Why do people refuse to cooperate with the police, and what can be done about it?
George Floyd's untimely death last summer sparked fervent calls for police accountability and reform. Floyd’s murder cast renewed light on the fact that many Black and Latinx people have lost confidence in police. Their public demand for lasting police reform is nothing new. In fact, social justice advocates have previously called attention to gratuitous police violence in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1990s following the videotaped beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles Police Department officers, and more recently in 2014, following the officer-involved killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
Calls for comprehensive police reform stem from more than the dubious use of deadly force against Black and Latinx bodies. Many residents are concerned about the day-to-day racialized policing of low-level offenders as well as unsolved neighborhood murders and shootings. Waning citizen confidence in the police is evinced, in part, by abysmally low arrest rates for perpetrators of gun violence. Nationwide, clearance rates have declined over the past five decades, from 90 percent in 1960 to around 45.5 percent in 2019.
Waning citizen confidence in the police is evinced by abysmally low arrest rates for perpetrators of gun violence.
The lead author recently conducted a study of New York City residents’ (from Brooklyn and the Bronx) lived experiences, people who were at considerable risk for becoming victims and perpetrators of gun violence. The purpose of the research was to obtain nuanced renderings of high-risk individuals’ reasons for refusing to cooperate with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during shooting investigations. Nearly half (48 percent) of study participants reported having friends or family members who were shooting victims, with an average of 9.3 casualties. Moreover, 74 percent of respondents revealed having been victims of firearm violence themselves. Interestingly, due to deeply rooted legal cynicism, the vast majority (92 percent) of individuals participating in the study revealed that they would not call the police if they or a loved one were ever threatened with gun violence. For instance, Curtis’ accumulated, negative police encounters led to his profound mistrust of officers. He noted, “police [have] threatened me with guns more than anyone else has ever so I’m not comfortable with police at all.” Similarly, Bryee stated, [the police] be scheming on [people] in the park trying to smoke a blunt but [a dude] down the block got shot and where was [the police]?” And Maurice expressed considerable frustration about what he considered NYPD’s failure to prioritize addressing youth violence in his neighborhood. He explained, “that’s what I don’t understand about cops, [they] don’t do enough to protect the kids out here, kids [are] still getting shot, people still getting killed . . . what [do officers] want these people to do in these neighborhoods? . . . just to sit back and watch while their kids die?”
Study findings highlight residents’ dissatisfaction with NYPD’s history of aggressive policing tactics, seemingly focused on enforcing low-level drug offenses rather than delivering sorely needed justice to crime victims. For instance, several of our high-risk individuals as well as members of their kinship and friendship networks mentioned mistrust of police, resulting from over- and under-policing, as compelling reasons for not cooperating with police. Respondents’ dissatisfaction with repeated poor police performance, especially when it came to holding violent offenders accountable, helped to shape their decisions to favor self-help strategies over cooperating with police, arming themselves for protection and to obtain their own brand of street vengeance. In fact, irrespective of New York City’s strict gun laws, several participants expressed being less concerned about being caught with guns by officers and more troubled by the thought of being caught without them by rivals. “I’d rather be caught with it than without it,” was the resounding refrain of high-risk individuals we interviewed.
Marlon, a 23-year-old prior shooting victim from the Bronx stated, “[carrying a gun is for safety] . . . Because once you got a person that is coming for you for whatever reason, you got to protect yourself. You not just going to let anybody walk up on you and shoot you up because you scared to hold a gun or you don’t want to go to jail . . . Well, I don’t want to die.” Jay, who had been shot twice before celebrating his 18th birthday, shared Marlon’s dire concern. In particular, Jay justified his planned for reducing his chances of being shot a third time. He explained, “I carry [guns] to school, I carry to my girl’s crib, my mom’s crib, I [know] where [my enemies] live and who’s . . . the gang [spies], I know that they be over there . . . I [have to] carry it in bad places.” In agreement with Marlon and Jay, Chris, who had recently recovered from being shot, elaborated regarding why his safety concerns outweighed the risk of criminal penalties for illegally carrying: “I was just thinking about my safety . . . I don’t want to say that I was clueless to the consequences, I just didn’t care about them . . . because . . . once you get shot, the only thing you care about is [not] getting shot again, because it really, really hurt[s] so I’m just like, I don’t want this to happen again.” As demonstrated, a shocking number of our study participants (90 percent) claimed that the imminent threat of gun violence greatly impacted their decisions to illegally carry. The research team also learned that third parties comprised of clergy, community leaders, former gang members and ex-offenders sometimes intervened to squash simmering “beefs” among rivals, successfully convincing members of recent shooting victims’ tightly knit social networks not to retaliate.
