One of the only promising political developments as of late is the possibility of policing reform, in some way to change the incentives that the police face in order to reduce police brutality. I will say, however, that I worry that people aren’t thinking far enough in advance of what a desirable new institutional equilibrium looks like. What sort of enduring relationship do we want there to be between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect?
The relationship we want is mutual trust. We want to be able to trust police to enforce the law (or at least most laws, besides grossly unjust and absurd ones), and to otherwise abide by ordinary moral norms. And we want police to be able to trust most people so they don’t react in suspicious and harmful ways without cause. That’s absolutely key: we want both groups to be able to trust each other. High trust and trustworthiness is a kind of equilibrium, and everyone is more at ease and can focus more on positive projects and forms of life when trust is high.
The worry I have about the current discussion is that the cited goals don’t seem to be to restore trust but to destroy it and make it harder than ever to restore. Violent protests and continued policy brutality are leading to fewer police and police less willing to do their jobs. This means crime will increase because of police inaction, and police brutality may not be reduced as a result. What we want is more cops on the beat, not fewer, since police presence seems to have a clear negative effect on crime. But we also want the behavior of police to change to resemble that more like in Western Europe, with less militarization, fewer violent weapons, and less use of physical force. We want police to police well, and we should want to be able to trust them to police and police well.
The first step in any reform, then, is to ensure that the police are given the right incentives to be trustworthy, in particular by acting within the norms of ordinary moral behavior and the public’s moral expectations about permissible police use of force. Ending qualified immunity could be a step in this direction because the penalties for acting outside of the moral norm would increase. The second step is to reform policing so that police are taught to be more trusting, and less suspicion and desiring to dominate others. With a large public reform in this direction, coupled with benefits for police who are more trusting and trustworthy would be a big step in the right direction. But policy that is punitive, that leads the police to feel despised and untrusted, and so with little incentive to reform, is likely to produce worse policy outcomes.
Part of trust is believing that trustees are acting for moral reasons, so we do not want reforms merely aimed at beating cops down and appealing solely to their self-interest. We should also aim at policy that encourages police to act on their conscience, rather than penalizing them for doing so. If we think police are only behaving out of fear, then they will misbehave when they think they can get away with it. But incentives for acting morally can generate more stable behavior because the desired behavior comes from within.
It turns out that trust in the legal system is closely correlated with social trust, though we don’t know why just yet. My sense is that police are often seen as exemplary community members, and so when trust in police falls, trust in most people can fall, at least among younger people who are still deciding how trusting to be. We very much don’t want this to happen, since social trust has enormous benefits. So another reason to support police reform is the potentially positive effect on social trust.
So, when formulating police policy, please keep the end goal in mind: we want to trust police to enforce the law morally. Our goal should not be to punish the police or destroy them, but to reorient their incentives, discourage bad behavior, and encourage good, trustworthy behavior. As trustworthiness rises, trust can rise as well, creating a mutually reinforcing cycle. The present attitudes towards the police, however, seem destined to reduce trust in the police and reduce police presence, which will hurt everyone. We need policing reform, but it must be guided by the goal of building community trust.