by Tina Rosenberg
The horrors of the last few weeks — eight police officers assassinated, at least two more unarmed black men to add to a long list of those killed by police — have produced increasingly desperate calls for unity and understanding. How can Americans build empathy and trust between their police and their minority communities? How can they stop the killings? And is there a way to do this while reducing crime?
On July 17, Eric Jones, the police chief in Stockton, Calif., spoke at Progressive Community Church, an African-American church on Stockton’s south side. On Sunday evening, people from three different churches gathered at Progressive to talk about police-community relations. The police department streamed the speech live on Facebook, where it has 94,000 followers.
Jones talked about the murdered police officers. But his real subject was black lives, not blue ones. “There was a time where police were used to be dispatched to keep lynchings ‘civil,’ ” said Jones, who is white. “The badge we wear still does carry the burden, and we need to at least understand why those issues are still deep-rooted in a lot of our communities.” And injustice continues, he said: “We know that there are disparities in arrests and shootings across the country.”
Stockton was devastated in the 2008 recession. A quarter of the police force was laid off. The unemployment rate soared to over 20 percent by 2011, twice the national average. The city, with 300,000 people, has been one of America’s 20 most violent ever since.
But the force, now back to nearly its former size, is known as one trying to do something — about crime, and about creating a different relationship with the community. These are related, said Jones, who became chief in 2012.
“Traditionally, we’d go into a neighborhood with a highly visible police patrol and zero-tolerance enforcement,” Jones said in an interview. “That did reduce crime — but only for a brief time, and at great cost to community trust.” He decided that winning trust was crucial.
“We will never impact violent crime the way we need to if we’re not gaining community trust in the work we’re doing,” he said at the church. “It makes our job safer, we solve more crime and we are legitimate and credible in the eyes of the community.”
Stockton is one of six American cities taking part in a new experiment funded by the Department of Justice. (The others are Birmingham, Ala.; Pittsburgh; Gary, Ind.; Fort Worth; and Minneapolis.) The cities are beginning programs to promote racial reconciliation; to address the racial biases all of us carry; and to gain the community’s trust using an idea known as procedural justice.
Tom R. Tyler, now a professor at Yale Law School, first framed the idea in his 1990 book, “Why People Obey the Law.” He wrote that people obey the law not because they fear punishment, as commonly thought. They obey it largely because they believe the authorities have the right to tell them what to do; in other words, the law has legitimacy.
And what gives the law legitimacy is how people are treated. “What people actually pay attention to when assessing behavior of people in legal authority is not how good they are in reducing crime or whether they get a ticket,” said Tracey Meares, also a professor at Yale Law School and a leading researcher of, and advocate for, procedural justice. “What people care about is how they’re treated and how they’re treated in particular ways.”
“All the research converges on the same basic points,” said David M. Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The National Network for Safe Communities, which he co-founded and directs, runs the pilot project that includes Stockton. “People want to believe whatever action police and authorities are taking is being done for good reason — that it’s equitable and fair rather than personal and prejudicial. They want to be treated with respect,” he said. “And they want to have a chance to speak their piece.”
“But you don’t learn this in the first instance from social science literature,” Kennedy continued. “You learn it from your mother.”
Although it was not reflected in the Republican convention that nominated Donald J. Trump for president last week, Americans have been experiencing a rare moment of bipartisan convergence on the toxicity of maximum-force policing. Procedural justice has become one of the most important strategies for changing direction — perhaps the most important. In 2014, the White House convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which published its report (pdf) last year. Its first recommendation: build trust and legitimacy, using procedural justice. Now many major police forces, including New York City’s, are starting to use it.
I talked to Sammy Nunez, the executive director of Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and to Pastor Curtis Smith of People and Congregations Together. Both groups work with Stockton’s most vulnerable communities — among other things, to track police abuse and campaign against it. Both men said that while problems remain, Jones was doing a good job as police chief. “It’s a big change for me to say this,” said Nunez, “but I believe we do have an opportunity to actually change the department in Stockton.”
Jones began to try new approaches. The force began to work closely with clergy and the community. Then Jones learned about procedural justice. The Chicago Police Department had developed a course and was training all its officers. Stockton sent three officers to take the course, and then three more.
Stockton adapted Chicago’s curriculum and began training officers, cadets in the police academy and other members of the community.
