Policing the Danger Narrative

Eisenberg, Avlana K. | January 1, 2023

The clamor for police reform in the United States has reached a fever pitch. The current debate has mainly centered around questions of police function: What functions should police perform, and how should they perform them to avoid injustice and unnecessary harm? This Article, in contrast, focuses on a central aspect of police culture—namely, how police envision their relationship to those policed. It exposes the vast reach of a deeply engrained “danger narrative” and demonstrates the disastrous consequences that this narrative has helped to bring about. Reinforced by police training, codified by courts, and broadly deployed, the danger narrative is an “us-versus-them” ideology that envisions “them”—all persons whom police are observing, investigating, detaining—as a lethal danger to “us”—law enforcement personnel. Structural and functional reforms have little hope of succeeding unless this toxic narrative can be displaced. The Article first explains the content of the danger narrative and its centrality both to policing and the law of policing. It then scrutinizes the narrative, finding that its core claims about the perils of policing are substantially exaggerated. The Article further explains how, ironically, these exaggerated claims actually create danger that could otherwise be avoided, and thus serve as an illegitimate “bootstrapping” argument for uses of excessive force. More troublingly still, the purportedly empirical danger narrative embeds a previously unexamined and entirely untenable normative proposition: Namely, that it is better for scores of suspects to be unjustifiably injured or killed by police than for any police officer to be injured. The Article concludes with a call for a new narrative frame to address both the empirical and normative pitfalls of the danger narrative and to permit meaningful police reform to take root. Drawing on insights from communitarian theory, and from such fields as medicine and aviation, it proposes institutional reforms that would promote core values of professionalism, including the adoption of data-driven, evidence-based practices, while also undermining the danger narrative’s pernicious us-versus-them ideology by cultivating empathy and reimagining police-community partnerships. Ultimately, the prospect of better and safer policing hinges on the adoption of these and other measures to inculcate in police departments a more accurate depiction of the real risks of in-the-line-of-duty violence.