December 5, 2020

What our survey of PERF members told us about policing, crime, and the next Presidential Administration


Dear PERF members, 

I woke up yesterday morning, picked up the Washington Post, and saw this front-page headline:  “1-year-old Carmelo Duncan is the latest victim of gun violence in D.C as homicides hit a 15-year high.”

And I thought, how can it get any worse than a 1-year-old getting shot?  It just leaves you cold.

PERF’s crime survey last month captured rising homicides all over the country, from New York to Chicago to Omaha to Milwaukee to Seattle.  And I wondered, where is the outrage from our political leaders?  I know our police chiefs and sheriffs are seeing this, and they’re worried.  

So PERF did another survey, in which we asked our members to tell us about their top concerns and issues for the next Presidential Administration to tackle.  And we kind of expected that you would tell us that violent crime was the top issue.

But that wasn’t what you told us. Reducing crime came in fourth place.

What was the Number 1 issue? “Increasing public trust in the police.”  What was Number 2? “Addressing the call for police reform.”

Wow. Where is the disconnect here?  Are we reading everything all wrong?  How could police leaders put “public trust” and “police reform” over homicides?

But then it hit me.

Many cops feel like they aren’t trusted in the community, and that is having an impact on how they interact with citizens in neighborhoods.

What does that mean in practice?  It means that if they engage in proactive policing, and attempt to arrest someone who is adamant about not being taken into custody – which never looks good on video – and the video goes viral on YouTube or on the evening news, there are going to be negative repercussions. And there simply is no amount of residual trust for the police in the community to sustain that officer in the aftermath of the incident, even if there was nothing wrong in how the officer handled it. 

In short, working cops worry about not being supported and become more hesitant about engaging in effective proactive policing.  I wrote about this in last week’s Trending.

As I kept thinking about all this, I began to see how it makes sense.

It’s not that PERF members are less concerned about violent crime.  It’s that you know that increasing public trust is the key to reducing violent crime.

Before we can effectively address crime, we have to rebuild trust between police and the community. And it bears repeating that the communities that need good policing the most are the poor, disadvantaged communities where these homicides and shootings are skyrocketing, and where the trust is lacking the most.  The people who live in these neighborhoods also want to rebuild that trust, because they are seeing the carnage out their front windows, not just on TV.  So there is a sense of urgency on both sides.

In a way, I think it’s a hopeful sign that police leaders consider public trust the #1 issue,  because trust is something we can work on and achieve.

When the police and the community trust each other, and cops feel safe doing good police work, it’s a win-win for the community and the police.  And it can lead to safer communities and healthier police agencies.

And here is where our next President can play a leading role.  Our survey included a question where we asked members, “If you could have a private meeting with the new President on his first day in office, what would you say to him?”  And many of you said you’re looking to the next President to set a tone on a national level for improving police-community relations.

We promised to keep your comments confidential, so without naming names, I’d like to share what 4 PERF members said they would tell Mr. Biden:  

1. “Mr. President, you have an opportunity to use your platform to ask the American people to try to understand the police better, and to ask police to try to understand the perspectives of all community members better. We will only move toward a path of healing if both groups desire to understand each other.”

2. “Please don't feel pressured to take a ‘side’ when it comes to law enforcement. There are no sides to citizens wanting to be served appropriately by their public safety officers, and officers wanting to be supported by the citizens.”

3. “Unfortunately, there’s a divide between police and the community, which some have hijacked to gain political advantage. Do not play politics with these relationships. Find a way to bring police and community together.”

4. “The vast majority of the 800,000 cops who have 70 million interactions with citizens every year desperately want to do a good job and survive while doing it. Please mention that publicly from time to time.”

The President-elect is known as a unifier, not a divider. So when I hear PERF members say they are looking for leadership and understanding from the federal government to set a national tone of reconciliation and respect for both police and the communities they serve, I think Joe Biden has the right stuff to bring us together.  What the country needs is a President who “gets” the working cops and recognizes the challenges they face. I have this vision of the President walking into roll calls unannounced and just listening to everyday cops talk about their challenges. Or going to a community meeting and hearing residents out. And then bringing us together.

That is what will inspire all of us and build the trust that is needed in our country, and prevent the senseless violence and despair of a one-year-old child dying so tragically. 

Once again, I’m grateful to all of the PERF members who completed our recent surveys, and who call and email me every day to tell me what’s going on.  I know you’re busy, so I appreciate the time you give to PERF