OnPolicing Blog

Law Enforcement Must Regain the Public’s Trust

October 27, 2016

Dave Thomas

David J. Thomas, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, National Policing Institute

Dave Thomas

David J. Thomas, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, National Policing Institute

I write this as an African American male and as a retired police officer.

There is so much American history that some of America wants to forget. Quite honestly, we Americans have short memories when it comes to uncomfortable reality or truth that interferes with our way of life. For instance, if I bring up slavery, police would argue: “Slavery has nothing to do with where we are today. I am not responsible for something that happened 300 years ago.”

What is lost in this argument and what the law enforcement community fails to recognize is that our past is the root of problems today.

The stories of the sheriff and the slave patrols play a part in the distrust that the African American community has for law enforcement. These stories have been told for generations. As a child, I was told the stories by my father, who was born in 1914, and my grandfather, who was born in the late 1800s.

The slave patrols were designed to catch runaways and were headed by the local sheriff. Warrants were issued for the slaves if they did not have signed permission from their masters to be off the plantation. With that distinction, sheriffs had the ability to physically assault, rape, whip and even hang those found to be in violation of the law.

Today, African American parents have talks with their children concerning us, the police.

In the 1960s, brutal activity by law enforcement toward the African American community was televised for all to see. This was the catalyst for the riots in Watts, Detroit and Newark.

Let’s be clear, my decision to become a law enforcement officer did not go unnoticed by my family. To my father, I was a disappointment, so much so that he made the following statement after he learned of my decision: “How could you? Boy, you are a traitor to our race. Not only that but you are a white man’s ni****.” Think of that, your father, the man you most wanted to be like, calling you out because you chose to be a law enforcement officer.  How would you feel?

Looking back on the 1960s, I have to ask my fellow officers: What do you think this did for police/community relations?

In 1991, a citizen captured video footage of officers beating a man named Rodney King. The officers were tried and found not guilty. This validated what the African American community had been saying about law enforcement for years, and the South Central Los Angeles community burned. Community members were angry, arguing that there was one standard for police and one for the African American community.

What have we learned from our past, especially since the advent of cell phones? Today, every action we take is recorded and reaches the Internet before we can complete a police report.

I ask my fellow officers: What is our job? There are many responses to this question, with the most common being to “protect and serve.” If I ask you to describe our role in American society without using that clichéd phrase, what would you offer in exchange? Whom are we protecting? And, whom are we serving?

The police culture is unique in that it is isolated. By that, I mean there is a long-standing belief that we police do not trust citizens and their perceptions of us.

We, the police, believe that citizens will not understand what officers go through on a daily basis. In essence, if you are not a police officer, you will pass negative judgment on us as individuals and on the profession as a whole. Because of this, most of our acquaintances and friends are police officers.

The end result is that as a police community we protect our own and stand tall behind the “Blue Wall of Silence.” This wall is so entrenched that we rarely turn fellow officers in for violations of policy or law.

To avoid such scrutiny, an officer who is uncomfortable with the actions of another will request not to work with that officer, transfer assignments or change shifts.

It will be argued that this is more about self-preservation than protecting another officer. What many officers fear is that if they rat on another officer, it will end their career – other officers will not trust the rat. This becomes crucial when an officer needs back-up and none comes to help.

Historically, law enforcement officers who are involved in questionable acts, such as unlawful arrests or civil-rights violations, and those who are disruptive to the culture of an organization are often allowed to resign in lieu of termination. This may mean that their files contain no information in regard to disciplinary history.

This practice gives an officer who has been forced to resign an opportunity to be hired by another agency. As a profession, we continually allow those who fail to meet professional standards to be recycled, taking their misdeeds to other communities. In addition, some agencies never perform background investigations, nor do they require psychological examinations.

The most debated issue in American society today is our decision to use force.

We like to think that the public does not understand the decisions that we make every day. Simply stated, the use of force is designed to stop a threat, establish control, and take a person or more into custody.

However, I realize that there are many gray areas, especially in defining the amount of force allowed.

To avoid some long drawn-out explanation, the use of force is determined by the actions of the citizen(s) that we encounter. We are allowed to go one step higher than a citizen, because if there is equal force on both sides, control could never be established.

I have trained police recruits and officers since 1980 in all aspects of the use of force. The one thing that has remained constant is there is no magic skill-set that allows police to take a combative citizen into custody without potential injury to the citizen, the officer, or both.

It must be understood by all that our response to resistance is full of unknowns.

With that said, we train officers to use loud verbal repetitive commands when encountering combative citizens and attempting to take them into custody. The loud verbal commands are a broadcast to the subject under arrest and innocent bystanders of our intentions. We, the police, feel that this is especially true when we point a gun at a citizen.

