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The Vicious Cycle of Cops Behaving Badly

Are cops abusing power because more civilians hate them?
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New York police officers. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York police officers. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cops act badly. The public loses confidence in cops. Cops behave worse. The public's trust in cops drops to an all-time low. It's a dangerous, vicious cycle.

With the recent surge in media coverage of unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers, America's faith in police officers is plummeting. And it's not just the public that's losing faith: According to a new study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, this "crisis in police legitimacy" is not only detrimental to the general public, but also to the future of policing as a whole.

In social science circles, the level of trust placed in police officers by the public is known as "legitimacy." When police act respectfully, in the public's eye, their legitimacy goes up. When they act on brash, often racialized decision-making, their legitimacy goes down. Duke University economics professor Philip J. Cook, who penned an accompanying commentary to the study, refers to the National Research Council's analysis asserting that the public's loss of trust in police authority has a direct correlation to higher crime rates, downsized police budgets, and decreased cooperation with police.

The Department of Justice deems the stop-and-frisk approach "a demeaning and humiliating experience."

The growing number of arrests and shootings of black males by white cops only highlights these assertions. Study authors Tom R. Tyler, Phillip Atiba Goff, and Robert J. MacCoun point to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Police Sergeant James Crowley. The incident, in which Gates was initially believed to be breaking into what was in actuality his own home, yet was still arrested after showing Crowley his driver's license and Harvard ID, became a known example of racial bias decreasing police legitimacy. Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas even admit that the arrest deteriorated the "confidence and legitimacy of the police department by those with whom police have encountered."

There are thousands of non-isolated interactions with police that have been decreasing legitimacy. In particular, stop-and-frisks, an initiative implemented in cities throughout the United States, was cited in the study as a tactic that ultimately diminishes police legitimacy. In fact, the Department of Justice deems the stop-and-frisk approach "a demeaning and humiliating experience."

This goes to show that the more cops screw up, the less people feel compelled to obey them. In order to buck this trend, the authors urge police to "buy into a change from a 'warrior culture' to a 'guardian culture' and from a police 'force' to a police 'service' in their own definition of what gives them legitimacy, then officers, as well as the community, can gain."

But the onus for reform doesn’t fall squarely on cops' shoulders. The authors argue that legitimacy also requires efforts of the community. Getting involved in neighborhood watch, hosting meetings, and working with authorities to co-police their towns and cities can strengthen security and foster a stronger trust in cops—ultimately breaking the cycle of decreased legitimacy, and empowering police to do a better job.


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.