John Gottman of the University of Washington has spent years studying how couples interact and why they break up. He has concluded that the best predictor of divorce is when one or both partners have contempt for the other.
Contempt can grow up even between parties who must rely on one another. Something like that seems to have happened with Minneapolis and its Police Department, which are now facing the real possibility of a divorce by referendum.
Before that choice is made, it's important to address the perceptions of contempt that both the police and some in the community have experienced.
More than a few citizens of Minneapolis have expressed contempt for the Minneapolis Police Department. It's hard not to get the meaning of messages like "F@#k the police," that have been chanted, spray painted and written on social media for the last few years. Within the protests against police violence, contempt for the police — statements that they are unworthy of respect — have often been at the forefront.
Much of that contempt, of course, has been rooted in the well-documented actions of the police — they have earned it through too many officers' own contempt for the citizens they serve, in particular the Black citizens of the city.
Think of Derek Chauvin's knee on the neck of George Floyd. Didn't his impassive demeanor as he killed a man reflect anything so much as contempt? Or remember the potential juror in the Chauvin trial who lived near the site of the murder, who recalled the MPD officers who rode through the neighborhood playing the song "Another One Bites the Dust" after a resident had been killed or arrested.
Or, as recently revealed, consider the Minneapolis police commander who supervised officers during protests and property destruction on May 30, 2020, telling them after a shift: "You guys are out hunting people now and it's just a nice change of tempo," and "F@#* those people." All of it reflects a culture of contempt within the police department for the people they serve.
What we have is a marriage on the rocks. And the timing is terrible.
As my mentor and colleague Hank Shea pointed out in "10 reasons to vote 'No' " (Opinion Exchange, Oct. 4), the increase in murders in Minneapolis risks spawning other problems, including flight from the city by residents and businesses. These most serious crimes create deep tragedies, often concentrated in minority communities. That can't, and shouldn't, be ignored.
It turns out, though, that one key to reducing murders will be overcoming mutual contempt. Research has shown that it is not long sentences that deter crime, but rather the certainty of getting caught. That certainty can be created by more cameras and a visible police presence, but more important is actually solving crimes.
In the most important cases — murders — it is the contempt for police in the community that too often prevents those who kill from being successfully prosecuted, because residents don't trust the police enough to help with investigations. As of January of this year, police were solving less than half of the murder cases investigated. That problem can't be blamed on the pandemic, "defunding," or the George Floyd case, either. In 2017, the Minneapolis police were solving only 54% of murder cases.
Can this relationship be saved? As always, only if both sides approach the project with humility, openness and a true desire to change. It is hard to see that in a police department that has offered little measurable evidence that its culture has genuinely changed. In that absence, the feelings of many in the community remain unchanged, as well.
I don't urge voters one way or the other on the referendum regarding police in Minneapolis. I am not a resident of the city; I don't pretend to have that authority. As a person who has spent his career as a prosecutor, a teacher and a student of criminal law, though, I will advise this: Unless the hard work of prying out this toxic contempt is done, little will get better.
Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas.