How Law Enforcement Can Reverse Erosion in Trust

How Law Enforcement Can Reverse Erosion in Trust

Trust is the bedrock of community policing. When people lose trust in police, they are less likely to assist, come forward as witnesses and obey commands.

A recent Gallup poll shows confidence in the police has dropped to a historical low, and race factors in as an issue. According to the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of Americans in 2007 expressed high confidence that their local police would treat blacks and whites equally, but last year that was down to 30 percent.

Perhaps the most significant contributor to the decline in public confidence is the emergence of video showing questionable policing behavior and its spread through social media. The court of public opinion is now held on 24-hour cable news, and the evidence is being generated by surveillance cameras, dash-cams, body cameras and citizen journalists with smartphones.

This poses a new challenge to a police community trying to instill public confidence. James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, expressed his frustration in a New York Times article saying, “Every time I think maybe we’re past this and we can start rebuilding, it seems another incident occurs that inflames public outrage,” he said. “Police officers literally have millions of contacts with citizens every day, and in the vast majority of those interactions, there is no claim of wrongdoing, but that’s not news.”

So, how does the police community begin the process of rebuilding trust?

Stephen M. R. Covey’s book The Speed of Trust is a seminal reference on the subject. He defines trust as a function of two things: character and competence.

Character includes integrity, defined by the courage to act in accordance with your values, and intent, the motives that drive behavior. Competence is determined by capabilities and skills exemplified by results.

With the preponderance of viral video evidence calling the character of officers into question, it suggests that the law enforcement community needs to make its values and beliefs known. By openly declaring intent, public information officers can create opportunities to actively influence conclusions and opinions.

With the increasing focus on ethics in law enforcement, the character side of trust is fast becoming the price of entry. The differentiating, and often side of trust is competence. To make a meaningful commitment to trust building, police must be accountable and deliver on the promise of trust through behavior and results.

At the heart of community policing is the requirement that police are transparent in all their dealings with the public. Transparency requires effective and timely communications, an increasing challenge given the rapid pace of the evolving media landscape.

Closing ranks and delaying public response is no longer an option. PIOs need a new communications plan that balances the public’s need to know with the protection of due process. They also need the media training to communicate an unwavering commitment to do the right thing and get the right thing done.