Baltimore police in riot gear line up to enforce a curfew imposed in the aftermath of rioting in the city following the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. AP Photo

Trust in local law enforcement is waning across the U.S. That's unlikely to change before policing culture does.

The results of a new Pew Research Center poll on reactions to last week's unrest in Baltimore are worth a close look. A full 65 percent of black respondents attributed the violence to poor relationships between the black community in Baltimore and local police, while 56 percent of white respondents—a clear majority—made the same connection.

(Pew Research Center)

Compare that to the results of a USA Today/Pew survey conducted last year in the immediate wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Then, white respondents reported a notably higher level of trust in police-public relationships: 77 percent said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the ability of local police to gain the trust of local residents. But among black respondents, a full 53 percent said they doubted the ability of police to gain the trust of the communities they patrol.

The contrast apparent in these two survey results suggests that the events of the past year—Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and other black victims of police violence—have had a real impact on how Americans view the state of police relations within their communities. In a new paper for New Perspectives in Policing, authors Sue Rahr and Stephen K. Rice argue that much of what's happened this year is largely due to a "warrior" versus "guardian" mentality ingrained in police training and culture in recent decades. They write:

Despite two decades of aspiring to effective community policing, American law enforcement seems to have drifted off the course of building close community ties toward creating a safe distance from community members... In some communities, the friendly neighborhood beat cop — community guardian — has been replaced with the urban warrior, trained for battle and equipped with the accouterments and weaponry of modern warfare.

Rahr, a 30-year police veteran, former sheriff of King County, Washington, and current member of President Obama's policing task force, developed in 2011 a unique training model for King County's street officers called LEED: Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity. "Using the LEED model," the authors explain, "officers are trained to take the time to listen to people; explain what is going to happen and how the process works; explain why that decision was made so the equity of the decision is transparent; and leave the participants with their dignity intact."

The authors argue that this empathetic approach creates stronger community connections and bolsters public confidence in officers, which in turn leads to safer communities. "The behavior of the warrior cop, on the other hand, leads to the perception of an occupying force."

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s fifth annual America Healing conference, going on now, law enforcement leaders from around the country have gathered to discuss how relationships between law enforcement and communities of color can be improved. Take a look at some of these timely quotes, from Cincinnati Chief of Police Jeffrey Blackwell, who spoke there:

  • "We, as police, have been partly responsible for every major civil unrest incident in this country."
  • "Every city is just one incident away from Baltimore."
  • "We are listening. We hear the cries of this nation to change the way we treat people of color."
  • "We need to lift people up ... I believe strongly that we become guardians in our communities and not warriors. That is a huge paradigm shift in this country."  

Blackwell is echoing the language and lessons of Rahr's LEED model of community policing with statements like those. But as Rahr and Rice warn in their paper, nothing about overhauling decades worth of entrenched police culture will be easy:

There are two things cops hate: the way things are, and change. ... [W]e must be prepared for strong resistance. That resistance will be intensified because we are challenging the very core of the warrior identity that many have embraced in the popular culture of policing.

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