It wasn’t enough.
Minneapolis was one of six participant cities in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a demonstration project that was perhaps the most robust federal effort ever attempted to address the deep mistrust in police among many communities, particularly communities of color, and most particularly, in African American communities.
This mistrust has deep historical roots in the role that police forces had in patrolling enslaved people, abetting lynching, and enforcing Jim Crow laws. Current dynamics have perpetuated these historical roles, including higher rates of stops and arrests in predominately African American neighborhoods, disproportionate imposition of fees and fines, greater use of force against African Americans, and mass incarceration.
The National Initiative work began as the US Department of Justice was revealing the abusive police practices that led to uprisings in Ferguson. And as the work unfolded, we got similar insight (PDF) into abuses in Baltimore (PDF) and Chicago (PDF).
I was impressed by the participating police departments’ commitment to face up to these realities and the work they put in to change police culture, practice, policy, and their approach to engaging the community. We had promising, albeit preliminary, findings regarding community perceptions of law enforcement.
Yet George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, and that city and cities across the country are on fire. I am trying to reckon with the meaning of the failure of that trust-building work to keep it from happening.
The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) put in a lot of work implementing the components of the National Initiative intervention package. Every MPD officer took 24 hours of procedural justice and implicit bias training, and MPD made multiple policy changes to enhance community trust, including several specific to use of force. As far as we could determine in our implementation assessment, the MPD did so with fidelity and commitment.
The work in Minneapolis wasn’t perfect or without challenges, but if something as comprehensive as the National Initiative has to be implemented perfectly and without challenges, it doesn’t have much practical value. We can’t say the National Initiative was insufficient in Minneapolis because they didn’t do the work. They did the work.
I return to where we started our evaluation work on the National Initiative: asking hundreds of community residents in heavily policed neighborhoods across the six cities how they viewed police and about their level of trust in and experiences with them. This gave us rich information about the contours of the problems the National Initiative was designed to address.
Residents expressed deep levels of distrust in the police across a variety of areas, but two stood out because the lack of confidence was pronounced and because they seem important to highlight in this moment.
The National Initiative was built around three conceptual pillars: procedural justice, implicit bias, and reconciliation. It needed a fourth: accountability. Less than a quarter (24.4 percent) of survey respondents agreed “the police department holds officers accountable for wrong or inappropriate conduct in the community.”
People in heavily policed communities don’t believe police are held accountable for wrongful conduct. They don’t believe it happens when police take lives, and they don’t believe it happens for potential precursors to fatal misconduct, like improper use of force. Accountability-focused policies, such as those in a framework advanced by Campaign Zero, include civilian oversight, independent investigations, and police union contracts that don’t shield officers from consequences of misconduct. Changes like these can do more to surface and correct misconduct before we’re at the point of relying on prosecutors to bring homicide charges.
Our surveys also found a profound sense that police priorities do not align with community priorities. Just 28 percent agreed the police department was responsive to community concerns and that police prioritize problems most important to their community.
A limitation of our survey was in asking respondents about the police department’s priorities. There’s a version of the same question, and probably a more important one, for government in general. Do the investments made in communities by local, state, and federal governments in the name of safety and well-being align with what communities value?
There are models for government investments in safety infrastructure that don’t involve police, like NeighborhoodStat in New York, and hospital-based violence interruption partnerships in cities across the country. As the COVID-19 fiscal crisis looms, preserving and expanding investment in this type of work can respond to community concerns that we’re buying too much policing and not enough noncoercive means of providing safety.
The National Initiative sought to combine a clear-eyed understanding of the racialized harms of policing with optimism about what policing could be. Much was done under that banner, and it so clearly wasn’t enough.
At the Urban Institute, we always seek to conclude with clear policy recommendations, but my confidence in my recommendations about policing as of two weeks ago was higher than it should have been, so I’ll hold steady on that for now.
The combination of tragedy and mass uprising may be expanding what’s possible, and there are many proposals out there, from ones that focus specifically on policing’s policy structure to the more broadly transformative. But we do know police need to be accountable when they harm people, and how much policing is used and for what needs to be aligned with community priorities.
Until the answers to that pass muster in African American and other communities who experience the most harm from police, they will never be enough.