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Who's Policing the Police?

One solution to improve officers' relationships with their communities: holding the bad cops accountable.
New York Police Department officers. (DiddyOh/Flickr)

New York Police Department officers. (DiddyOh/Flickr)

FBI Director James Comey gave a shockingly honest speech at Georgetown University today about the tenuous relationship between race and law enforcement. Most significantly, Comey owned up to the fact that race can and does influence police officers’ perceptions of civilians. The New York Times reports:

[Comey] said that officers—whether they are white or any other race—who are confronted with white men on one side of the street and black men on the other do not view them the same way. The officers develop a mental shortcut that “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights” because of the number of black suspects they have arrested. ... "We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” Mr. Comey said in the speech, at Georgetown University.

Comey didn’t just admit to the problem; he offered solutions, many centered on developing protocols that compensate for innate biases. Community engagement—encouraging officers to familiarize themselves with their patrol area—is one recommendation. The idea there is that, as Comey explained, “it’s hard to hate up close.”

But fostering positive interactions between police and other community members may not be enough to counter the current wave of anti-police sentiment in the United States that has been surging in the aftermath of several highly publicized law enforcement scandals. A 2004 report from the Department of Justice found that, in order to change public opinion, it's more important to prevent negative confrontations between police and the public than to increase the number of positive encounters. Essentially, police departments might be wise to focus on hiring people that are both capable and likable, and weeding out those that don’t fit the bill.

Since the majority of complaints by the public can be traced back to relatively few individual officers, weeding out those bad apples early on could significantly reduce the number of negative encounters between police officers and the general public. The report recommends early warning systems that take in police performance data and spit out officers that show patterns of bad behavior—the same systems that many departments currently use to spot crime trends.