The Police Problem: Perception, Reality, and Trust

Are the police corrupt? Should we trust them? What role should they play in society?

This is a topic that is both deeply historical and immediately relevant. This article is about a specific problem in the national dialogue on police: how does the public’s perception about the police impact the public’s trust in that institution?

[Note: I’ve attempted to use relatively neutral language in this article. If you see something that might convey an unintended connotation, please let me know. I’m going to start with an allegory of apples to lay down a basic framework with which to discuss the police and trust in the last sections, “Trust Is Based on Perception” and “Moving Forward.”]

Perception vs. Reality

How many bad apples does it take to spoil the bunch? Well, that depends. How many does it take to actually spoil the bunch, and how many does it take to appear to spoil the bunch? When these numbers match, then our perception matches reality. But when these numbers differ, then we are misestimating spoilage.

Perception involves both verifiable facts and moral judgment. When it comes to bad apples, you need to know both how many it takes to spoil the bunch, and how many bad apples there are. Furthermore, apples are considered to be “good” and (as implied by their name) bad apples are considered to be “bad,” both of which are moral judgments. And, if you don’t like apples at all, then all apples are “bad,” regardless of being spoiled or not.

Overestimating Spoilage

When we overestimate spoilage, we are quicker to perceive the bunch of apples as spoiled, even when it is not. One reason this happens is because we are sensitive to observed phenomena, especially when they cause an immense impact on our well-being. This can lead us to overestimate both the future frequency and probability of those phenomena to occur.

For example, imagine that you got really bad food poisoning from some bad apples in your last couple of bunches. You now expect the next bunch of apples to spoil at 3 bad apples, but it will actually spoil at 12 bad apples. As for the number of bad apples you thought might be in the next batch, you thought there would be 6, but in fact there were only 3. Because you overestimated the spoilage, you thought that this bunch of apples was of a lower quality than it actually was.

Additionally, even if someone tried to show you that the barrel of apples was safe, you might still insist on checking all of the apples. After all, it’s usually better to be safe than sorry when it comes to good food safety.

Underestimating Spoilage

When we underestimate spoilage, we are slower to perceive the bunch of apples as spoiled, even when it has already gone bad. In contrast to overestimating spoilage, if we fail to observe phenomena as it occurs, or if the impact upon our well-being is minor, we can become blind to that phenomena: out of sight, out of mind.

For example, imagine that you have never gotten food poisoning from a bad bunch of apples. So you expect the next bunch of apples to spoil at 10 bad apples, but it will actually spoil with just 1 bad apple. As for the number of bad apples you expected in this batch, you thought there would be 1, but in fact there were 3. Because you underestimated spoilage, you thought that this bunch of apples was of a higher quality than it actually was.

Furthermore, even if you were confronted with the rotten bunch, an argument might break out about what really makes an apple “bad.” Or, about whether one can truly know if the whole bunch is spoiled from just a few bad apples.

Different and Shared Perceptions

Perception is further complicated when the facts are based on experience and involve deeply important values. Once we have a certain perception of the world, we tend to confirm our perception of reality by cherry picking the facts that support us, while ignoring the evidence that we might be wrong (for more on the confirmation bias, see “I Like It When I’m Right, Except When I’m Wrong”).

When we are confronted by someone that disagrees with our perception of reality, we sometimes use labels to describe them, often, along the lines of “you are being ….” However, instead of being helpful, these labels usually drive a wedge between us (for more on the danger of labels, see “Everyone Has Their Reasons: Be Wary of Labeling Others as Irrational”). Instead of using a label, you can recognize the factual error while also recognizing and accepting the other person and their experiences.

When we are only with people that agree with us, we all tend believe that we are right, even if our perception doesn’t match reality. For example, think about how people surrounded by only yes-men tend to suffer from groupthink, tunnel vision, overconfidence, etc. Living in our own little bubble and never venturing outside the comfort of our safety zone can harm both our creative process and decision-making ability.

Trust Is Based on Perception

We base our trust on our perception. So, when it comes to trust, perception often trumps reality.

In “Trust, Deception, and Transparency” I wrote,

At its core, trust is about the uncertainty of what people will do. To be trustworthy is to be predictable. Can you reliably predict what others are going to do? Can others reliably predict what you are going to do?

The question about whether someone can trust the police is about predictability: can I reliably predict when the police will do “right” or “wrong?”

In the spectrum of police favorability (love vs. hate), both extremes tend to trust the police. And that trust can be quite high. For example, one side might trust that the police will reliably do them and society good, while the other might trust that the police will reliably do them and society harm.

So, when the police are reliably “good” or “evil,” then we can trust them to do “good” or “evil” actions. However, when the lines of predictability are blurred, that trust becomes mistrust. And I think this is where we are at as a nation right now: if you look at the national level of society, and aggregate the public‘s feelings toward the police together, you get a mixed uncertainty about the role and behavior of the police.

Furthermore, when we talk about “the police” are we talking about the police in our neighborhood, municipality, state, or nation-wide? One neighborhood might have very good reasons to dislike the police, and expect the police to harass, abuse, neglect, and harm them and their community. However, another neighborhood might have a very positive relationship with the police, affirming the idea of “to serve and protect.”

These different experiences and expectations creates a disconnect between communities in the societal conversation about the police. Where one community might perceive the police as corrupt and abusive, another might perceive the police as upright and honest. And both can be right (for more on disconnected conversations,  see “Talking At, Not With: The Problem of Disconnected Conversations”). When these two conversations are taken together, then society has good reason to mistrust the police because it becomes hard to predict police behavior on an aggregate level.

Finally, we can be very loss averse, especially when it comes to trust. This means that we often find it safer to expect the worst from people than it is to give them the benefit of the doubt. Thus, it can take significant repetition of doing good for us to trust that someone will reliably do good again in the future. However, just a few instances of wrongdoing can be reason enough for us to trust that person will do wrong again in the future, regardless of prior good acts. It is because of this that we often ask, “how many bad apples does it take to spoil the bunch?” instead of “how many good apples does it take to preserve the bunch.”

Moving Forward

When it comes to the police, trust is a tricky question. When someone says that they trust the police, they usually mean that they trust the police to do both the right thing, and be predictable in doing it.

However, when someone says that they do not trust the police, do they mean that they don’t trust the police to do the right thing, or that they can’t predict what the police are going to next? The former is a moral and ethical issue. The latter is about mistrust.

I wish I had a comprehensive solution, but I believe the issues involved are too complicated to tackle in what I had intended to be a short article. And so I tackled the question about how our perception about the police impacts our trust in them.

To say that there is a problem of trust with the police is not to say that building trust is the solution. Rather, building trust – that the police are a force of good, and that we can trust them to do good – is a goal. The solution is the journey that we must take to get from where we are to where we want to be. And I’m open to suggestions on what that might look like.


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