In the face of increased public interest in law enforcement’s relationship with citizens, many Americans are asking how police officers can build positive connections with those they are tasked with protecting.

Emory University political science professor Tom Clark visited campus Wednesday to discuss his research on how fatal police incidents impact public trust in government. His presentation “Policing, Race and Democracy,” which was sponsored by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale, discussed the relationship between police shootings and the overall willingness of citizens to call on those who are sworn to protect them. Clark also addressed the question of how the racial makeup of communities affects this relationship.

“The more troubling problem is the movement from cops [being] on our side to more people [being] scared of the police, and I believe that difference is real,” Clark said.

Clark’s research focuses on whether the occurrence of use-of-force encounters with police, like shootings, will adversely affect community members’ sense of trust in their government. To address the question, Clark studied every shooting involving an officer over the past seven years in the 400 largest law-enforcement agencies in the country. He compared this data with the number of requests for nonemergency services in the same jurisdictions to investigate whether increased conflicts with police affect community members’ willingness to contact their government for aid in other nonemergency situations such as 311 calls for snow removal or other local services.

According to Clark, people’s relationships with local authorities likely affect issues like voter participation and public perception of the government in general.

Clark also emphasized that subtle changes in how police officers present themselves can have measurable impacts on citizens’ views on government, even if violent confrontations are not involved.

“There is a difference between cops who show up in fatigues [and] those showing up in uniform” he said.

At the talk, Deborah Beim, a Yale political science professor, suggested that Clark look into police training academies that serve multiple jurisdictions in order to more thoroughly understand why certain groups might respond differently to similarly trained police officers.

Michael Sierra-Arevalo GRD ’18 described Clark’s project as “ambitious.” Asked whether he was convinced by the results of Clark’s research, he noted that “contact with the punitive aspects of the criminal justice system does affect people’s willingness to engage civically.”

“It just makes intuitive sense that if you’re already inclined to believe that police don’t have your best interests in mind, why should any other aspects of the state be any different?” Sierra-Arevalo said.

Kobe Rizk | kobe.rizk@yale.edu