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Only structural changes will significantly lessen community distrust of police

Policing practices and police culture in the Twin Cities need to change. Removing one or two “bad apples” isn’t the solution.

In the wake of the Ferguson protests, the Black Lives Matter movement has become an increasingly significant political force in the United States. In cities across the country, hundreds of thousands of people have followed the leadership of young black activists and organizers and joined them in the streets demanding racial justice and an end to police abuse.

Nationally, police organizations’ responses to the movement for black lives have been disgraceful. In a tone-deaf response to the claim that Black Lives Matter, police have responded with the Blue Lives Matter campaign. This move positions the interests of the black community as necessarily antagonistic to the interests of the police. It assumes that black people and cops are part of a zero-sum conflict. To affirm that black lives matter is, on their logic, to assert that police lives don’t matter. You’re either with Black Lives Matter, or with the cops, but you can’t be both.

Furthermore, police organizations and some (mostly right-wing) media outlets have interpreted demands for police accountability, civilian review of police misconduct, and an end of state-sanctioned police violence against communities of color as a “war on cops.” The rhetoric of the “war on cops” depends on ignoring overwhelming evidence that physical attacks on police are less likely today than they have been in decades. There has never been a safer time to be a police officer than right now.

Requirements of democracy

It also depends upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how democracy works. In a democratic society, all government officials are supposed to be accountable to the public they serve. Transparency is necessary to protect the public interest and enable civilian review of policies and practices. When police organizations claim that demands for accountability and transparency amount to a “war on cops,” they reveal a profound lack of respect for democratic principles and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens.

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Here in the Twin Cities, the police response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been deeply unsettling. The actions of two officers in specific, Lt. Robert Kroll and Sgt. Jeff Rothecker, demonstrate a moral crisis in police leadership in the area. Both Kroll and Rothecker serve in police leadership positions. Kroll is the head of the police union for the Minneapolis police force. Until his misconduct was exposed, Rothecker served as the vice president of the Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police. However, it is important to note that both men are in leadership positions because of their support among the rank-and-file. They are not outliers — they are quite literally representatives of the broader body of police.

Between the two of them, they have advocated for denying constitutional rights of protesters and attempted to incite violence against community members they have sworn to protect and serve. Kroll has claimed that activists must be “silenced,” demonstrating his willingness to set aside their constitutional rights to speech and assembly. He has characterized police critics as “thugs.” Rothecker went so far as to call for violence against protesters by instructing people on how to run over marchers with their cars and use our flawed criminal justice system to get away with it. There is evidence that he repeatedly did so over a period of months. This is not an isolated incident, but instead a pattern of behavior in which someone sworn to uphold the law has advocated breaking the law to do violence against peaceful protesters engaging in constitutionally protected action.

I see Kroll and Rothecker as examples of the illegitimate power and immoral leadership that for many people has come to define police power in the United States. One question that we might ask about Kroll and Rothecker is whether they are just two “bad apples” or if their actions are predictable results of policy choices and structural features of the police forces in the Twin Cities.

Feelings of community

Research in political science can help us to answer this question. Cara J. Wong, associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois, has published work that demonstrates the significance of feelings of community for moral and political decision-making. In her groundbreaking book, Wong explains that all people see themselves as members of various communities. These feelings of community membership are subjective, meaning they depend upon how people think about themselves and whom they feel close to for various reasons.

Some people define community geographically, experiencing feelings of group closeness with other people in their neighborhood or city. Others may experience group closeness based on shared interests or characteristics. Everyone identifies as a member of some community; however our choices about which communities we feel a part of are idiosyncratic.

These feelings of community membership are profoundly important for moral and political decision-making. As Wong notes, there is a “light side” and “dark side” of community membership. The light side of community is that when we feel close to a particular community, we are more likely to care about outcomes for that community. As a result, we’re willing to engage in time consuming political action to serve that community. Even more, we’re willing to sacrifice for those communities we feel close to, often through taxing and redistributing.

The dark side: how outsiders are treated

Yet feelings of community membership and group closeness also have a dark side. Communities have boundaries. There are members of the community who are inside the boundaries. Non-members are positioned outside of the boundaries. The dark side of community is that outsiders or non-community members are often treated as morally irrelevant in decision-making. Non-community members, then, suffer from moral exclusion: They “are perceived as outside of the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply.”

There can be little question as to whether Kroll and Rothecker see Black Lives Matter protesters as part of their own communities. In fact, in his public comments Kroll has gone so far as to argue that Black Lives Matter organizers and protesters are not a legitimate part of any Minneapolis community. According to Kroll, protesters’ status as “activists” makes their community membership null and void. 

However, Wong’s research indicates that the boundary Kroll wants to draw between “activists” and the community is both deeply flawed and severely misplaced. It is precisely those people who feel deep ties to their community that are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, resources, and personal safety to work on issues of community concern. Activism is not and should not be understood as antithetical to community. Instead, activism is the deepest expression of community feeling. 

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It should not be surprising that Kroll and Rothecker are willing to treat Black Lives Matter protesters as if they are morally irrelevant (as evidenced by their willingness to disregard the personal safety and constitutional rights of protesters). In part, policy choices and institutional structures have led to this situation. Three factors that are especially significant for understanding the breakdown in community and police relations are the repeal of the residency requirement for police officers, the unrepresentative racial demographics of the police, and lack of any meaningful accountability system in place for dealing with police.

Perceived as occupying force

Without residency requirements, cops are unlikely to see themselves as members of the communities they police. Their feelings of community will extend to the neighborhoods and suburbs they live in, rather than those parts of the city that they patrol. Police officers who are not members of the communities they police are likely to be perceived as an occupying force. As a result, members of the community are not likely to feel they can trust the police, because the police are outsiders, members of some other community.

This breakdown in community-police relations is exacerbated by the fact that the police force is significantly whiter than the population its officers have sworn to serve and protect. So, not only are police unlikely to view residents of their precincts as members of their own communities, they are also unlikely to do so based on demographic characteristics. A mostly white, almost entirely suburban police force patrolling urban communities of color is inherently problematic. It fosters the kinds of conditions that are likely to lead to community distrust of the police and a police force willing to disregard the rights and interests of citizens. 

These problems of geography and demographics are compounded by the lack of any meaningful community oversight of the police. Although the Minneapolis Police Department was subject to 439 complaints of police misconduct, not one of these complaints resulted in disciplinary action for any officer. Police who do not view the populations they serve as members of their community are unlikely to be internally motivated to treat those they police fairly. Without accountability structures in place that punish officers for misconduct, they are unlikely to be externally motivated either.

The need for structural changes

The recent responses of Kroll and Rothecker to Black Lives Matter protesters are deplorable and unacceptable for any public official. However, it’s important that we don’t ignore the larger structural issues that create a policing culture that makes this kind of behavior likely. Without structural changes such as reinstating the residency requirement, developing a culturally competent police force that more accurately reflects the demographics of the population they serve, and adopting meaningful accountability structures for police misconduct, it is likely that the attitudes exemplified by Kroll and Rothecker will be pervasive throughout the police force.

Policing practices and police culture in the Twin Cities need to change. Without serious structural changes in the way policing is done, we can expect more distrust, more conflict, and more abuse. The Minneapolis City Council, St. Paul City Council, and the Minnesota State Legislature must take up these issues. The quality of our democratic community depends on it.

Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science at
Metropolitan State University. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. 


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