Civilian and Police Conflict in the United States and Implications for Maintaining Social Stability



From its founding as a colony until today, the United States has experienced few instances of intense class conflict. When asked what elements of unrest exist in this society today, perhaps 90 to 95 percent of people will mention racial conflict, particularly involving African-Americans.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s liberated African-Americans and brought to light many of the difficulties they faced that had been trivialized by their oppression. A prominent example among these difficulties is the black community’s consistent opinion – particularly among those earning a low income – that police tend to be racist in their enforcement of the law. Political scientists, legal scholars and sociologists have all naturally researched this issue because, as everyone knows, racial discrimination is a societal fracture just like class hatred or hatred of ethnic groups that could erupt at any time into social chaos if left unresolved. A few decades ago, some scholars proposed a theory of “black people policing black people,” believing that the situation could be improved if police forces took on more black members. The premise behind this hypothesis was that departments with more black officers would behave differently because the larger share of blacks on the force would more easily influence the whole department’s value system and culture. Such departments would in theory be able to treat ethnic minorities better, especially the black minority. Some empirical studies of the 1980s also seemed to show that black people had better feelings toward departments with relatively more black members, or at least their feelings toward the police did not vary much from those of whites.

However, on a certain level this theory assumes that a dominant majority ethnic group will interact with other races from a place of superiority and will favor its own racial group, causing minority groups to feel a sense of exclusion and unfair treatment. If this theory were correct, then after the former minority group becomes a majority, the feeling of inequality should disappear and the imbalance shift in the opposite direction. That is to say, in cities where black people become the majority, their attitude toward the local police should reverse: The black people would feel better about them, and the white people would feel worse.

To fit the pattern of American life in the past several decades, ordinary middle-class families continue to move to the suburbs while long-term residents that remain in the better-off cities include unattached young people or poor people who cannot afford to move to the suburbs – a group principally composed of African-Americans. Thus, in better-off large cities, blacks have become a majority, such as in the capital of Washington, D.C. This trend has made it easier to evaluate the above theory, and some legal scholars from George Washington University and Northwestern University have carried out an empirical study to do just that. They surveyed over 6,800 randomly selected Washington residents during a time when there were no high-profile enforcement incidents that would have temporarily influenced their respondents’ perceptions. The results showed that the racial makeup of the city had almost no effect on the level of police suspiciousness toward black people, particularly young blacks. Also, blacks were more likely than whites to think that police misconduct was a major issue in their neighborhood. Clearly, the theory that the racial makeup of police departments and their constituencies determines their perceptions of each other does not hold true.

One need look no further than the recent Baltimore riots for an example: The city’s mayor, police chief and even several of the police prosecutors who pressed charges in the aftermath were all black, but they still could not prevent the tragedy – there were even black policemen among those arrested for abuse.

American scholars universally lack a capability for “dialectic” thought, so, rather than promoting timeless, seemingly panacean solutions with pithy slogans like “concurrent enforcement and mercy,” they instead investigate the root of the problem to pursue more fundamental questions: Why do people follow the law, and under what circumstances are they willing to cooperate with the police?

Some scholars hypothesize, like economists, that humans are rational and therefore will always act according to their own self-interest. If this hypothesis holds, then people will only ever follow the law if honoring it brings them benefit in excess of the associated cost, regardless of the legal or enforcement system under consideration. The policy implication, then, is that the police must constantly demonstrate to the public by their high level of efficiency that they can provide security — so that the public will perceive honoring the law as beneficial to their personal interests. To accomplish this, police departments must continuously demand higher budgets, more advanced equipment and more officers, all while expanding their physical presence in public places through ever-increasing layers of security checks. Under these conditions, a whole city would end up being not much different from a giant prison – a situation which would be difficult for people who have grown up in a typical society to accept.

