What Happens When We Don't Trust Law Enforcement?

The importance of law enforcement's role in society's well-being.

Posted Sep 09, 2014

The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown and chokehold death of Eric Garner by police have brought into sharp focus the fact that many Americans simply do not trust law enforcement. Recent polls suggest that the majority of Americans do not feel that police are adequately held accountable for their actions, treat racial groups equally, or use the right amount of force. This lack of trust undermines the legitimacy of law enforcement and creates an unequal society in which some feel comforted by law enforcement while others feel suspicious and distrustful. Members of the community are more likely to feel safe and cooperate in investigations if they trust law enforcement; thus, it is in the best interest of all stakeholders to understand and build trust in law enforcement.

Trust can be defined as the "belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective." High levels of trust promote healthy interactions, whereas low levels of trust undermine constructive relationships. Trust in law enforcement is essential for the belief in the legitimacy of law enforcement, or feeling an obligation to obey the law and defer to decisions made by legal authorities.   

Research shows that perceived legitimacy of law enforcement is crucial to effective law enforcement. One study of 830 New York City residents who were predominantly either white, Hispanic or African-American examined whether perceived legitimacy of police, which included measures of trust, obligation and confidence in police produced increased cooperation with police in law enforcement efforts (e.g., reporting a crime, assisting law enforcement officers) over time. The results show that trust was significantly related to not only cooperation with the police but also — to a lesser extent — cooperation with others in the community. These findings have been replicated in other samples. In a study of 300 Muslim-Americans, it was found that perceived legitimacy was associated with willingness to cooperate with police on terrorism investigations. Further work suggests that it is trust that drives this effect. One study of 638 high school students ages 18 and older in Slovenia found that of the various factors that make up "legitimacy" it is trust in police that most predicts cooperation.

Research demonstrates that minority groups consistently show less trust in law enforcement. This difference in trust appears to be based on two things. First, minority groups report having more direct negative personal experiences with law enforcement. Further, there is evidence of discrepancies in procedural justice outcomes. Research shows that minority groups are disproportionately incarcerated. For example, African-Americans comprise 14 percent of drug users but 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. Despite the fact that minority groups make up a large percentage of people subjected to "stop and frisk," white people are more likely to have drugs or weapons. 

In the most extreme cases, when lack of trust is so severe, perceived discrimination can be associated not only with poor cooperation with police, but also negative mental and physical health consequences. One recent meta-analysis of 134 studies found that perceived discrimination has a significant negative effect on both mental and physical health. Perceived discrimination also produces significantly heightened stress responses and is related to participation in unhealthy behaviors and non-participation in healthy behaviors. And there has been a call for looking at the public health effects of witnessing police misconduct and brutality.

So what can be done?

Across the board, various entities have suggested that increased transparency is one of the best ways to build trust. There are several concrete ways that transparency could be increased.  Perhaps most strikingly is the important need for data to be aggregated, organized and shared across law enforcement and community agencies. For example, research suggests that currently it is unknown how many people are killed by police each year. There have been similar calls for transparency in the results of evaluating rape kits

These recent tragic deaths have ignited particular interest in whether police should be videotaped during interactions with the public. The debate has included calls for more flexibility allowing journalists and citizens to videotape police officers. Current state laws do not explicitly say whether this behavior is legal even though courts have upheld a person's First Amendment right to record public events such as protests or traffic stops. More, evidence suggests that if police wear video cameras so that their behavior is recorded, everyone wins; studies suggest that complaints are radically reduced, and in the case of complaints police are exonerated far more often than if no recording existed.

There is a compelling need for more communication between law enforcement agencies and community organizations. This type of approach includes regular meetings with community leaders and law enforcement. Initial research suggests positive results in involving community leaders with cooperation, even for the smallest infractions. There is also evidence suggesting that diversity training for police can improve relations with the community. Further, on a policy level, there must be examination of laws that result in unequal treatment.

Law enforcement agencies and the people that serve deserve our respect for putting their lives on the line to protect us. Similarly, our community deserves to exist in a context where everyone receives the same benefit from the legal system. One of the best ways that we can show that respect is by being honest with ourselves and with others when trust has broken down and seeking ways to rebuild.

Because when trust is broken, everyone loses.

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl