The decline of Social Capital in America and the link to police relations

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David R. Shearman

October 29, 2015

The current state of policing and police relations is extremely troubling to me. Having spent most of my career in the law enforcement profession it troubles me deeply when everyday there seems to be another video of a situation involving police use of force. When I look into these incidents, I try to do so impartially and unbiased in order to fully understand what prompted them.

There are many questions pertaining to why we are witnessing what appears to be an increase in excessive use of force incidents nationwide to include the obvious being that there is a smart phone set to video mode absolutely everywhere. But the fact that these types of incidents are captured on video and ultimately broadcasted on the airways necessarily mean that there is an actual increase?

I’m not absolutely certain as many statistics are published one way or the other. However, these incidents captured on video also provide possible evidence of a larger and even more serious societal issue which may be the root of the problem. There are predictors studied and utilized by social scientist, psychologists and other professionals that can reflect how a society interacts and maintains its norms.

Social Trust and Social Capital are two of these.

Social Trust is the belief in the integrity, reliability and faith we have in one another and according to national surveys we don’t trust one another much anymore. According to the General Social Survey, who surveys and studies these social concepts, since 1972 Americans no longer place great trust in as each other. In fact, in 1972 46% of adults trusted most people but in 2012 that fell to 33% – a significant decrease.

Social capital is defined as the network of social connections that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation. Psychologists and sociologists often explain social capital as the product in establishing trust and norms in these networks in order to develop social cohesion, cooperative communities and community involvement. These scientists indicate that trust and confidence are key components in maintaining adequate levels, per se, of social capital in a society and consequently represent the overall health of a community. These same national surveys indicate that social capital has steadily declined since 1972 to an all-time low in 2012 and spans across the full spectrum of adults and includes high school seniors. Researchers had thought that the Post 9/11 generation would revive the social capital in America but the surveys indicated the opposite. In fact the Millennials scored lower than Baby Boomers and the Generation X.

So trust and confidence are vital components to a smoothly functioning society. Evidently though, we distrust our leaders, our institutions and by the looks of things that distrust has spilled over big time into the rule of law in this country.

In my opinion this – distrust and lack of confidence – is perhaps the root cause for the rampant problems plaguing our law enforcement community. Without trust and confidence we cannot have respect for one another or our institutions.

This is a classic situation of second and third order effects. The typical sequence seems to go like this. First a person is suspected of violating the law and the police are called. The suspect automatically disrespects the rule of law as an institution and the police officer. The suspect does not comply with the orders and requests of the officer because of this lack of confidence and distrust. The police officer, who is sworn to uphold the law, now has to take more physical action and an altercation ensues. The altercation many times escalates to a point of deadly use of force or excessive use of force.

The recent incident regarding the deputy sheriff in South Carolina is a classic example. The student was violating school policy and then refused to comply with the teacher and principals orders to stop using her cell phone. The student then refused to leave the classroom. The incident flared up to a disturbing the peace violation and the school resource officer – deputy sheriff was called in and, well, you all have seen the video by now and you know the rest of the story. By the way, I am not defending the deputy just pointing out possible reasons.

In these situations there are no winners – only losers. The deputy has been fired and arrested and the student had some possible injuries. The kids in the classroom were negatively impacted. And the Sheriff Department has a black-eye. The law enforcement community is looked upon as being out of control and our society is impacted.

All of this could and should have been avoided but it wasn’t. All of this was due to a lack of respect, a lack of confidence and a lack of trust.

Respect or lack thereof, is therefore the probable root cause of the possible increase in the use of force incidents occurring throughout the country derived from the serious decline in social trust and social capital we have in our society.

Viper One Six – Out

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