solution and work with state lawmakers toward its passage in the next legislative session.
There is no more urgent task than ensuring Americans find common ground and can rightfully view both their police and government as legitimate, even while continuing in the finest traditions of our nation to advance bold reforms. In short, we must both revitalize democracy and democratize policing. Traversing the gaps between police and communities, and Americans more broadly, requires embracing transparency. Most of all, it means not just talking about our differences, but acting together in pursuit of a common purpose, whether that is our safety or our democracy.
Marc Levin, Esq. is Chief Policy Counsel at the Council on Criminal Justice. He also serves on the Advisory Council of Urban Rural Action. He can be reached at email@example.com.