Demonizing Police Costs Black Lives | Opinion

There is social value in widespread public condemnation of police misconduct like the killing of George Floyd. But converting that condemnation into demonizing police generally, as we are now witnessing, is destined only to cost Black lives.

According to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), cops are "the sworn enemy of Black people." Black Lives Matters' (BLM) Patrisse Cullors puts it this way: "It's not possible for the entity of law enforcement to be a compassionate, caring governmental agency in Black communities." Even Olivia Benson of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, who seems the model progressive crimefighter, needs to be hated. "No matter how much you love Olivia Benson," says Rolling Stone, "you have to be willing to grapple with the fact that she plays a major role in perpetuating the idea that cops are inherently trustworthy and heroic. ...If cops are canceled, that means all cops are canceled." And it is these demonizations of cops that help drive the "defund police" and "abolish police" movements.

Widespread public outrage over blatant police misconduct can be highly useful in bringing about needed change. When the outrage is widely shared and expressed, individual police officers can't help but take note: If all these other people, many of whom I respect share this view, then they must be right. I think I must agree with them. Thus, the tragic death of George Floyd provides a valuable teaching moment. The breadth of the condemnation sends an important signal.

But converting the case into one that demonizes police generally destroys this precious opportunity. First, it trivializes the offense, by making it seem like the real crime is wearing blue—not the knee on the neck. When converted into an unfair and irrational rant, the public outrage is easily ignored and discredited. And the police response is more likely to be alienation than education. Further, the next time they are in a position to intervene to protect a citizen, police officers may be less willing to risk themselves physically or professionally. Once police reluctance to engage becomes known, it risks encouraging crime.

But the more dramatic criminogenic effect of demonizing police comes from a different dynamic: Social science studies have increasingly shown that people's willingness to obey the law is a product of the criminal justice system's general reputation. Does it have a good reputation for giving offenders the punishment they deserve—no more, no less? That is, does it have "moral credibility" within the community. Does it have a good reputation for fairness in adjudication processes and professionalism in policing?

Studies have shown that the greater the criminal justice system's moral credibility and legitimacy, the more people are inclined to comply with its demands, to acquiesce in its actions and to internalize its norms. The more people demonize the police, the worse the system's credibility and legitimacy—and the less people will be inclined to comply with and internalize its norms.

NYPD officers in Times Square
NYPD officers in Times Square, New York City Noam Galai/Getty Images) by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Tragically, the resulting increase in crime will not affect everyone equally. It has long been the case that Blacks are homicide victims at a dramatically higher rate than whites. FBI homicide data shows more than 20 Black victims per 100,000, as compared to under three white victims. Thus, because Black lives do matter, organizations like BLM ought to be opposed to demonizing police. And, because homicides are overwhelmingly intraracial, BLM should be most particularly concerned about demonizing police among Blacks. Unfortunately, they have chosen instead to lead the demonization movement.

The link between the system's reputation and people's deference to it holds an equally important lesson for police. Every interaction between police and a citizen is an opportunity to either improve or damage the system's reputation. The beat cop may think that disrespecting a subject during a stop is essentially cost-free, but the truth is it will have an incremental long-term cost to the system's crime control effectiveness. If police are serious about effective crime control, they will see professionalism in citizen interactions as one of their most important crime-fighting skills.

Giving importance to community relations does not necessarily mean being political, like police officials taking a knee during a BLM demonstration. Rather, the goal should be an apolitical, absolute devotion to professionalism—fairness, humanity and respect—in every instance of dealing with every citizen.

We need to change police norms in dealings with citizens. An instance of blatant police misconduct like the killing of George Floyd provides a precious opportunity to trigger universal outrage that can help shape those norms for officers. But demonizing all police instead only provokes divisiveness and controversy, destroying the clear and resounding public condemnation that effective change requires.

Paul H Robinson is the Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Shadow Vigilantes: How Distrust in the Justice System Breeds a New Kind of Lawlessness.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.