How Can Law Enforcement Build Trust With Black Americans?

The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police has once again reignited a crucial conversation about the disproportionate and often devastating impact of police and courts on Black Americans. The list of names of unarmed Black people killed by police is now a part of America’s collective history and our collective grief. How do we reckon with this reality, and more importantly how do we fix it? How can the legal system rebuild trust with communities that genuinely fear police? Gallup polling reveals that only 27% of Black adults in the U.S. say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police, up from 18% in 2020 but similar to the levels seen between 2014 and 2019. Fifty six percent of White Americans in this same poll expressed a great deal of confidence in police. 

The fact that less than a third of Black Americans share this confidence in policing is an enormous moral and policy problem that merits significant attention. It’s impossible to imagine that this type of endemic distrust serves either law enforcement or Black communities. February is Black history month, and throughout this month Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform will be lifting up stories of remarkable Black leaders and individuals who have changed our nation for the better.

Over the past 60 years Black Americans have fought to achieve historic progress in so many areas, but the responsibility to rebuild trust between themselves and law enforcement must not only fall on Black communities. It’s far past time for the culture and practice of policing to adopt more meaningful reforms purposely designed to to build that trust with Black Americans.

Criminalizing Poverty Worsens Policing and Trust Within Communities

There is no rational way to approach this difficult conversation without confronting America’s persistent racial wealth gap.  The wealth of the richest 400 Americans is approximately equal to that of 43 million Black Americans. This economic disparity known as “the racial wealth gap” was deliberately worsened by policy choices that raised barriers to homeownership and wealth creation for Black families for generations. Making matters worse, America's criminal legal system prefers poverty.

There is no part of the criminal legal system that treats people better if they’re poor. Poverty significantly increases the likelihood of police contact or police violence, arrest or incarceration. It matters a great deal, then, that White Americans hold 84 percent of total U.S. wealth but make up only 60 percent of the population—while Black Americans hold 4 percent of the wealth and make up 13 percent of the population. The criminalization of poverty effectively paints a target on low income Black families. Under this funding scheme, police are often forced to function as collections agents for Oklahoma’s courts jailing low-income Oklahomans who can’t pay court debt. The largest number of failure to pay arrest warrants in Oklahoma are located in high density communities of color with reported police stops in some predominantly Black Oklahoma neighborhoods with high court debt being over 100 times more likely than in White communities. This demonstrates that no individual police officer would have to hold personal racial animus for racial disparities in policing to persist under this funding scheme. Reducing court fines and fees is needed for police reform. 

The Status Quo is Not Serving Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is a vital resource to improve public safety, and it should be treated as such. Diverting police from serious crimes, 911 calls and emergencies to spend time and resources acting as debt collectors for courts has no benefit for public safety. It simply represents another in a long list of duties that police officers have been saddled with that improve neither the quality of law enforcement or the safety of the public. On this long list of tasks that police are neither trained nor funded to complete are jobs like transporting individuals in need of mental health treatment to find treatment beds. 

Oklahoma has recently made improvements in this mental health transport process, but law enforcement is still burdened with managing far too much of Oklahoma's mental health and crisis response. Each week numerous law enforcement labor hours are still spent shuttling people to find open treatment beds in some counties. This is only necessary because Oklahoma’s policymakers have failed to adequately invest in mental health and addiction services. The Department of Mental Health reports that current funding only supports treatment for one in three Oklahomans in need of significant mental health or addiction care. This means hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans are not being served by the status quo. Racial disparities in access to care have exacerbated disparities in criminal legal system outcomes for communities of color as well. Data shows that individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. 

In 2023, Oklahoma’s lawmakers have a historic opportunity to make the single largest investment in local mental health and addiction resources ever seen in the state. Policymakers could accomplish this simply by finally funding the State Question 781 fund. The impact of this investment on not only communities of color, but low income rural communities could represent a positive generation altering sea-change in crime reduction and preventative care. This would allow law enforcement to focus on their jobs and allow communities to actually begin to resolve the root causes of these issues.

The Path Forward

Black Americans like all Americans want safe communities for themselves and their families. As a Black American myself I want to be able to trust law enforcement, but in all honesty I’m not there yet. I believe that most police officers join the force with a real desire to serve their communities and to help people, but none of that matters if the communities you serve can’t trust you. None of that matters if the historic structure of law enforcement is designed to produce disproportionate impact on certain zip codes. In this difficult moment it’s critical that leaders listen beyond the partisan noise and name calling that have rendered so much of American politics useless in 2023. I believe that we can fix this problem. The first step is admitting that trust is crucial for the effectiveness of a public institution like the police and that it is not only the responsibility of Black Americans to create that trust. Building that trust has to be a genuine goal for policymakers and police.