While police departments have a crucial role to play in reducing gun violence, a steady stream of research shows that officers represent only one piece of viable public safety strategies.
As highlighted above, in an effort to make distressed neighborhoods where high-risk individuals live objectively safer, city administrators should devote additional resources to detective divisions charged with investigating homicides and nonfatal shootings. Such an approach wisely recognizes that nonfatal shootings represent the overwhelming majority of gun violence incidents, reliably setting the stage for countless acts of retaliatory violence. While police departments have a crucial role to play in reducing gun violence, a steady stream of research shows that officers represent only one piece of viable public safety strategies. That is, targeted investments in employment, education, housing, environmental changes and healthcare have all been linked to substantial crime reduction. In Philadelphia, for example, a local nonprofit transformed abandoned lots into vibrant green spaces. Researchers noted a citywide decrease in gun assaults and overall crime within a mile of plots. Furthermore, citizens reported a 58 percent increase in perceptions of safety. A different study, examining the effects of summer jobs on youth violence, found that employed young people were less likely to be involved in violent crime. And a study examining access to health sources found that residents’ negative safety perceptions were associated with less frequent visits to grocery stores and fitness centers.
If governments are genuinely committed to creating and fostering durable communities, they must make considerable financial investments in the very people living there, and the citizens most disaffected by over- and under-policing should have authentic input in the budgetary process. Although elected officials often solicit public feedback using town halls, surveys and other methods, many residents of marginalized neighborhoods have abandoned the notion that mainstream institutions genuinely care about hearing their ideas, gradually shying away from government-sponsored initiatives that, in their eyes, have little chance of making meaningful differences. The failure of city administrators to accurately capture community sentiment creates a mismatch in policy and funding priorities, potentially fueling rising public mistrust of local officials, including police executives.
City leaders must commit resources to long-term community engagement that is not narrowly focused on policing—the default position that has repeatedly failed to deliver equitable justice or engender citizen trust. Elevating residents’ voices and safety concerns through collaborative work with a wide range of city offices has the potential to improve government accountability and inspire bolster public confidence.
This type of meaningful community engagement has already started to happen in a few places. In 2016, the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice launched NeighborhoodStat, enlisting a broad coalition of residents, reflective of the local community in age and racial composition, from 15 public housing developments across the city’s five boroughs. The goal was to connect tenants and city agency leaders to identify and address enduring crime and disorder problems. Each community group selected a project for implementation. While some teams invested in mentorship and youth employment programs, others used their allotted monies to improve nearby parks, playgrounds and other aspects of their physical environment. Monthly meetings were attended by housing authority staff, agency heads and grassroots community organizers to discuss whether all parties were honoring their commitments. Recurring meetings also afforded residents opportunities to provide project updates and learn about other ongoing public safety efforts. Since the implementation of NeighborhoodStat, the average rate of felonies declined by 7.5 percent in target areas compared to 3.8 percent in nonparticipating housing developments.
In 2017, the Colorado state legislature introduced Transforming Safety, a three-year pilot in Aurora and Colorado Springs, two cities disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. In each city, a planning team comprised of citizens, city agencies and a third-party foundation helped administer community grants in the hopes of reducing crime. Funding priorities included workforce development, education and social services for returning citizens. In previous years, Colorado's recidivism rate was the fourth-highest in the United States. The most recent report, however, shows that 86 percent of program participants had not returned to prison. The Colorado legislature recently enacted a bill extending the Transforming Safety initiative for another three years, expanding it to two more cities in the hope of eventual statewide participation.
The initiatives in New York City and Colorado demonstrate what can happen when local governments involve community members in important decision-making processes. These kinds of unconventional public safety efforts do not take away from police effectiveness. Indeed, they add to it. By investing in community needs such as housing, education, workforce development and physical environments, we lessen our overreliance on the criminal justice system. We also empower citizens and increase their trust in government. This is the true meaning of public safety. ◘