Nor does such an approach accord with a simple truth uncovered long ago by the research of political scientists: There are many circumstances under which incentive systems cannot be relied on by government officials to exercise authority. Either a light incentive system will engender corruption, actually resulting in a loss of public trust in officials and damage to their reputation, or else a heavy incentive system will produce tyranny. Various nations’ histories provide many precedents of incentives for officials, and almost none of them have produced much positive result. Take as an example the tax collectors in ancient Rome. In the Bible, the character Matthew is one such tax collector. For its tax policy in Judea, the Roman Empire at the time used a “subjects control subjects” system among the Jews, who had always been shrewd and proficient at accounting. A tax collector’s position was granted through a system of public auction to the highest bidder. Those so employed were only responsible for meeting the collection quota set for them by their higher-ups, and then they could keep whatever they collected in excess. Under such a system, the tax collectors worked hard to meet their targets, but even while they were achieving the political objective of collecting taxes, their reputation suffered. Matthew was precisely one of these, a “Jewish traitor” with whom ordinary Jews would not deign to associate and who became a target of their bitter hatred. When Jesus visited Matthew’s home, ate with him and permitted him to abandon all and become his disciple, it was showing an unusual broad-mindedness that allowed for all to achieve salvation and be taught regardless of background.

Going one step further we imagine that if the police used only the method of pursuing high efficiency in order to maintain social stability, they would end up resorting to whatever means they could to close cases as quickly as possible, fighting all elements disadvantageous to stability with the heaviest punishments, quickest responses and strictest measures. Furthermore, they would act immediately on the appearance of crime, which would produce many false or unjust charges, only giving society a deeper sense of insecurity. In the end, as Engels said, “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.”

At the same time, if citizens’ decision to obey the law only comes after a careful cost-benefit calculation, then there will certainly be many situations where they decide that the benefits of obedience do not outweigh the costs, and so they will break the law. Under such circumstances then, the police will be forced to select from among the public a certain activist group which they can buy off, continually increasing the benefits the group receives at a price much larger than fifty cents,* in order to ensure that they not only keep the law but also actively cooperate with the police in order to serve as an example for the rest of society. This will certainly increase the cost of maintaining stability!

In fact, Stanford law professor Robert J. MacCoun conducted much research involving psychological analyses on the results of drug prohibition policy. He discovered that there existed only a very weak correlation between the level of risk involved in breaking a law and law-abiding behavior. Similarly, only a weak correlation exists between police performance at solving crimes and whether people choose to cooperate with them. Therefore, a policy for maintaining order that appeals to the maximization of personal interest is typically a poor foundation on which to establish public safety.

Another theory takes the perspective of psychology as its point of departure by assuming that people are normally inclined to follow a crowd, such that under normal circumstances they will choose to honor the law because of a natural inclination to follow social norms. Under this theory, people’s desire to obey the law will intensify if the police can produce a sense of trust among the public; otherwise, people’s desire to honor the law will decrease. Thus, according to this theory, the first goal of the police will be to build citizen confidence in them. So, what does citizen trust in the police depend on? This is actually not an easy matter because usually in Western society police are in the same situation as officials in other government departments: They don’t get any credit in the eyes of the public for doing things well – or if they do, it’s very little – but as soon as they do something insufficiently well, then negative feelings toward them immediately increase and the incident attracts overwhelming negative publicity.

The young legal professor Tom R. Tyler at New York University has done a lot of research on this matter. He published an article in the Yale Law Review suggesting that the legitimacy of government action is the key factor in building this trust among the public. What is legitimacy? Here, legitimacy refers to people’s sense of duty and obligation to respect the law and comply with lawful authorities, and it represents the degree to which the citizenry collectively accepts government officials’ authority to manage society. When government actions are seen as having legitimacy, citizens will generally be cooperative — for example, voluntarily voting and working toward resolving neighborhood issues, and partially voluntarily complying with obligations such as paying taxes and accepting military conscription. When government legitimacy is high, citizens with disputes will also be more willing to seek out and defer to the decisions of the law and executors thereof, such as the police and courts, rather than resorting to the sort of violence and self-enforcement of law that creates a coarse and brutal society. When its legitimacy is high, a government can govern more gently and at the same time more effectively. Using one of the sayings of us common people, “There is a straight-beam balance between heaven and earth, and the sliding counterweight is the common people” – that is, how the people feel toward the government, as represented by the position of the counterbalance, will determine how much weight, or authority, may be exercised by the ruler.

From whence comes legitimacy? According to the explanation given by the creator of this concept, Max Weber, in “Economy and Society,” legitimacy comes from the manner in which vehicles of authority exercise their power and is determined by the extent to which citizens feel that their society truly operates according to the law. In a modern society, government entities should obtain legitimacy through the noninstrumental use of procedures for the fair and rational exercise of power, thereby making citizens willing to turn over to them the authority to create policy.

