Last year during a police-community dialogue I facilitated a tenant leader from the Polo Grounds public housing development in Harlem asked a very interesting question to a police commander: I just want to know why the police do what they do?
This question has been on my mind ever since. I wonder if it is possible that the gulf of mistrust between the police and many community residents here in Harlem, especially young African-American and Latino males, could somehow be repaired. I wonder if there are ways to end the appalling “death by gunshot” rates of young males in Harlem without deploying some expensive and complex prison-filling approach. Maybe, I thought, if we could get the police to explain their behavior that would help.
Some police departments are going beyond just explaining themselves; they are pro-actively engaging community members and openly discussing the racial narratives that often prevent effective violence reduction. Later this week I will be in Washington D.C to participate in a meeting of police leaders and community activist from around the country as they explore strategies for racial reconciliation and police legitimacy. Yes, you read it right, there is a growing movement supported by research that seeks to help minority communities become safer by improving the legitimacy of the police in these communities.
Legitimacy, according to Tracey Mears of Yale Law School, is: compliance that results from the “belief that an authority has the right to dictate behavior.” According to Mears, citing the work of Tom Tyler at NYU, this is different from another form of procedural justice that stresses the individuals' "moral belief" that laws are just. We obey the law or a rule if we believe the law or rule is just; we also obey authority figures –COPS, Judges, Supervisors—if we believe they have a right to set standards of behavior.
Tracey Mears believes that police can play an important role in helping to solve racial issues between police and minority communities. She is not alone. Police Chiefs and former Police Chiefs, including Bill Bratton, ret. (NYC/LA) and Garry McCarthy in Chicago, have called for increasing the legitimacy of the police in minority communities as a crime reduction and prevention approach. The federal Community Oriented Policing Services office of the U.S Department of Justice (C.O.P.S) is co-hosting the meeting this week along with the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College are hosting the meeting.
The use of mass incarceration as the primary criminal justice approach in the United States has been an abysmal failure. Today, we can generate public safety even while we reduce the use of prison and jail. Police agencies need to improve their legitimacy in high crime neighborhoods by adopting approaches that research suggests reduce disproportionate minority incarceration, are much less costly, and more effective.
To read a speech by Professor Mears click here.