THE BLOG
11/20/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Getting Beyond Ferguson

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Recently, the United States Department of Justice announced a groundbreaking undertaking to take on, squarely and directly, one of the most damaging social problems facing the nation. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is designed to make real and rapid progress on the strained and often broken relationship between many communities -- especially, alienated communities of color -- and law enforcement. It is time, and past time. The National Initiative was not prompted by Ferguson and the seething anger and unrest that has followed on Michael Brown's killing -- as I write this, the governor of Missouri is standing up the National Guard in advance of whatever decision the grand jury may make -- but Ferguson has, in one of those rare national moments, given name and shape to a long-standing, deeply serious, and so far deeply resistant tear in the national fabric.

In the world of crime and violence, and in the American neighborhoods -- especially the poor black neighborhoods -- where crime and violence remain issues of serious, daily concern, there is seeming reason to celebrate. Crime is down: New York City is edging down toward western European levels of violence and is on track for fewer than 300 homicides this year, something nobody could have imagined in 1990, when the count neared 2300. Cities like New Orleans, Oakland, and Chicago -- long poster children for out-of-control violence -- are all moving in the right direction. The virulent urban drug markets that defined the crack epidemic are gone or in decline; new drug problems, like meth and resurgent heroin, are thankfully not bringing with them the same levels of violence and chaos. A new politics of crime may even be emerging, with voices on both right and left finding common ground on the propositions that the nation is locking too many people up -- America has five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners -- at far too much human and financial cost, and for far too little public safety return.

But the neighborhoods -- especially those same poor black neighborhoods -- are not celebrating. For much of the last decade, black male homicide victimization was going up, not down. As the nation's homicide rate comes down toward 4:100,000 each year, young black men in hard-hit neighborhoods are dying at over 500:100,000 annually. Those same neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the incarceration glut: nationally, a young black man who does not finish high school has a nearly 70 percent chance of going to prison. Many of them have also borne the brunt of increasingly intrusive policing, characterized by ever-higher levels of stop and frisk and other aggressive tactics. Whatever the intent of this policing, many in the neighborhoods experience it as hostile and deeply offensive. "I think the police don't like black people," one young black man told Rutgers ethnographer Rod Brunson. "You know like all the crooked cops always be in the ghettos, where all the black people at and they try to get as many black people off the street as they can." In many of these neighborhoods, there is a simmering anger that leads to "stop snitching," and a conviction -- deeply rooted America's vile history of slavery, the black codes, "separate but equal," and all the rest, and captured in Michelle Alexander's breakthrough bestseller The New Jim Crow -- that the current American criminal justice system represents a malicious, deliberate attack on African-Americans by a conspiratorial government. And there are, most awfully and most starkly, the unarmed young men shot by the police. It is difficult for those not immersed in these issues to realize the depth of the anger and alienation felt by many in these communities; one said to me not long ago, "Why should we work with the police when they kill us any time they want, and nothing ever happens?" As I make my way across these neighborhoods nationally, and work with their citizens and those who police them, there is one thing I hear in every single place: we could be Ferguson, today, this afternoon, tomorrow.

The usual explanation for all this is simple: racism. Most of our attempts to deal with it have presumed that to eradicate it we must eradicate racism. That hasn't gotten us very far. In fact, as new ways of thinking and acting have emerged, it begins to seem possible that branding the problem as racism is in some large part why we haven't gotten very far. While nobody with any sense would deny the reality of racism, it is increasingly clear that people and institutions can act in ways that look, smell, and taste like racism; play into narratives and understandings framed by racism; and produce results that might just as well have been produced by racism: all without actually being racist. And since that's true, there may be easier and more direct ways to get at that behavior and those outcomes. The DOJ National Initiative is designed to build on and expand three of the most well-grounded and promising of these new understandings.