The course has had two parts so far (Part 3, on implicit bias, starts next month). Part 1 covers basic principles, and the effects on officers of a constantly hostile relationship with the community — the stress, burnout and cynicism. That lesson gets particularly high marks from trainees, said Capt. Scott Meadors, who runs the training.
Perhaps surprisingly, so does a lesson on the history of police-minority relations. There’s a photo tour of law enforcement’s hall of shame: lynchings, internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, Stonewall, Rodney King and Abner Louima, among others. There’s George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama capitol in 1963 shouting “segregation forever!” “And who’s standing next to him?” said Meadors. “We are. Law enforcement. Most of our officers weren’t born then, but we inherited that history, and we have to understand that.”
Part 2 applies the idea to what police face on the job. For example: Police officers have typically dismissed residents trying to enter a blocked-off street with a terse “You can’t go there.” The course teaches them to say instead something like: “We’ve got a report of an armed person in the neighborhood. Let us sort this out and you can get back to your house. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
The trainers also talk about something that happened to one of them, Sgt. Gary Benevides. A man having a mental health crisis had barricaded himself in a car and was revving the engine. Other police officers had been unable to persuade him to come out. Benevides, however, had met the man a few weeks before, and used that connection — forged in a brief but positive exchange — to get him to abandon the car.
I asked Meadors how the police would traditionally have handled the situation. “We would negotiate, negotiate and negotiate and create that connection,” he said. “But sometimes it’s very difficult if every encounter a person ever had with the police is negative.”
Training is the easy part. It’s much harder to integrate new ideas into the day-to-day running of the department. Stockton is trying. The department is overhauling its general orders and incorporating procedural justice, said Joseph Silva, the department spokesman. And officers’ evaluations, which affect promotions and transfers, now include how well they use the strategy.
A neighborhood impact team of chaplains and officers now goes into a community the day after a traumatic or otherwise significant event, knocking on doors to talk to residents about what happened, and other community issues. Silva said that in addition to improving relations, such outreach has led to tips from residents who didn’t want to be seen coming up to an officer at a crime scene.
The department also employs four strategic community officers, each assigned to a single neighborhood. One is Sonia Diaz, who spends her days in Sierra Vista, a public-housing project.
Diaz grew up about 40 miles from Stockton, in a largely Hispanic area where all the police were white and didn’t speak Spanish. Her brothers were repeatedly stopped, she said. When she was 12 she was standing in front of her house with a friend, and a sheriff asked the girls if they were prostituting. “I didn’t even know what it was,” she said.
Diaz responds to call about criminal activity in Sierra Vista, but her main job is building a relationship between the community and the police. She has time to talk to people. One morning last week, a group of children excitedly showed her their scooter tricks; she gave them stickers.
“When I started in January, nobody would talk to me,” she said. “They wouldn’t wave at me. I’d say, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing,’ and they would scatter. It took about four months to develop that relationship.” She said that now, tenants stop her to ask for help with problems like child custody and a brother’s mental health issues.
The research on procedural justice suggests that such changes could have significant impact. In minority communities, it is important in itself to reduce the sense that police are an army of occupation.
Meanwhile, studies show that the strategy can also lower crime rates. Domestic violence offenders who believe they were treated fairly during their arrest are less likely to offend again. Violent criminals whose encounters with the police are more positive are more likely to believe the law is legitimate, and are less likely to carry a gun. A program that aims to increase legitimacy is associated with less neighborhood-level crime and less individual recidivism. Other research indicates that procedural justice can lead to more community cooperation — and therefore cases solved (pdf) — and less stress for cops.
Still, although Stockton is probably among the handful of police departments in the country that are doing the most thorough job of implementing procedural justice, it continues to have one of the country’s highest rates of violent crime. (Unlike many other cities, however, it did not see a rise in homicides last year.) The training module used all over the country is known as the Chicago model. Yet the Chicago police department itself is a model for no one right now.
There is crime. There is police brutality. But that doesn’t mean procedural justice is a failure, or not worth doing. We cannot yet see its impact at a city level. But many factors govern police behavior, and even more govern crime. Some of these are extraordinarily powerful and hard to change. I’ll look at this next week.
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism." She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of "Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World" and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.” She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.