When citizens don’t comply, we often become angry, impatient, more aggressive. We escalate matters by shouting even louder. When the citizen fails to comply, we get angry and force the situation, which in several instances has resulted in the use of deadly force.

I ask my fellow officers, what is the rush? In many instances we have a tactical advantage.

What might work is a change of strategy, especially if we have the advantage, of taking our time, lowering our voices and explaining what we need. It is my belief that when processing loud verbal commands and a firearm pointed in their face, many citizens become scared or even disoriented, police or not.

One way we fail in our use-of-force training is that it does not incorporate encounters with people who are hearing-impaired or who suffer from mental illness, disorientation due to drugs, dementia or physical illness. Don’t get me wrong, the aforementioned subject matter is covered in the academy, but the subjects are rarely integrated during use-of-force training. By not incorporating this subject matter into use-of-force training scenarios, a disconnect is left between the officer and citizen at the time of the encounter. Often times, our belief is the citizen is faking or being uncooperative, and this is impetus for violent encounters.

The use of deadly force is the most misunderstood topic today by both police and citizens. The use of deadly force has also caused the greatest amount of anger and frustration for both police and citizens.

Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989) address two issues that are associated with deadly force: When can deadly force be used, and were an officer’s actions reasonable based on the circumstances?

The Garner decision is clear: The use of deadly force by police is limited to defense of one’s self or another. The goal is simple — to stop a threat. There is no other standard or variable.

Using the standard of the Garner decision, coupled with the Connor decision of reasonableness, and applying both standards to many of the police shootings, one can only argue that the standards have not been met.

We police defend our actions with this statement: “I was in fear for my life.” To our fellow citizens, this is the most over-used phrase in police/citizen encounters. We want the public to believe us, but why should they when the video evidence contradicts everything we put in our reports?

We have cried wolf so often that being in fear for our lives has no credibility. It has gotten so bad that nothing we offer as evidence is believable.

When I discuss police/citizen encounters with my peers, there is an inherent belief that citizens should obey our commands and trust us. Peers, why, and what have we done to instill trust in the citizens we serve? Today, simply being “the police” is not enough.

My peers argue that they are not guilty of any violations of the law and treat people fairly, yet they are being judged by the misdeeds of the few. We are a society that is influenced by the Internet and news media, which shape our perceptions and opinions. Unfortunately, what we remember are the bad things.

Some examples:

  • Police failed to establish probable cause due to a poor investigation and a suspect is released and kills a subject two days later;
  • An agency does not seek warrants for murder in a two-year period, leaving unsolved some 80 homicides;
  • An agency selectively issues bicycle citations in the black community while not enforcing bicycle statutes in the rest of the city;
  • Police place a great value on the loss of life or injury of an officer but fail to put that same effort into solving the violent crimes against its citizens;
  • Police unlawfully detain and arrest targeted populations.

I find it interesting that as a profession we want to boycott Beyonce, Colin Kaepernick, and any other of the many professional athletes who have taken a stand to protest the actions of police in this country. Are we collectively so sensitive that we find it acceptable to ignore another citizen’s fundamental right to peacefully protest? I will ask another question: If you were called to work a Ku Klux Klan rally, would you protest that and not go to work? What is the difference?

Our belief system as police has to change.

We work for the citizens in our communities, and we do not have the luxury of selective policing. Such thinking is destructive, and we are no more entitled to respect than the citizens that we serve. Our actions have cost us something far greater than the respect of the communities we serve; we have become indiscriminate prey for those who are looking for a reason to attack us.

As I conclude this, I ask that we look into our souls and see what we need to do as professionals and members of our communities to effect change.

The greatest challenge that we have is regaining the trust of those that we serve. This is the challenge, and unfortunately it has become our job.


David J. Thomas, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Professional Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he teaches in the Justice Studies Program. He holds a Ph.D. in forensic psychology and a master’s degree in education.

Dr. Thomas served as a police officer in Michigan and in Florida, retiring from the Gainesville Police Department after 20 years of service. During his tenure as an officer, he held assignments in patrol, DUI enforcement, detectives, narcotics, training, the Community Oriented Police Team and hostage negotiation, and served as a field training officer. Training is his specialty – he has been certified to train police recruits and in-service officers for the past 29 years. He is a certified expert in the Florida courts in the use of force. In addition to his academic pursuits, Dr. Thomas is the CEO of Police Counseling Services, LLC, where he provides consulting and counseling services to several law enforcement agencies in Florida.

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Written by

Dave Thomas

David J. Thomas, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, National Policing Institute

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