Good cops, bad cops, and the so-called YouTube effect

By Jason Raylesberg
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

In my last post, I described how some states have allocated funds toward initiatives seeking to theoretically establish what is already known in practice about profiling by police.  I argued that such money would be better spent implementing more immediately impactful solutions. In this post, I will first detail a recent unintended consequence of such slow-moving reforms: Texas police misreporting the racial and ethnic data of those they pursue. Second, I will discuss how such misreporting reveals, in general, three categories of police officers that government at the state and federal level should strategically factor into any solution. Third, I will discuss how, in the context of a recent summit held in Washington D.C. to address the drastic increase in violent crime in U.S. cities, the government should implement a two-pronged approach that factors in the delineation of these three categories: 1) refining the process for vetting and training prospective officers and 2) building and enriching trust between communities and authorities.

Similar to the recently enacted California law examined in my prior post, a 2010 Texas state law intended to reveal and reduce any existing racial profiling by law enforcement officers requires authorities to document the race and ethnicity of individuals they warn, cite, or arrest. Recent statistics collected for these reports cast significant doubt on their accuracy, thereby illuminating their uselessness. Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, recently told ABC News that “It shows that there either seems to be a complete lack of training on the part of… officers and other law enforcement officers about how to report people’s race or there is deliberate, sort of trying to not follow the policy if they have been trained properly on how to report the race of the drivers whom they stop.” While necessarily general, and not accounting for variables like subconscious bias resulting from systemic racism, there are, in theory, three categories of police officers who report this information: 1) those who cannot, despite best efforts, differentiate one race or ethnicity from another; 2) those who actively discriminate but attempt to hide their discriminatory beliefs from higher authorities; 3) those who do not actively discriminate but falsify reports for fear they will lose their jobs or become embroiled in public controversy. The federal and state government thus face a tripartite challenge: optimally educate category 1, reduce category 2, and maintain and enrich mutual trust between communities and both category 3 and 1.

The last part of the above governmental objective, particularly as it concerns group 3, was highlighted in an October 7 summit convened in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The meeting included most of the nation’s top law enforcement officers (mayors, police chiefs, U.S. attorneys, FBI director James Comey, among others). Its purpose was determining the underlying causes and solutions to a significant increase in violent crimes in U.S. cities over the past few months. According to the Washington Post, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Ms. Lynch that “we have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict… they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.” New York City police commissioner William Bratton, among many others, echoed this sentiment, referencing protestors’ calls for “dead cops.”

It is debatable, and perhaps ultimately unprovable, whether or not this “Youtube effect” (coined by Bratton) exists. According to the Washington Post, no evidence suggests any “broad retraction of police engagement” over the past several months. Nonetheless, while it is imperative that we protect individuals and communities from category 1’s blunders and category 2’s blatant racism, we must also be careful to not inadvertently mischaracterize category 3 officers as belonging to category 2 to the point that they fail to adequately oblige professional duties for fear they will be mischaracterized. To do otherwise would be to match hate with hate, stereotype with stereotype. We must balance the government’s interest in diminishing violent crimes with its interest in eliminating police discrimination. What, then, is the best way to prevent a potential backlash and avoid grouping category 3 officers into category 2?

Frustratingly, there is no clear-cut answer to this question. However, exploring methods to better evaluate officers in their application process would help separate officers in category 3 from those in category 2, and in so doing reduce, however marginally, incidents of overt bias. To an extent, it is not possible to accurately evaluate whether certain officers hold discriminatory beliefs. But it is possible to better evaluate for some, allowing us to learn whether or not an officer has racist or violent tendencies prior to enlisting them rather than in the aftermath of another national tragedy. Some ways to improve this vetting process might include real-world exercises, written examinations, and stringent interviews designed by sociologists.

Concurrently, the government must work to restore and enrich trust between communities and law enforcement, both by publicizing its evaluation processes and efforts to reduce these incidents, and importantly, by establishing forums for officers to interact with communities. Officers must work with and speak to their communities, meeting in their schools, local organizations, town halls, churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Simply put, we must first separate the good cops from bad in order to both reform the practices of law enforcement and restore our country’s faith in their efficacy.