Under the principle of legitimacy, the public will be willing to cooperate with the police because they view such cooperation as morally correct rather than just the result of a cost-benefit calculation. In the realm of psychological research, many studies have shown that the antecedents of assessment of government actors’ legitimacy come from an assessment that they are using fair procedures when determining policy. Further, it is precisely and exclusively a perception of procedural fairness rather than a perception of fair apportionment of resources to the police that constitutes an ethical judgment of legitimacy.

Therefore, according to this theory, police can win legitimacy in the eyes of the public by strictly following the appropriate legal procedures given by the law to treat people fairly when they come in contact with them. Additionally, even if police activities limit the actions of the citizens, the police can still gain public recognition of their legitimacy by using fair procedures. When the actions of authorities are viewed as legitimate, people will still honor the law even when they are unlikely to face a punishment for breaking it. When authorities’ legitimacy decreases, the willingness of people to honor the law and cooperate with the authorities’ enforcement of the law will decrease.

In this area, Tyler investigated two questions. The first was whether people’s perceived or attributed legitimacy of the police, regardless of how they evaluate police performance, will affect their level of cooperation with police. The second was whether the relationship between police legitimacy and level of cooperation with police would vary among different races.

Taking into account that people evaluate the fairness of police enforcement procedures based on their personal experiences interacting with the police, Tyler randomly selected over 1,600 residents of New York to survey. He asked them about their attitude toward the law and the situation in their own neighborhoods. He also inquired whether they had had any interaction with the police and, if they had, what their impression of the police was. After a year he again surveyed the same people, inquiring about any new experiences of police interaction and new impressions toward the police or new attitudes toward the law.

After using various statistical methods to process his data and ensure his sample’s randomness, his analysis showed that legitimacy determined the degree of the public’s cooperation with police, regardless of race. If people had had an experience with the police where they felt they were treated with procedural fairness, then their trust and confidence in the police would increase; further, the relationship between the outcomes of these interactions and any change in the relevant subjects’ confidence in the police was found to be small. In neighborhoods that had a more positive view of the law, criminality was lower. Although the effectiveness of policing was a factor, it did not affect the influence of procedural fairness at all. Although people would in fact be more inclined to cooperate with the police when they saw that they were effectively solving crimes, the corresponding increase was very small and only applied in situations of small-scale crimes such as robbery and car theft.

Based on these relationships, Tyler determined that because the public uses its judgment of the fairness of police enforcement to evaluate police legitimacy, the justice of police policies and practices is the primary factor determining police legitimacy. Over the last several decades, the U.S. government has consistently focused on improving specific policies to increase police efficiency in responding to crime, reduce corruption and better prosecute abuses of power. Despite this, police departments still have difficulty winning over the cooperation of the public, particularly minorities: It would appear they have taken the wrong path. Tyler suggests that police departments should create plans to ensure that their enforcement activities appear to be fair in the public eye. This conclusion is not limited to police but is also applicable to courts and any other government entity.

Tyler has also carried out research in a number of African countries. The countries varied by the level of legitimacy their governments had [in dealing with] their citizens, their government structures and their conditions of economic development. These variances made them a good sample for a horizontal comparison. This research similarly found that the key factor determining government legitimacy is the public’s trust and confidence in police, courts and local governments. Secondary factors included the government’s administrative power (the government’s level of honesty and its ability to collect taxes from all members of society) and procedural fairness (whether citizens felt their government treated them and their ethnic or social group fairly). The government’s performance (whether the public faced any clothing or food shortages within the space of a year) came in last as a factor influencing its legitimacy, and no relationship at all was found between legitimacy and the country’s degree of economic development measured as GDP per capita.

Only when a government has secured the public’s trust and confidence can it effectively enforce the law and achieve a peaceful and stable society – even the brash and aggressively blundering U.S. military has recognized this after arduous battlefield experience. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual states that even if a state’s power is unlimited, a task can be effectively completed only when the public acknowledges the legitimacy of the state’s authorities.

The author has a PhD in Economics from Boston University and is currently the manager responsible for global macro investment at a U.S.-based fund.

* Editor’s Note: “Fifty cents” or .5 Yuan is recognized as the standard rate per post that Chinese government or private interests have been known to pay Internet users for positive support on online forums such as Internet message boards.

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