Public trust enables policing in America. It enables all parts of the criminal justice system. When trust erodes, the ability to police erodes and the platform of the criminal justice system erodes.
There are times when the behavior of individual police officers or, multiple officers or even the behavior of entire police agencies creates the circumstances under which trust erodes. This happened with the killing of George Floyd in March in Minneapolis.
Many of us working in law enforcement may believe that instances of such conduct grossly violate our own standards. We may believe that such incidents misrepresent how the vast majority of us conduct ourselves. But there are times when real misconduct or what looks exactly like misconduct occurs and stands out and cannot be ignored or explained away. And those instances undermine public trust. Again, Minneapolis and George Floyd are clear examples.
I am well aware that what we do is complex and difficult and chaotic. It can provoke misunderstandings and surprise and fear and real physical danger. This can occur in a matter of seconds. I admire the men and women who do this job every day. I admire them for their willingness to step into ethically complex situations and undergo personal risk for the people they serve.
I also know that action initiated with the very best intentions can quickly spin out of control. There are no guarantees of happy endings and good outcomes in the real world.
So, how does law enforcement build and maintain and recover trust in this kind of real world?
Our best approach is to resolve to take the moral high road even when that road is not well marked. This involves anticipating possible outcomes of our actions and acting to make positive outcomes more likely. Even in the midst of confusion and anger and hostility. It involves expressing our values and our ethics in the way we go about our work. It involves the difficult and essential work of building an ethical agency culture and then expressing that culture in how we do our job.
We need to remember that doing the right thing is not measured in terms of our goals. It is measured by the means we employ to achieve those goals. Morality, ultimately, is means. The morality of police conduct and the acceptability of that conduct is determined by the means we use to achieve our mission and our goals.
Doing the right thing – – – behaving righteously – – – often begins by not adopting an attitude of self-righteousness or self-justification.
I realize that this is much easier to advocate than to put into practice. But, that does not mean it is some wispy theoretical exercise. It is a difficult and essential every day commitment of self-discipline, self-examination and course correction. It’s a very tall order in real world situations where emotions and controversy and irrationality come into play. And, no one in the real world of policing does it perfectly.
But that is exactly what we need to strive for if we want to build and maintain and strengthen public trust: the trust that is ultimately essential to the goals we are trying to achieve.