Over the past several years, police officers and some of the communities they serve have experienced a crisis of confidence. Trust has eroded in all directions.
Much of this stems from the weight of history, particularly the parts of police history that intertwine with our country’s legacy of race-based oppression. It has recently been inflamed by outrage over several high-profile use-of-force incidents. Some of those incidents, such as the murder of George Floyd, deserve that outrage. Others do not. But they all deserve scrutiny, and every police leader has a duty to ensure that our profession does not practice or tolerate injustice.
But abolition — or even broad defunding — of the police is absurd. Most people want policing — particularly those in marginalized communities. New Yorkers “want to see cops in the community,” City Council member Vanessa L. Gibson, who represents the West Bronx, said during a defunding debate last summer. “They don’t want to see excessive force. … But they want to be safe as they go to the store.”
The interim head of the city’s transit system, Sarah Feinberg, expressed a similar concern in a recent statement. “Our employees and customers agree: 87 percent of riders say that seeing a visible presence in our system is very important to them,” she wrote.
The truth is, when the crunch comes, people want more police, not less. Today’s crunch is that, after three decades of falling crime rates, the U.S. murder rate surged more than 20 percent in 2020. The speed at which hard-fought gains are evaporating is alarming.
So how do we re-create the necessary trust?
Trust starts with accountability. When a use of force is unjust, justice must be as swift as due process allows. Derek Chauvin was fired within 24 hours and convicted within 11 months.
About 23 percent of the 990 were Black — compared with 13 percent of the U.S. population. That’s a striking disparity. As tracked by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, however, the statistics of who commits violent crime — and, more importantly, who is victimized by it — show even greater disparities. In New York City in that year, Black residents were about 23 percent of the population but 63 percent of all murder victims and 62 percent of murder suspects. For shootings, those figures are 73 percent and 73 percent. That’s a complicated context but one that deserves to be examined fully and without preconceptions.
Trust needs transparency. It’s always better to tell your own story first, thoroughly and honestly. If you can tell it with body-camera videos, all the better. Cops should keep them on and make the footage available to the public — even when it reveals a problem in policing. The videos are more often than not exculpatory, so early release would most often provide context that would reduce tension. Every department should also have an open data portal, and the federal government should mandate wider statistical reporting.
Trust comes from listening to the people we serve. Over four decades in law enforcement, I have heard consistently that people want us to prevent crime rather than react to it. We do that by stopping little things before they get big. Unaddressed disorder leads to petty crime, and then more serious crime, and finally violence. But “broken windows,” as the policy was called, has become shorthand for racist police behavior and zero-tolerance policing. It is neither. It’s about addressing behavior, and enforcement is only one tool — and should not be the first option. Cops have to work with and for the community, not against it.
During my second stint in New York, we drove down every enforcement measure, including stop, question and frisk, while continuing to drive down crime. But there are limits. When criminals are caught in the act, are police supposed to let them flee rather than risk using force? If this is what communities want, police deserve clarity.
Right now, cities are seeing waves of police resignations and finding it difficult to recruit new officers. Considering the studies that show more police equals less crime, this is a problem. We need to hire more officers, train them in de-escalation and crisis intervention practices, and connect them to the communities they serve. To rebuild trust, we need refunding, not defunding.
We have significantly reduced crime before. We can do it again if police dig in on our efforts to establish trust with all communities and double down on our shared mission: keeping people safe.