Trust in police has slipped

After recent scandals in New York and L.A., minorities say they are even warier of police.

Carlos Ortiz doesn't know what to think of the cops anymore.

"Do I trust them? No, I don't trust them," says the South Bronx teenager as if the question itself was ridiculous. "I just try not to run from them, 'cause they're shooting now."

To many, the depth of Carlos's distrust is indicative of a crumbling of the criminal-justice system in many urban areas - seen in the police's loss of credibility. From the shooting and brutality trials in New York to revelations of widespread corruption in Los Angeles, law-enforcement officials have been thrust into the spotlight as lawbreakers, undermining their legitimacy and the trust of the people they're supposed to serve, particularly in minority communities.

"The justice system requires trust to function," says Randall Kennedy of Harvard University Law School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "Race, Crime and the Law." "All sorts of bad things happen when the guardians of law and order lose their legitimacy."

Experts say many witnesses are now less willing to cooperate, and juries are more skeptical of police testimony, making it more difficult for prosecutors to win convictions. The steady erosion of trust also undercuts police effectiveness in fighting crime.

"Put aside all of the DNA labs and all of the great police theory. There's nothing more important to effective law enforcement than the cooperation of the community," says George Kendall, staff attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Criminal Justice Project. "I'm sure there are people today who are sitting by the phone who could help the police solve a crime, but who won't pick up the telephone for fear that they're not going to be treated fairly. That's an unhappy state of affairs."

The erosion of trust is probably most pronounced in places like South Central Los Angeles, where an officer now alleges police routinely planted evidence, lied, and roughed up and framed innocent suspects. In South Bronx, distrust of police is at an all-time high, more than a year after an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was killed. But it's also not new.

A survey done just prior to the shooting a year ago found that only 11 percent of Bronx residents thought police treated people fairly, and 16 percent said they felt confident in dealing with police. Only 8 percent believed police treat people with respect.

"They always feel like they're being treated like suspects, and when that happens, it creates tremendous cynicism," says Prof. Richard Fox of Union College in Schenectady, who conducted the study.

And while the distrust may be extreme in the South Bronx, it is reflected in minority communities nationwide. A study done by DecisionQuest, a trial consulting company, found that 44 percent of African-Americans were less likely to believe police as a result of the recent scandals. That's compared with 18 percent of whites.

The trend disturbs Craig Morris, a cheerful anger-management counselor in the Bronx. He says he knows there are good cops, and some helped him immensely when he was a teenager. But he's also accustomed to being stopped and harassed by police in the neighborhood. "It's like they're a gang, they stick together ... they cover each other's back when there's scandals and such," he says.

Many police experts blame the increasing tension between police and minority communities on a series of Supreme Court rulings that have given police wider authority to stop presumed suspects, combined with the aggressive, militaristic policing tactics favored in New York and Los Angeles.

Many of those tactics, including the controversial "stop and frisk" policies of the NYPD, came into being when crime and drug use were spiraling out of control. Then-police commissioner William Bratton says he specifically designed them to be interim strategies in 1994 and 1995 to "take back the streets." Once that was accomplished, the next step was to bring in more police on the precinct level to improve community outreach.

But Mr. Bratton says Mayor Rudolph Giuliani consistently thwarted efforts to reach out to leaders in minority communities because it clashed with his "get tough" agenda.

"So you've got strategies that were intended ... to be adjusted to a changing city. Instead, they've not only remained the same, but have been ramped up in terms of enforcement activity, particularly in minority neighborhoods," says Bratton.

While the factors that led to the more aggressive policing tactics are different in Los Angeles, James McNamara of the Hoover Institute says the end result is the same: Some officers have lost the vision of what a police officer's job should be.

"The role of police in a free society is not that of a soldier," says Mr. McNamara, whose coming book is titled "Gangsta Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs." "The soldier's job is to kill the enemy, a police officer's job is to protect and serve."

That confusion of roles has been exacerbated by the Supreme Court, according to several experts. In its efforts to aid police in the war on drugs, it has given them wide discretion in determining when to stop people, in some cases infringing on people's Fourth Amendment rights. "Once they're free from that requirement, the police tend to fall back on stereotypes linking race and crime, and that's what creates the double standard," says David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

But it also creates frustration for people like Keimone Williams, security guard and mother of two who lives in the Bronx. She knows that crime is down in her neighborhood and wants to give police credit for that. But she's also extremely wary of them.

"It's scary because these are people you're supposed to call in an emergency, or if someone's hurt, but you fear them," she says. "If you can't call these people, where do you go?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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