Humans are a social species. The need for trust is rooted in our DNA. In times of peril and uncertainty, trusting relationships provide a sense of security. Trust helps us to survive.
In 2014, during the Ferguson unrest, I was a police officer in St. Louis, assigned to a special unit focusing on low-income housing projects. Dirty stares and middle fingers were testaments to the trust we’d lost. The city was on the verge of erupting.
One evening, I handcuffed a man on his front porch for unlawful use of a handgun. I didn’t notice the angry mob forming behind us. “Leave him alone,” someone yelled. Angrier words followed. You could feel the tension in the air.
But then a young woman stood up in front of us. “Stop,” she yelled to the crowd. “That man,” meaning me, “reads to my child at school.”
And it was true. I did read to students. My unit also sponsored movie nights and back-to-school giveaways. At Halloween, we hosted “Trunk or Treat.” We invested in community relationships.
The community didn’t forget. Her plea worked. The crowd lost its steam.
But in too many places, police have failed to create trusting relationships. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice released its report on the Ferguson Police Department. The report concluded that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” The DOJ also found that these practices “reflected and reinforced racial bias,” with “nearly 90 percent of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans.”
These problems began long before the shooting death of Michael Brown. The DOJ report highlights a 2013 encounter between a Ferguson patrol sergeant and an African-American man. The sergeant, though he could not articulate a reasonable suspicion, detained the man after seeing him talk to an individual in a truck. When the man refused to allow the sergeant to frisk him, insisting that had committed no crime, the sergeant became infuriated and drew his Taser.
Video captured by the Taser’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movements. Still, the sergeant fired, knocking the man to the ground. The sergeant then fired again, later claiming that the man had attempted to stand. But the man never tried to stand, as the video makes clear. He just squirmed in agony.
Each year, similar reports flood the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Victims hope for protection and understanding. Police misconduct is a betrayal of trust.
Distrust is not simply the absence of trust: Both are rooted in neurobiology. Feelings of trust flow from the prefrontal cortex, which compares the present to past experiences. Feelings of trust release oxytocin and dopamine, which increase energy and a sense of belonging. Feelings of distrust trigger the amygdala, which controls our “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Together, these brain structures dictate our perceptions of reality, which is why regaining lost trust can be so difficult. Once the amygdala is engaged, new experiences invariably mix with old narratives of hurt and disappointment.
But it is possible to regain trust, as Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, who was appointed in 2016, is now demonstrating.
From the ashes of unrest, Moss has implemented a community-first philosophy. Every member of the department must meet with members of the community. Officers are rewarded for positive interactions, from organizing kickball tournaments to treating high school students to a special “Black Panther” premiere. The promotions process has been revised.
Chief Moss also emphasizes that social media, properly used, can help to humanize officers. Specialized units are creating content for the department’s Facebook and YouTube pages. Videos provide friendly tips for public safety and exclusive behind-the-scenes looks at department operations.
Effective policing requires social trust. The Ferguson Police Department is rebuilding the trust it had lost by tapping into a simple but powerful human need: the need to belong.
Luther O. Tyus is a graduate research assistant in the Brown School at Washington University, as well as an eight-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department and a certified POST police instructor.