Procedural justice is the idea that what matters most to people in their encounters with the criminal justice system and its agents is not simply whether they act legally but, in a nutshell, whether they act respectfully, and how those encounters feel on the receiving end. The officer who stops you and pats you down may have the legal grounding to do so: but if he swears at you while doing it, doesn't bother to explain that he's looking for the guns that are wreaking such havoc in the neighborhood, and plays into your conviction that "the police don't like black people," then you're going to leave more alienated than you arrived. High levels of procedural justice are linked with what scholars call "legitimacy" -- the perception in the eyes of the public that the authorities are acting fairly and with good intentions. As legitimacy goes up, compliance with the law goes up; as it goes down, compliance goes down, and crime goes up. In the most stressed neighborhoods, low levels of legitimacy are clearly linked to high levels of violence. We're used to saying that such neighborhoods are dangerous and that they don't trust the police, but it's increasingly clear that we should be saying that they're dangerous in part because they don't trust the police: people take care of problems themselves when they should be calling 911. And procedural justice can be taught: in police academies, in in-service workshops, to judges and prosecutors. Immediate behavioral changes, with real impact, can result. One Chicago Police Department course, developed with the support of Yale professors and National Initiative partners Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares, asks seasoned officers what already angry residents see when they look across the yellow tape at homicide scenes. "They see us laughing," the suddenly chastened officers say. That's what first responders -- police officers, firefighters, EMTs, ER docs -- do on the front lines; it's a way of dealing with the horror and trauma the job brings. But in the crucible that is police work in alienated neighborhoods, the message is clear: stop laughing.

Implicit bias is the psychological phenomenon that results from the mental shortcuts and associations life tattoos into all of our psyches. Spend a good part of your day dealing with angry young black men, go home and watch TV shows that feature angry young black men, and spend your working life with fellow officers who think all the young black men in the neighborhood are angry: and on the day that you face a young black man on the street and it's the terrible, irretrievable shoot/don't shoot moment, odds are you'll react differently than if you hadn't done those things. But implicit biases can be revealed through testing and simulations; once identified can be countered through education, training, and other simulations; and the unbalanced behavior they foster can be brought back into balance. UCLA professor and National Initiative principal Phillip Atiba Goff, through his Center for Policing Equity, has made a mission of bringing the idea and treatment of implicit bias into the mainstream of policing. He has lined up scores of police departments nationally that have embraced the idea that they are inevitably driven by implicit bias and are determined to figure out how to undo it. He's working both through training, as in shooting situations, and on policy: for example, that one protection against tragic mistakes is that whoever is most energized and thus vulnerable to bias-driven errors, such as the person leading a pursuit, should not be the person making any use-of-force decisions. And he's making fascinating -- and actionable -- discoveries, such as that a tendency toward bad shootings seems to be driven a lot less by racism than by a vulnerability to perceived threats to officers' manhood.

Finally, reconciliation is a recognition that however toxic today's relationships may be, and however vile and irrational the other side's behavior may seem, there is almost always some real kernel of reason and rationality behind it. Police may be inexpressibly offended when communities call them racist, but the fact is that for hundreds of years black Americans were policed under a legal system that was formally, frankly racist, and since then frequently haven't been treated all that well. Communities may be inexpressibly offended when police treat them as if they're complicit in crime and violence, but when "stop snitching" norms dominate and nobody will out the killer everybody knows, it's understandable that police should view that as tolerance rather than as anger and fear. It can be very powerful to foster a process in which each side can say to the other, we have made mistakes and we are part of what has gone wrong, but we reject that now and would like to go forward together. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is modeling it for his peers nationally. "I understand the historical divide between police and communities of color -- it's rooted in the history of this country," he says.

The most visible arm of government is a police force, and the institutionalized governmental programs that promoted racist policies that were enforced by police departments in this country are part of the African-American history in this country. And we have to recognize it because recognition is the first step towards finding a cure towards what is ailing us.

My work in community violence and drug market prevention has modeled this process on the neighborhood level, and has found a remarkable willingness on the part of both authorities and communities to face past facts, admit error, commit to working together in a different way going forward, and then make real progress. Figuring out how to take that work to scale -- across neighborhoods, across a city, across cities -- is the next challenge.

The DOJ's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is designed to catalyze exactly that kind of potentially transformative development. It will gather existing wisdom and interventions in procedural justice, implicit bias, and reconciliation; drive the development of new practice; focus applied work in five yet-to-be-named cities across the country; evaluate impact; and make the underlying ideas and interventions available publicly and to anybody who wants them. The focus will be on a range of constituencies that need and deserve better relationships with law enforcement, including Latino communities; victims of crime, including domestic violence and sexual assault; youth; and the LGBQTI community. The express hope is that these concepts can drive real, tangible progress. We believe they can. That is partly because of the power of these ideas, which we have seen play out in practice. But it is also because, in our work across the nation, we see readiness: on the part of both law enforcement and communities. Both sides know something has to change. Both are tired -- not just of crime and violence, but of being stuck in old, tired, fractious relationships. There is a will to do better, and now there may be a way.

David M. Kennedy is a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the director of the National Network for Safe Communities (www.nnscommunities.org). He will direct, in partnership with the Department of Justice and colleagues at UCLA, Yale, and the Urban Institute, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. His most recent book is Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. The views expressed here are his own.