Public Trust and Law Enforcement–A Brief Discussion for Policymakers

Source: Nathan James, Jerome P. Bjelopera, Kristin Finklea, Natalie Keegan, Sarah A. Lister, Lisa N. Sacco, Richard M. Thompson II, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, R43904, March 22, 2016

Over the past couple of years there have been several high-profile incidents where police officers have been involved in the deaths of citizens. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald touched off a series of demonstrations around the country protesting the treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. In December 2014, two New York City police officers, Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were ambushed and killed by a man who said he wanted retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This recent spate of violence has highlighted the long-simmering tensions between police officers and minority communities. It has also generated interest in how to repair the apparently decreasing amount of trust between law enforcement and the public. ….

This report provides a brief overview of police-community relations and how policymakers might be able to play a role in repairing what appears to be fraying trust between police and citizens. The report focuses solely on the relationship between the police and the communities they serve. It does not include a discussion of the lack of trust in or perceived discrimination by other parts of the criminal justice system (i.e., the grand jury system, prosecutions, or corrections). While there may be many factors that influence how different groups of people feel they are treated by the criminal justice system, a discussion of those factors is beyond the scope of this report.

The report starts with an overview of data on public opinion of law enforcement. It then provides a brief discussion of federalism and why Congress does not have the authority to directly change state and local law enforcement practices. Next, the report reviews federal efforts to collect data on law enforcement’s use of force and federal authority to investigate instances of police misconduct. This is followed by a review of what role DOJ might be able to play in facilitating improvements in police-community relations or making changes in state and local law enforcement policies. The report concludes with policy options for Congress to consider should policymakers decide to try to influence state and local law enforcement policy.