Where do police officers and reform activists find common ground?

The disconnect between police and the public on racial issues is well documented. But a new report reveals surprising areas of agreement between many members of law enforcement and police-reform advocates.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/File
A woman holds a balloon toward a police officer during a Black Lives Matters protest outside City Hall in Manhattan, New York, on Aug. 1, 2016.

When it comes to accusations of racially-biased policing, most officers and citizens don't see eye to eye, a new report from the Pew Research Center has confirmed. 

But strip away race from the equation, and there may be more common ground between police and police reform advocates than one would assume. 

The Pew poll published Wednesday – the first nationally representative survey of how American police view the debate over officers' treatment of black Americans since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014 – found that, much like the Black Lives Matter activists who have taken to the streets to push for reform, the majority of officers support the use of body cameras, would like to relax marijuana laws, and say that police training could be better. These areas of common ground, while not surprising to those who study policing, are often lost in the narrative of law enforcement vs. the public, criminal justice experts say. 

"Sometimes, kind of like in politics when Republicans and Democrats seem to have very little in common, an artificial dichotomy is created between the police and the public which makes it appear that they are farther apart on these important social issues than they really are," says Robert Kane, a Drexel University criminologist and coauthor of "Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department," in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. 

Points of agreement between police and their critics are often overshadowed by more divisive areas of disagreement, such as the motivations of the Black Lives Matter movement or whether police shootings of black Americans are isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern, Professor Kane and other experts say. But they can serve as a valuable entry point for necessary and oftentimes difficult conversations between the two camps. 

"There are areas of very strong emotion where there has been tremendous discord and where there has been, in some cases, violence, so of course they're going to take center stage," Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University criminologist who served as co-chair of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, tells the Monitor. "But when you can establish a dialogue and people begin talking through some of the more pragmatic or practical issues, after tempers calm down a little, then there’s an opportunity to see that there may be more common ground." 

"This research," she adds, "shows that there is definitely a path forward for greater cooperation and even reconciliation." 

Despite recent headlines highlighting resistance to body cameras in various police departments, the majority of officers (66 percent) support the use of body cameras to record interactions with citizens, Pew reports. Criminal justice reform activists say body cameras increase transparency and hold officers accountable for their actions. Police say the widespread use of cameras combats negative stereotypes of police, protects officers from being falsely accused of misconduct, and improves community relations.  

"We are part of the community, they are part of us, and we have to show them that the bad things that come out on YouTube from cellphone video are outliers," said Tim Doubt, assistant police chief in Salt Lake City, Utah, to the Daily Signal. "In this country we’ve lost trust in the last couple of years with the public, and that body camera helps tell more of the truth." 

In a similar way, says Baltimore narcotics veteran Neil Franklin, many officers see relaxing marijuana laws as a step toward eliminating the "hostile environment" that strict drug laws create between police and communities of color. About two-thirds (68 percent) of police support relaxing marijuana laws, and 1-in-3 would like to legalize marijuana for both recreational and medical use, according to the Pew survey.

Legalizing marijuana, Mr. Franklin told Rolling Stone, could lead to "hundreds of thousands of fewer negative police and citizen contacts across this country. That's a hell of an opportunity for law enforcement to rebuild some bridges in our communities – mainly our poor, black and Latino communities." 

Establishing a dialogue over shared views on issues like body cameras or marijuana reform may be a first step toward reducing animosity and polarization. But, policing experts say, truly healing the divide between the police and the public will require the conversation to expand beyond areas of agreement and into points of disagreement – including more divisive issues such as race and police brutality. 

"Reconciliation and cooperation certainly isn’t impossible; there are a number of examples of positive and sustained police-community relations. But it’s difficult...because it requires both 'sides' to listen to and acknowledge some pretty harsh criticisms," Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and current assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, tells the Monitor in an email. "What is helpful is when both sides listen to each other and respect the other’s critical perspective, even when they don’t agree with it." 

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