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When Law Students Distrust the Police

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I’ve noticed something interesting this year: A growing number of my students don’t seem to trust the police very much.

Let me explain. I am in the middle of grading the final exams from my course on the law of evidence. A handful of rules turn on whether a party to a lawsuit has acted in good faith. In the past, when my exam has included questions drawing on these rules, nearly everyone in the class has quite properly written on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand answers.

This year things are different. For the first time, a significant subset of my students seems to be assuming that the police are at fault. If a piece of evidence in a criminal trial goes missing, it’s because of police misconduct. One of my exam questions involved a videotape that disappeared. The question of whether an officer can testify to its contents depends at least in part on whether the tape was lost in bad faith. I have used versions of this question for years. This spring was the first time that so many students -- I would say as many as 1 out of 4 -- simply assumed that the police had acted wrongly.

Maybe it’s just the availability heuristic at work. For nearly a year, the image of the police in the news media has been decidedly negative. Wrongs done by a handful of law enforcement officers have dwarfed any reporting about the more general good. Man-bites-dog stories may be breaking news, but they also alter our perceptions.

Are my students therefore just reflecting a general shift in opinion? Gallup, to great fanfare, announced a few days ago that public confidence in the police is the “lowest in 22 years.” But this figure likely reflects the widespread decline of faith in institutions.  As Gallup’s data make clear, the percentage of respondents who say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police is higher than the corresponding figure for any institution other than small business and the military -- and far ahead of, for example, the medical system, the presidency, the Supreme Court, the public schools, the news media and Congress.

Moreover, at 52 percent, the figure for approval of police is down only a single point from the 53 percent Gallup recorded in June 2014 -- that is, before Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland -- and therefore is unlikely to signal a broad decline based on the several tragedies of the past year.

Nor can we simply put this observation down to elite opinion. My students lean Democratic, and it’s certainly true that Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to tell pollsters they mistrust the police. But that gap has existed for years. The rise in the number of students willing to assume without evidence that the police are at fault is new. And with an enrollment of about 100, my evidence class included a fair-sized sampling of the student body.

Still, it’s possible I’ve just spotted a blip. After all, the tidal wave of negativity arose in a few months. Perhaps the mistrust will abate just as fast. Maybe, in a year or two, my students will go back to writing on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand answers when the exam question hypothesizes missing evidence.

But maybe they won’t. Maybe I’m seeing not a blip but a trend. And that would constitute a problem. My students are training to be lawyers, and lawyers, for better or worse, run the country. Many of my students will be legislators, administrators and judges. Their views of law enforcement matter.

And here a peculiarly ironic dissonance arises. My students, for the most part, are a liberal bunch. That makes them, among other things, enthusiasts of the regulatory state. But if they increasingly mistrust the police, it’s hard to know who’s supposed to enforce all the shiny new laws they hope to enact.

  1. We cannot conclude from these figures that the rest of the class assumed that the police were in the right. Most students properly took no position on whether the police acted in good faith or bad. 

  2. Especially government.

  3. These are listed in declining order -- that is, the Congress is lowest.

  4.  It’s true that there is a staggering black-white gap in confidence in the police. But the number of black students in my course is too small for this to be a driving factor. In any case, the gap has also been around for years, and the sharp uptick in mistrust has just arisen this year.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net