This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has sparked uprisings across the country. People have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and racism in policing. These protests have been predominantly peaceful, but occasionally involved some destruction of property. While responding to these incidents, law enforcement officers have committed acts of violence that shock the conscience. It is telling that, when people protest police brutality, the police respond with more brutality. During this movement, many entities have publicly denounced racism in policing as a fundamental problem with society.
Another recent racially charged event, also captured on video, can help us understand the current moment. In this video, Amy Cooper, a white woman, becomes upset when Christian Cooper (unrelated), a Black man, asks her to leash her dog while in New York City’s Central Park. She approaches him, despite his repeated requests for her not to do so, and asks him to stop filming her. When he does not, she says that she is going to call the cops “and tell them that there is an African American man threatening my life.” She proceeds to make that call and her voice becomes more emotional as she repeats that an “African American man” is threatening her. Once she finally leashes her flailing dog, Mr. Cooper thanks her and walks away.
People and organizations quickly denounced Ms. Cooper’s actions, including her employer, Franklin Templeton, which fired her. Some said Ms. Cooper’s actions were tantamount to attempted murder. Columbia Law Professor and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum Kimberlé Crenshaw tweeted, “Let’s not kid ourselves: This woman believed that if she called the cops and said a Black man was threatening her, they’d kill him. She knew exactly what she was doing.”
These claims reflect the belief that, if police respond to a call in which a white woman claims that a Black man is threatening her, they will cause harm to him. There is good reason behind this belief, given the high-profile police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott. Police shoot Black men at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. According to the Washington Post, in 2019 alone, the police shot and killed at least 235 Black people. These numbers show why for some, calling the police on a Black man is tantamount to attempted murder.
In addition to the loss of life, these incidents also harm police legitimacy. Residents of high-crime, heavily disadvantaged communities tend to have dim views on the value of the police. Due to their frequent, negative interactions with law enforcement, residents distrust the criminal legal system and express an unwillingness to cooperate with police. This makes sense: If a community is regularly the victim of police misconduct, why would it welcome police involvement in their lives?
Academically, this view is called legal cynicism. Researchers consistently find that African Americans and Latinx have significantly greater numbers of negative interactions with the police than white people and, therefore, trust them far less.
This lack of trust has consequences. If the public does not trust the police, then they are less likely to turn to them for help, even when they may need it. A study published in 2016 demonstrated that, after high-profile incidents of police misconduct, citizens are less likely to call the police. The same study showed that, after the police beat Frank Jude in 2004, 911 calls decreased while murders increased. Some have argued that these results show that people may have been taking justice into their own hands instead of asking the police for help.
Another study found that, in neighborhoods where legal cynicism is high, crimes are less likely to lead to arrest than in neighborhoods that view the police favorably. Residents of these neighborhoods view the police as “illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill-equipped to ensure public safety.” With such a view of police, it’s understandable that they would avoid reporting crimes.
This connects to Ms. Cooper’s problematic call to the police. Most likely, she came from a neighborhood that viewed the police as legitimate. She may have even called the police before to help her address a real threat. That is good—when people are truly in dangerous situations, they should feel free to call the police. That is what the police are for.
However, the police have destroyed their legitimacy in nonwhite communities through their highly publicized killings of Black people. Those communities feel violated and don’t want police to get involved in their disputes.
When people perceive Ms. Cooper’s call as an attempted murder, they are really stating a lack of faith in police. They believe that the police might have harmed Mr. Cooper upon arrival, just as they did Floyd in Minneapolis, and that Ms. Cooper wanted that to happen. Such a belief deters people who are actually in danger from calling the police. Without police intervention in those truly dangerous situations, more people may be hurt or killed.
We do not want people like Ms. Cooper to call the police over nothing, but we want people to feel safe calling the police over legitimate problems. The police should be trusted enough that nobody could legitimately claim that calling them is attempted murder. Police must act in ways that garner that trust from those communities instead of further destabilizing them like they did in Minneapolis.
If police forces wish to have a positive effect in poor and nonwhite communities, then they need to earn respect from and camaraderie with those communities. Continuing to kill unarmed Black men will only spawn more divisiveness and legal cynicism, as will using excessive force toward people exercising their legal right to protest.
Some evidence shows that the community and the police are taking this issue to heart. Unlike in many other cases of police brutality, the officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death were quickly terminated and arrested. Several chiefs of police voiced opposition to the officers’ killing of Mr. Floyd. They seem to be internalizing the lesson that police brutality hurts their legitimacy. Hopefully, these events mark the beginning of a new era where police forces actively protect their public image and improve their perceived legitimacy. If they do, then maybe more people will feel safe calling them.
Ellison Berryhill is an assistant public defender in Tennessee.