Imagine having a conversation with someone who felt that doctors were quacks and the entire medical field was dishonest. When a failed surgery that resulted in a death made the news, this person would use this as evidence of the underlying problems in the medical field. They would probably argue for solutions like better training and better oversight; solutions you probably agree with. But then they would point out that the doctor was not punished and argue that at the very least, they should lose their medical licence and maybe even imprisoned.
You might try to reason with them about how being a doctor is difficult and sometimes mistakes are made but that nothing they did was grossly negligent. You might even become irritated, trying to explain that doctors are extremely important to keeping our society safe and healthy. It wouldn’t matter: Doctors are quacks and when they screw up, they need to be punished.
I’ve recently engaged in a number of discussions about the need to hold police to a higher standard. Although, I stayed away from the issue of race in my arguments, virtually all of the responses have been very similar to the ones made against advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement. People would agree with my solutions like the need for better training and oversight, but wouldn’t agree with the notion that when the police screwed up, they needed to be punished. I couldn’t understand where the disconnect was, until I realised that it was an underlying difference in how we trusted police and the justice system. Returning to the doctor analogy; To me – Police are corrupt and when they screw up, they need to be punished.
A recent Gallup Poll puts trust in police at about 52%. While that’s not abysmal – it means that half the population isn’t too trusting of the police. I fall into that latter half, even though I’m a law-abiding white PhD student. When I see a police officer, I become more frightened. If I’m driving and a police car pulls up behind me, I start worrying. If I’m outside and police officer walks by, their presence makes me uneasy.
Differences in trust cause differences in perception. When situations are ambiguous, people will selectively interpret what they see.
These intuitions come from a number of statistics and events that are highly accessible to me. Things like a 4.1% false conviction for capital punishment or that an estimated 10,000 people are falsely convicted every year. Events of police corruption and police misconduct become salient evidence in support of my intuitions. Criminal acts, even when on duty, are just another strike. Couple all of this with my disagreement with many drug laws, of which tens of thousands of people are incarcerated, costing people their lives and the state billions of dollars – one might be able to understand at least why these intuitions persist.
And that’s also why Black people are the most vocal about the police. The same Gallup poll, finds black people’s trust at 30%; and for good reasons. Although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black individuals are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes. Black people are also more likely to be convicted for the same crime and also more likely to serve harsher penalties. I’m a white PhD student and I am uneasy when I see a police officer. I can only imagine the fear and distrust that must surround black individuals.
Differences in trust cause differences in perception. When situations are ambiguous, people will selectively interpret what they see. Was the person acting dangerously? Did the police act negligently or were they justified in their actions? In many police shootings, especially those caught on tape, defenders of police argue that they were justified while opponents argue they were not. How can people watching the same video have such wildly different opinions?
These differences in perceptions not only become reality, they reinforce it. Police that are seen as almost always justified in their shootings just provide more evidence for how difficult and challenging a job they have, while police shootings that are seen as unjustified, breed more distrust and contempt. Try to have an honest conversation about a police shooting with someone who doesn’t share your level of trust and it feels like you are watching two different videos or talking about two different events. Virtually any video of a police shooting will simply serve to polarize the two sides of the debate.
One of the earliest truths uncovered in psychology is how instinctively we obey and submit to authority. But people only do so when that authority is trusted, legitimate, and respected. When the population is split on the legitimacy of police authority, it is no wonder that individuals disagree so vehemently on the actions of police.
These differences in perceptions not only become reality, they reinforce it. Police that are seen as almost always justified in their shootings just provide more evidence for how difficult and challenging a job they have, while police shootings that are seen as unjustified, breed more distrust and contempt
Race and racism obviously matter – insofar as they affect trust and perception. Individuals may explicitly condemn racism, but they likely still hold implicit biases. We know that even black people hold some implicit biases about their own race, and these implicit biases can lead to things like misjudging a cellphone for a gun or perceiving black people as more violent for the same actions. It’s no wonder why people might feel that the police were more justified in their response of a black person or why police are quicker to shoot in those cases.
A solution to this problem is not simple. Intuitions underlying the trust of police and the justice system are not going to be undone in a couple days or even a couple years. Police are public servants, sworn to uphold our laws. That position of power cannot be overstated. As cliché as it may sound, with great power comes great responsibility, and police need to be held to a higher standard. Any instances of unethical behavior, no matter how inconsequential, needs to be dealt with swiftly and harshly. On the other hand, people need to understand that the risk of danger that comes with the job leads police to be on red-alert. While being on red-alert cannot be a justifiable reason to shoot someone who doesn’t pose a threat, people need to understand that perception is reality and that failing to comply or moving quickly is likely to be perceived as one.
Trust in our justice system is fundamental to a healthy, stable, and safe society. Societies that lose faith in their justice system devolve. To paraphrase John Adams, when people lose faith in the justice system, they also begin to believe that it doesn’t matter how they behave, ‘for virtue itself is no security’
The Black Lives Matter movement is a signal that many people have begun to lose faith in the justice system – but it’s also an attempt to restore it. You may not agree with the rhetoric, the actions, or even that there is a problem related to race, but what can’t be denied is that the perception of injustice is strong and growing. Our justice system is not perfect. Innocent people are jailed and guilty people are free. Some laws are unjust and many immoral acts are not illegal. We can argue about identity politics and whether #AllLivesMatter, or we can come together, admit there are injustices, and work to improve the sense of trust in our police and justice system.
Author Note 1: This post isn’t really about Black Lives Matter and the title may be a bit of a red herring. Although the BLM movement motivated me to think about this issue – the focus of the post is about trust in the justice system. I added the word ‘just’ to the title to hopefully clarify this concern.
Author Note 2: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe. You can also email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org