The Lessons of Ferguson, Missouri: Teachable Moments About Policing

Ferguson represents another step in the escalating failure of the "broken windows" view of crime that has gained ascendancy during the past generation. Under this approach, the police seek to maintain order by focusing upon arresting those who are committing minor crimes. This justifies the widespread practice of repeatedly stopping, questioning, frisking and often detaining and arresting members of the community, in particular the African-American community, and leads to the same type of hostility toward police officers that has become so visible in New York City in recent years. Worse yet, it seems the police in cities like Ferguson have moved beyond the original broken windows model which focuses upon arresting people committing life-style crimes and have dropped any pretext of stopping only those who are actually involved in criminal activity. Instead the police repeatedly stop innocent community residents on the streets to create feelings of fear, which they believe deters criminal behavior. Why is this bad?

First, because these practices have been shown not to lower the rate of crime. My research and that of other social scientists shows that a key factor shaping whether people obey the law is whether they view it as legitimate, i.e. whether they trust the law and legal authorities. Studies of the police in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland all indicate that whether people break the law and commit crimes is more strongly shaped by whether people trust the police than by whether people believe that they are likely to be caught and punished if they break the law. Distrust also makes controlling crime more difficult because it lowers the willingness of community members to help the police solve crimes or identify criminals. Rather than working with the police the public either takes the law into its own hands or acquiesces to victimization leading to the types of social disorder the police were created to prevent.

Sadly therefore, the police are creating the crime they seek to control by alienating large segments of the minority community. In addition, the police are undermining the trust that is needed to hopefully prevent and if necessary respond to tragic events, such as the shooting of Michael Brown. The police need to be given the benefit of the doubt to be able to do their jobs, but without trust people question police motives and are suspicious of seemingly reasonable requests, such as giving the police time to conduct an investigation. In the absence of trust events of this type too often devolve into riots. Lacking faith in the intentions of the authorities people give in to expressions of frustration and anger.

How can the police build trust? I have conducted a number of studies of popular legitimacy which examine why people do or do not trust the police in their community. These studies consistently show that the most important issue to public evaluations of the police is whether they believe that the police are exercising their authority fairly. This means that they are not making decisions about who to stop based upon race; that they are willing to listen to people when they stop them; apply the law consistently and without prejudice and take time to explain the reasons for their actions. Most importantly, the police need to treat people in the community respectfully and with courtesy. When the police do these things they build trust. In other words, we know how the police can build trust in communities, White or minority. If people see the police acting with justice, they respond with trust.

Of course, there are limits, and even respectful treatment gives way to distrust in the face of repeated stops when people are not engaged in wrongdoing. Two facts emerge from empirical research on the impact of policies involving widespread street stops. First, such stop, question and frisk policies increase crime by undermining police legitimacy. Jeffrey Fagan and I recently studied young men in New York City and found that those who mistrusted the police were twice as likely to be engaged in criminal activity. Second they increase hostility and lead to a greater likelihood of conflict when the police deal with community members on the street and when the community reacts to police actions such as the Brown shooting. Such anger produces precisely the type of unrest so visible in Ferguson. As so many of the marchers in that community have suggested, if people do not experience justice when they deal with the police, there will be no peace.