A Boston Parable: A brief example of how police and community can enhance legitimacy and thereby become more effective.

For most of their histories, the Boston Police Department and the city’s Black community shared a relationship of mistrust and suspicion. In a relationship characterized by mistrust, parties always assume the worst when things go wrong

In 1991, when youth firearms homicides were raging in the city, the police and community were paralyzed by their mistrust. The official paradigm at that time went like this: we have young Black “super predators” inspired by the movie “Colors” (1988) remorselessly raining death on each other. In response, the police command, having achieved high rank and reputation by the lights of the metaphors of the “thin Blue Line” and the War on Crime” saw that their Job #1 was to “Beef Up” and “Crack Down” to “take back the streets.” Crime was for the police professionals. It was no place for amateurs, be they probation officers, community leaders or victims.

The role of the Black clergy in this narrative was to criticize from their pulpits all the overreaches that “crackdowns” always bring. The community, the 97% of people of all ages who lived, worked and went to school in the affected neighborhoods, were caught in the middle with no place to turn.

Then a small number of police at the line level, whose workplace was where the killing and dying were taking place, began to ask a new question: How can we stop the next killing from happening? They saw pretty quickly that they did not need any new laws or new government agencies to answer this question. They had the idea that they probably needed all the existing assets to be realigned in order to be effective. They had a general sense that they needed trust from others outside the Department in order to achieve this.

And at the time the cops started asking the new question, some Black clergy and probation officers were asking the same thing. How do we stop the dying and the heartbreak? Police on the street started running into a small cadre of new Black ministers in unusual locations far from the pulpit– such as School St. in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood — at unusual times, like 2 am. By sharing a purpose, police conferred professional legitimacy on the clergy and clergy conferred moral authority on the police. The same thing happened when a couple of Probation officers asked to ride along with the cops at night.

Under this new question, all kinds of things that were previously forbidden became possible. In 1988, conversations among police, Black clergy and Probation officers were forbidden by the top command. They said in effect, ‘We do not need these lightweights and gasbags getting in the way of professional policing: aggressive patrols and aggressive drug investigations.’

With the new question, however, about preventing the next shooting, those very parties soon became indispensable.

In the 1980’s early 1990’s aggressive became abusive in patrol and aggressive became corner-cutting with deadly consequences in narcotics work. As George Kelling pointed out, the old way was failing on its own terms. As more and more effort and resources were poured into the “war on crime and drugs,” violence rose apace. The police found themselves in constant hot water, with heat coming from several sources. Judges, faith and community leaders, news media and one blue-ribbon commission after another railed against violations of fourth amendment rights by the police.

By 1992, Probation officers accompanied by police officers on home visits to “impact players” on probation found themselves welcomed by the players’ loved ones. Not only did the judge’s order (that’s what probation terms are) lawfully authorize exhaustive searches, the loved ones felt that the teams were exercising legitimate authority.  Not one blue-ribbon panel has been gathered to look into Operation Nite Lite. Why? Because while Nite Lite was qualitatively much more intrusive than the mass, street pat-downs, families saw it as procedurally just, thus it enjoyed legitimacy that the “crackdowns” did not – and could not—create.

Families believed that the cops and PO’s had their young men’s best interests at heart, they really were looking to stop the bleeding and dying. The authorities were using procedural justice –their authority as spelled out in black letters in the judge’s order and expressed in the Department’s rules and procedures. They had built legitimacy. The net result? A dramatic decrease in shootings and firearm homicides. More legitimate equaled more effective, safer and more just.

Relationships get tested – and proven — when things go wrong from the point of view of one or both of the parties in the relationship. It’s what we do to move forward that counts. Who ever in human history has been a party to a valued relationship in which the parties never disagreed, quarreled or experienced disappointments and hurt feelings? In any effective relationship the ability of the parties to move forward together is the measurement of mutual legitimacy.

None of this should be misread as downplaying the paramount importance of officer safety and of assertive, muscular enforcement tactics when that’s what the situation demands. It does expressly mean that greater earned legitimacy equals greater officer safety. Police can use their power more effectively and at less cost to themselves and all concerned when the broader context of the police-community relationship is an atmosphere of legitimacy. Cost refers to all the costs: in physical and emotional injuries, time, effectiveness, reputation, and money.

The very same tactic that looks like an invading army of occupation in the context of mistrust looks like the acceptable use of necessary power in an atmosphere of legitimacy.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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