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Teachable Moments About Policing from Ferguson, Missouri

Riot police

This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By Tom Tyler, PhD (Professor of Law and Psychology, Yale Law School)

Ferguson represents another step in the escalating failure of the “broken windows” view of crime that has gained ascendancy during the past generation.  Under this approach, the police seek to maintain order by focusing upon arresting those who are committing minor crimes. This justifies the widespread practice of repeatedly stopping, questioning, frisking and often detaining and arresting members of the community, in particular the African-American community, and leads to the same type of hostility toward police officers that has become so visible in New York City in recent years.  Worse yet, it seems the police in cities like Ferguson have moved beyond the original broken windows model which focuses upon arresting people committing life-style crimes and have dropped any pretext of stopping only those who are actually involved in criminal activity.  Instead the police repeatedly stop innocent community residents on the streets to create feelings of fear, which they believe deters criminal behavior.  Why is this bad?

How can the police build trust?  I have conducted a number of studies of popular legitimacy which examine why people do or do not trust the police in their community.  These studies consistently show that the most important issue to public evaluations of the police is whether they believe that the police are exercising their authority fairly.  This means that they are not making decisions about who to stop based upon race; that they are willing to listen to people when they stop them; apply the law consistently and without prejudice and take time to explain the reasons for their actions.  Most importantly, the police need to treat people in the community respectfully and with courtesy.  When the police do these things they build trust.  In other words, we know how the police can build trust in communities, White or minority.  If people see the police acting with justice, they respond with trust.

Of course, there are limits, and even respectful treatment gives way to distrust in the face of repeated police stops of people who are not engaged in wrongdoing.  Two facts emerge from empirical research on the impact of policies involving widespread street stops.  First, such stop, question and frisk policies increase crime by undermining police legitimacy. Jeffrey Fagan and I recently studied young men in New York City and found that those who mistrusted the police were twice as likely to be engaged in criminal activity.  Second they increase hostility and lead to a greater likelihood of conflict when the police deal with community members on the street and when the community reacts to police actions such as the Brown shooting.  Such anger produces precisely the type of unrest so visible in Ferguson.  As so many of the marchers in that community have suggested, if people do not experience justice when they deal with the police, there will be no peace.

Relevant research by Dr. Tyler:

Tyler, T.R. (2006).  Why people obey the law: Procedural justice, legitimacy, and compliance.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tyler, T.R., Schulhofer, S. & Huq, A. (2010).  Legitimacy and deterrence effects in counter-terrorism policing: A study of Muslim Americans.  Law and Society Review, 44, 365-401.

Jackson, J., Huq, A.Z., Bradford, B. & Tyler, T.R. (2013).  Police legitimacy and public attitudes toward private violence.  Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 19, 479-497.

Tyler, T.R. & Jackson, J. (2014).  Popular legitimacy and the exercise of legal authority: Motivating compliance, cooperation and engagement.  Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 20, 78-95.

Tyler, T.R., Fagan, J. & Geller, A. (in press).  Street stops and police legitimacy. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.


Tom R. Tyler, PhD, is the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. He is also a professor (by courtesy) at the Yale School of Management. He joined the Yale Law faculty in January 2012 as a professor of law and psychology. He was previously a University Professor at New York University, where he taught in both the psychology department and the law school. Prior to joining NYU in 1997, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Northwestern University.

Professor Tyler’s research explores the role of justice in shaping people’s relationships with groups, organizations, communities, and societies. In particular, he examines the role of judgments about the justice or injustice of group procedures in shaping legitimacy, compliance, and cooperation. He is the author of several books, including Why People Cooperate (2011); Legitimacy and Criminal Justice (2007); Why People Obey the Law (2006); Trust in the Law (2002); and Cooperation in Groups (2000). He was awarded the Harry Kalven prize for “paradigm shifting scholarship in the study of law and society” by the Law and Society Association in 2000, and in 2012, was honored by the International Society for Justice Research with its Lifetime Achievement Award for innovative research on social justice.

He holds a B.A. in psychology from Columbia and an M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles.

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