Policing High-Crime Areas: A Matter of Trust

Last week, NPR.org published a story entitled “D.C.’s Aggressive Confiscation of Illegal Guns Leaves Residents Feeling Targeted.” The report explains how the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is particularly adept among major cities at getting illegal guns off the streets, but a recent uptick in gun violence has ramped up efforts of their Gun Recovery Unit (GRU). The aggressive tactics of the GRU—using what locals call “jump-out cars” to stop and search individuals for weapons—contribute to the longstanding animosity between some community residents and the police.

While it is true that, per capita, D.C. leads other cities in gun confiscation, the high number of recovered weapons only tells part of the story. That is, what MPD did and the numbers of stops they made to recover that many weapons are part of a larger problem of harassment and distrust in the community. The MPD is quick to point to D.C.’s 44 percent increase in homicides since last year as the justification for their policy, but it’s uncertain as to whether “jump-out” tactics will help at all.

Aggressive and invasive police stops can lead to recovering firearms and other contraband from individuals, but there is no statistical evidence that ties those tactics to decreases in crime rates or violence. Indeed, as described in recent testimony in Little Rock, Arkansas, evidence shows that a heightened visible police presence can have positive effects on crime rates and violence in affected areas without the use of invasive stops.

Another problem with MPD policy is whom in particular the GRU is stopping. The jump-out cars are not used equally throughout the District. Indeed, friend of Cato and now-retired judge Janice Rogers Brown had some harsh words about the GRU in a 2015 case before her in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit:

As a thought experiment, try to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required. While viewing such an encounter as consensual is roughly equivalent to finding the latest Sasquatch sighting credible, I submit to the prevailing orthodoxy, but I continue to reject its counterintuitive premise. (Brown, J. concurring, U.S. v. Gross 784 F.3d 784, 790 (2015))

Although she never mentions race once in her opinion, Judge Brown all but dared the MPD to try this method of policing in Georgetown—a posh, predominantly white residential and shopping district—instead of Southeast D.C., where GRU operates and the residents are predominantly poorer and black. She likens the idea that Georgetowners would think such treatment would be fair to the likelihood of seeing Bigfoot, but because the politicians and the courts have tolerated these heavy-handed tactics mostly used in poor black areas, they remain legal.

Indeed, as Jessie Liu, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, told NPR, “I think that both the police department and our office are doing a great deal to train on what the legal requirements are.” But legality and propriety are often not one in the same. As one resident testified at a public hearing on the GRU tactics, the police “look at everyone in the community like [they are] villains.” While it is true that Georgetown and Southeast D.C. have different problems, each area’s residents are entitled to the same respect and treatment by police officers.

Perhaps most crucially, curbing illegal gun possession requires understanding why these individuals are carrying guns in the first place: fear. Putting aside the imprudence of carrying an illegal gun while fearful and lacking proper training, even tough-on-guns police executives admit that the fear of being killed is a major driver of these illegal gun possession cases. In 2017, nearly 45 percent of homicide victims were black men, and data shows homicides generally cluster in low-income areas of medium-to-large cities. A young black man in Southeast D.C. may have good reason to fear for his safety and security, and when the police have deemed themselves untrustworthy through their policies and actions, carrying an illegal gun may appear to be a reasonable—though reckless, flawed, and desperate—option.

By targeting people for searches based in part on where they live—and the same people resent the police and justifiably fear for their lives—it’s hard to see how MPD expects to either reduce crime and foster cooperation by using the GRU and its tactics. The rift between these communities and the police poses a problem when police are trying to solve crimes of tragic violence. Local activist Jay Brown told NPR, after the shooting death of a 10-year-old girl this summer, that the relationship between the community and police is so bad that, “We can’t even trust the police. [I]f anybody does know anything about what happened…they’re not going to talk to the police [because] it’s just like talking to another gang.”

And, thus, the vicious cycle continues.

Of course, both police and communities want to lower the murder rate—no one wants the killing to stop more than the people who live in the areas suffering the highest violence—but those desires don’t excuse each and every means the police contrive to find illegal guns. Antagonistic interactions between police and the public have real costs, and the stated intent of quelling gun violence does not make those costs disappear. If the police violate the trust of the community by shaking down and mistreating community members—even if it’s technically legal to do so—they risk the community’s cooperation when people get hurt. This lack of cooperation can enable the most violent offenders to go free, defeating the goal the police are trying to achieve.

The police need the public’s trust to be effective at deterring and solving crimes. It doesn’t make sense for them to direct the GRU to violate that trust and then expect the community to respond well. That’s not how trust works.