Tracey L. Meares is a professor at Yale Law School.
In trying to find a way beyond a season of tragic violence, it may help to ask a basic question: What are police for?
To many people, especially police officers, the answer may seem obvious: Police are a critical bulwark, keeping us safe and helping to reduce crime. Especially over the past few decades, with the advent of CompStat data analysis, highly localized “hot spot” policing and more sophisticated approaches to crime reduction that include police working with community economic development officials, we better understand the effect that police can and should have on crime. Crime has gone down substantially and steadily, and police can take some credit for that.
But the emphasis on public safety as the raison d’être of policing has also set up the profession to be a victim of its own success. It is a problem when the state sees crime reduction as a self-justifying warrant for aggressive police action. We should be much more skeptical than we now are about policing traffic violations, public-order violations and the like in the name of crime reduction. Police professionals define public safety primarily in terms of limiting the number of incidents of violence among citizens. Too often they glide over the fact that the public also desires security from government repression and violence.
Recently, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, on which I served, noted that aggressive police action can have the counterproductive result of destroying the very reservoir of trust on which communities and policing agencies depend to function properly. It is shortsighted to credit the benefits that groups such as African Americans receive from plummeting crime rates without acknowledging the costs to them in terms of enforcement. Research is clear that how people are treated is central to how they view police and other legal authorities — even more than whether police are effective at reducing crime. That’s because people do not simply experience police interactions; they also learn from them.
Just like a public school, the criminal-justice system offers lessons about what it means to be a citizen. Some of these lessons, found in the Constitution, are formal and explicitly convey concern for rights and protections of individual autonomy, privacy and bodily integrity against the unconstrained discretion of legal authorities.
But this formal curriculum of rights is taught alongside a hidden curriculum. Again, the comparison to schools is instructive. We can find the hidden curriculum of schools in the choice of mascots, who sits next to whom in the cafeteria and whether boys and girls are encouraged equally to speak up in class. On the streets, the hidden curriculum of policing can be seen in how people are treated in interactions with law enforcement. Too often this hidden curriculum sends certain citizens signals that they are members of a special, dangerous and undesirable class, even when police say they are just doing their jobs — fighting crime on behalf of impoverished and minority communities.
If real change in policing is to take hold, we must do more than promote a series of strategies and tactics for doing better in arrest-related encounters. To achieve serious culture change, we will need to take the clash between the formal and hidden curriculums seriously and make an effort to eradicate the differences between them for all groups. This will mean fundamental changes in police recruitment, training and, perhaps most important, regulation.
We will not reform policing by prosecuting individual officers or even conducting civil rights investigations of every corrupt agency. Instead, we must start with a reorientation of the profession. As strange as this analogy may sound, ask whether the Federal Aviation Administration would be satisfied by the statement that a plane crash that took a single life was the result of a “perfect storm” of circumstances. More likely, we would expect every aspect of the machine and those operating it to be examined, questioned and overhauled to ensure that the incident did not occur again. After all, safety is the cornerstone of the FAA’s mission — safety for everybody, not just pilots and other crew members. Note, though, that the “perfect storm” response is a common one after a police shooting, and too many accept this response without reflection.
Of course, policing is not exactly like learning in school or flying an airplane. But paying attention to the hidden curriculum being taught on our streets and the regulatory approaches such as those that the FAA follows can teach a great deal to those who work in policing. A good place to start would be with the mission statement for those sworn to protect us from one another: not crime reduction above all else but, instead, protection of life — all life — equally.