Bringing Back Trust to America’s Streets
Cops aren’t happy, and locals feel let down by the police. How can faith in policing be restored?
Austin recently got an uncomfortable dose of street racing very much at odds with the gentle melodies of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” and the sorts of scenes you’d associate with the film American Graffiti or even Fast & Furious. It was total chaos: anarchic crowds throwing rocks and bottles, fireworks, cars skidding and “drifting” all over the road after multiple car clubs blocked off intersections in the downtown area.
Austin’s Police Department (APD) turned up—to a degree—and made the call to hold back to avoid escalation. (There might have been another motivation, which we’ll get to shortly.)
An evening that left one officer injured and several police vehicles damaged does not represent the breakdown of law and order in Texas’s shining capital city. Rather, it is that phase that can precede the breakdown of law and order: the breakdown of the relationship between the police and city leaders. Inter-institutional breakdown, in other words.
APD said that the street takeover is proof that the city has "failed to make the right decisions and continue[s] to defund, destroy, and demoralize public safety."
Quite a public rebuke. The Austin mayor countered, accusing the APD of making “false comments” that “wrongly conflate this illegal incident with important community conversations about safety and oversight.”
Tensions between city leaders and the APD are as bad as they ever have been. The riotous night of street racing came just days after Austin City Council turned down a four-year contract with APD that had been negotiated for several months—including a pay increase and resources to recruit 400 more officers—opting for a watered-down one-year contract.
Since 2020, when the city council cut APD’s budget by nearly one-third, officers have been leaving in droves as the city's crime has worsened. (I myself had my bicycle stolen in broad daylight on Good Friday despite it being locked outside Saint Mary’s Cathedral).
“The city is woefully short of officers,” the Texas-based writer Lawrence Wright wrote in a February New Yorker article parsing a transformation that has turned Austin into the fastest-growing major metro area in the U.S. and the country’s eleventh-largest city. “There’s no visible traffic enforcement, and since 2021 the murder rate has hit a historic high.”
At a popular old-school Mexican diner on Austin’s East side, I’ve regularly found myself sitting across from a table of APD officers having their coffee and tacos before hitting the streets. Every time I’d hear the same thing: there aren’t enough cops, too many have retired, not enough recruits are coming in and even if they were, the gaps that have opened up in the force’s structure will be there for years to come—and as a result of all this, morale is through the floor.
Morale is hugely important, while usually underappreciated, as I discussed in a previous article for The American Conservative. The importance of morale applies to any organization, but especially to one like a police force that is up against difficult situations. It’s humans beneath the blue, prone to doubts and fatigue like all of us.
Once morale goes, it usually takes another virtue with it: trust. From the most basic transactional contract between two people, all the way up to our institutions needing to cooperate, without trust between each side, there is little hope for anything getting done or working.
It’s one of the main things that undid us in Iraq and Afghanistan—the loss of trust happened at all levels: between junior officers and senior officers, between the military and their government, between the Western powers and the indigenous governments.
And now we are seeing it happening all over the U.S. Wright notes one of the reasons behind Austin’s explosive growth is the influx of Californians “escaping what they considered to be bad schools and inept government services,” combined with the slashing of police budgets, resulting in what some claim amounts to “a failed state.”
As inter-institutional relations break down, the loss of trust that goes with it has, not surprisingly, a trickle-down effect: People don't trust the police on the ground and are instead resentful and suspicious of them.
“If people trust that the law is being applied equitably and fairly, if they believe that the agents of the law—law enforcement, the courts—are operating justly and fairly, then they are more likely to cooperate with them,” Neil Gross, a former cop and author of Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture, tells First Things. “In the absence of that sense of legitimacy, of the laws operating in a just fashion, people can get extremely resentful, angry, alienated … and things can go downhill.”
It has been two months since the police killing of 36-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee. Five police officers have pleaded not guilty in his fatal beating, while the city's investigation into the incident has included at least thirteen officers, according to PBS.
“I have no trust in them to do anything,” Keedrum Franklin, a lifelong resident of Memphis told the recent PBS NewsHour report looking into the best path forward for the Memphis police in the wake of Nichols’s killing. “They have been knowing that [the situation] was horrible, so I don’t have any trust that they will do the right thing.”
The disbanding of the SCORPION unit to which the five police officers belonged—the acronym stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods—offers little solace. “Disbanding the unit does not disband the mindset,” Franklin says.
In other U.S. cities, residents are pushing back by voting on the problem—hence Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is gone, as is the police chief she backed. In Philadelphia, many locals are counting down the days till the second term of Mayor Jim Kenney expires in 2024. “He’ll be leaving Philadelphia immeasurably worse off than he found it,” Nick Russo writes in the Spectator, describing “the violence, the lawlessness, the corruption and above all the staggering municipal incompetence.”
At the same time, as the dust settles following the Defund the Police push, people are increasingly recognizing that the debate about U.S. policing has too often become a zero-sum game for both sides and that it needs to become more balanced. “I think there are a lot of persistent sources of misinformation or lack of information about what the real world, daily world of police officers is like,” Gross says, while acknowledging the persistence of what led him to become disillusioned. “What I found on the street was ‘cop culture’: the us versus them mentality: everyone is out to get you; never call out your fellow officers.”
He highlights that U.S. police chiefs increasingly acknowledge that a critical juncture has been reached in U.S. law enforcement in which police culture must change for the better—or that change will be forced on the police, and likely in ways that don’t suit them.
Gross notes that, as he highlights in his book, there are already places in the U.S. where these changes are being implemented successfully with dramatically beneficial effects, resulting in police and local communities working together to drive down crime.
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Those living in Austin will be hoping the same thing can happen here. Wright speaks to the head of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, Eduardo Margain, who is no stranger to “how violence can take over a country” following his family’s experiences in Monterrey, Mexico, before moving to Austin.
“If we fix public safety, we’re going to be the best city in the world,” Margain tells Wright.
It’s mighty optimistic for the city, not to mention for the U.S. at large. But maybe such hopes aren’t entirely misplaced.