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Police violence is mostly rooted in fear. Ignoring that makes reform harder.

When officers doubt whether their superiors will back them in the face of threats to their safety, police all too often stop working as effectively.
Image: police riot gear march line
Police officers walk in line during a demonstration in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 31, 2020.Agustin Paullier / AFP - Getty Images

Public outrage in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd is understandable and well justified. The widespread disgust at the disturbing image of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd struggled to breathe has rightly led to calls for reform to decrease officers' unnecessary use of force.

But for reform to result in both transparent and effective policing, we need to acknowledge the very real challenges and risks police officers can face. These factors aren't always at play — there's no indication from video that Chauvin was in even the slightest danger — but they often are.

The increases in crime in the wake of de-policing hit the residents of disadvantaged, high-crime communities hardest.

Indeed, fear is at the root of most police violence. And when officers come to doubt whether their superiors will back them in the face of threats to their safety, police all too often respond to public pressure by retreating from the streetscape. Officers figure that if they don't get out of their cars, they can't get in trouble. Scholars label this phenomenon "de-policing."

De-policing is so problematic because the use of excessive force isn't the only problem confronting all too many underprivileged communities of color. These communities are often overpoliced, as when officers employ unnecessary force, but they are also often underpoliced, as when police prove ineffective in halting the gang- and drug-related crime that can plague such neighborhoods.

When police are sent into hot spots of violent crime, for instance, fear for their own safety is likely to be a factor. The available data, for example, indicate that the rate of violent crime is an important determinant of the rate of police shootings. And beyond this, police shootings are also usually a response to a particularized threat. The available data also indicate that in the majority of officer-involved shootings, the officer claimed that he or she was being assaulted, and a weapon was recovered from the victim.

To be sure, racism plays an important role in exacerbating officers' perceptions that they are under threat when confronting suspects of color. There is, for example, research suggesting that proxies for a perception of racial threat, such as local Black-on-white homicide rates or nearby shootings of officers by Black suspects, increase rates of police homicides. Thus, police fear is all too often tinged by racism. Eliminating this stain on policing is a worthy goal but much easier said than done. There is not much evidence, for example, that anti-bias training of police reduces rates of police violence.

We shouldn't be surprised that officers in the heat of the moment will err on the side of doing too much rather than too little. "Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six" is an old police saying.

It is easy to see how de-policing can lead to crime spikes. The tactic that is most effective in driving down rates of violent crime is aggressive patrol, targeting statistical hot spots of crime. A number of studies have found that crime increased after widely publicized incidents, such as in Chicago and Baltimore, that led police to fear that their conduct would be more skeptically scrutinized, and so they decreased stops of suspects.

The increases in crime in the wake of de-policing hit the residents of disadvantaged, high-crime communities hardest. The study of the Chicago homicide spike concluded that if the police hadn't decreased their activity, about 245 lives would have been saved in 2016. Of those lives saved, about 191 would have been African American, and 39 would have been Hispanic.

De-policing is a natural if unintended consequence of increased scrutiny of police. Indeed, it isn't that difficult to persuade officers not to work so hard. Officers' salaries and promotions, for example, are'not linked to crime rates. A wise officer once told me: "The worst thing that ever happened to us was when we got air conditioning in the squad cars."

There are other obstacles to reducing bad police behavior while promoting effective neighborhood policing. Chief among them is the code of silence. Officers learn that they should never testify against one another. I spent some 15 years in a senior position in Chicago government, and never once did I see a case of a police officer testifying that another had engaged in misconduct.

The code of police silence means it is often difficult to determine what happened when force was used, let alone what, if anything, went wrong and how it could have been prevented. And other solid sources of information are often lacking. Those who make allegations of excessive force often have criminal records and suspect credibility. Officers' body cameras and bystander cellphone videos can be ambiguous.

What, then, to do? For years, I have advocated a simple reform, though it rubs both right and left the wrong way: Police departments should focus on requiring transparent reporting of any use of force by aggressively punishing lies and cover-ups, and laws and union contracts should be changed to do so. There may be an excuse for overreacting to a threat in a split second, but there is no excuse for lying about what happened later.

Of course, when officers break the law, prosecutors may charge them criminally, and victims may bring civil suits against officers seeking damages, but to minimize the threat of de-policing, police departments should make it clear that they understand that officers may make mistakes in the heat of the moment. Police departments should make it clear that — though cops might be suspended for a time or ordered to receive remedial training or supervision — they won't be fired. But after the fact, they must be required to file reports in all cases involving the use of force. Any false statement or critical (what lawyers call "material") omissions of fact, whether about their own conduct or that of someone else, will result in termination.

There may be an excuse for overreacting to a threat in a split second, but there is no excuse for lying about what happened later.

Officers now think the code of silence protects them all, but under this proposal, it would imperil them. If anything in an officer's report conflicts with images later found on a body camera or a cellphone, for instance, his or her career would be over. Beyond that, once officers know they must tell the truth (or risk their careers), they will be more likely to exercise greater restraint and conform to the law and applicable use-of-force policies.

The point here isn't to keep rogue police from being held accountable but to change the culture within the force itself so that the biggest internal barriers to good policing — the code of silence and the tendency to decline to patrol with diligence — are overcome. Accordingly, we need a policy that offers a measure of forgiveness for mistakes but is unforgiving of lies. The status quo, in which many departments claim to have zero tolerance for excessive force but find themselves unable to enforce that policy, has to change.