The insidious effects of distrust

Recent years have demonstrated anew how difficult it can be to trust.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Judy Robinson pins on a button in memory of her son, Jamar (in photo on the wall), who was murdered in New Orleans last year.

When Judy Robinson goes to a Louisiana courthouse with a picture of her son pinned to her clothes, she will make the journey with a stubborn hope – that maybe, at last, someone will be able to explain why Jamar was killed.

So far, no one has been able to tell her much of anything. So she has waited, unclear about what the police know and upset by implications that her son – who had no criminal record – was somehow connected to a drug ring.

In truth, she has had no choice but to wait. Would justice come? Were police investigators committed to finding it? Would her son be remembered?

She had to trust.

Recent years have demonstrated anew how difficult that trust can be. Incidents of police violence have shown dramatically the gulf that exists between many police departments across the United States and the black communities they serve. But this week’s cover story tells that same familiar story in a different way.

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson looks at the crisis in cold cases. Fifty years ago, 9 in 10 murder cases led to a conviction. Today, that is down to 6 in 10, and the trend has hit communities of color particularly hard.

The reasons are an echo of the conflicting views we’ve heard in the conversation about police violence: 

• Police are behaving like occupiers in communities of color, versus police are scared because of higher rates of crime in communities of color.

• Police don’t make enough effort to integrate into communities of color, versus police don’t have the resources needed for deeper outreach.

• Police allow vigilante justice to go unchecked, versus police aren’t a cure-all for a community’s problems.

Some variant of these arguments – and many more – can swirl in a constant cycle of blame and counterblame. But they all speak to a clear and core problem: a mutual deficit of trust.

This trust deficit reinforces itself. A lack of trust in police can lead to more unchecked crime, according to a study by researchers at Harvard, Yale, and Oxford universities. 

And that unchecked crime can make police more fearful for their lives.  

In addition, this sense of mistrust is not staying localized. At a time when the internet is giving a voice to groups that have previously been marginalized, that discomfort is broadcast, increasingly bringing discomfort for all.

Now think about how we as a broader society view government or the media or banks – or any big institution, really. Pollsters say that we’re currently living in a trust crisis, with our views of most major institutions falling.

Ms. Robinson’s lack of trust is not her own, but a seed of something much bigger. Yet the best way to address that distrust, in many respects, is by engaging in any activity that rebuilds trust, small or large. Community policing programs and anti-gang efforts, for example, have shown that the downward cycle of mistrust can be reversed into cycles of positive reinforcement. The first step is in simply agreeing that usually the very worst thing we can do is let a lack of trust linger.

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