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Mark Mellman: The crisis of police legitimacy

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As riots engulfed parts of Baltimore, and Americans everywhere were forced to confront police killings and other brutalities in minority communities, TV viewers and newspaper readers were exposed to a series of polls demonstrating the very different attitudes African-Americans and whites display toward our police. 

These statistics signal a crisis of legitimacy for our police in the African-American community. Of course, most officers do a wonderful job protecting us all, but that is, unfortunately, beside the point.

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Start with the core question: Why do people obey the law in the first place? 

Many assume it’s because they are afraid of the consequences. Punishment is a deterrent, which can stop or reduce crime because people fear they will get caught and suffer serious repercussions.

Yale Professor Tom Tyler, Hebrew University’s David Weisburd and many other criminologists argue that such an account is fatally flawed. 

A thought experiment begins to expose the defect: Will the drug kingpin, who could be shot on his corner any day without legal sanction, be deterred by the threat of prison if he gets caught? Not likely.

But Tyler, Weisburd and the others do not rely on my thought processes to reach their conclusions — they adduce evidence demonstrating that it’s not deterrence that leads most of us to obey the law most of the time. 

A review of studies by the National Research Council buttressed the point, concluding, “the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.”

Instead Tyler points to legitimacy, or the public’s feeling of obligation to voluntarily defer to the police, which adheres to the law itself and those tasked with enforcing it. 

Absent either legitimacy or severe repression, anarchy reigns. 

That legitimacy in turn derives from a perception of procedural justice — that is, the perception that authorities act fairly by letting those they encounter tell their side of the story, treating them with respect and making decisions in an honest and unbiased manner. 

Poll data demonstrate convincingly that much of the African-American community does not see that procedural justice, nor accord police legitimacy.

And that’s not only, or even mainly, a result of these horrific killings. Everyday interactions between police and minorities drain the reservoir of legitimacy.

A Gallup poll in 2013, for example, found nearly a quarter of black males ages 18 to 34 felt they had been treated unfairly by police in the previous 30 days!

That grievance is understandable. Minority communities have lots of interaction with police, much of it devoid of the procedural justice that creates legitimacy.

New York’s stop-and-frisk program resulted in 80 percent of African-American adolescents, ages 16 and 17, being stopped one or more times by police in 2006. Compare that to 10 percent for white youths. 

The vast majority of those stops yielded nothing but hostility toward police. Eighty-nine percent of these encounters did not produce an arrest, or even a citation. Ninety-eight percent fail to turn up guns or other contraband.

But these interactions do poison relations, violate norms of procedural fairness and reduce police legitimacy.

An IPSOS/Reuters poll earlier this year found just 28 percent of African-Americans trust police officers to be fair and just, while 68 percent believe police unfairly target minorities. 

Only 37 percent of African-Americans have confidence in the police.

A brand-new CBS/New York Times poll revealed 42 percent of African-Americans saying police in their community make them feel mostly anxious as opposed to mostly safe. Only 16 percent of whites found a local police presence anxiety-producing. 

Prosecuting police who unjustly use force is only part of the problem. According citizens a sense of procedural justice in day-to-day interactions is critical.

Without the legitimacy that fairness produces, it will be more difficult for police to do their jobs effectively, and we will see more Fergusons and Baltimores.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.