This article was also published in the Journal of Illinois Tactical Officer’s Association.

Public perception of and support for law enforcement is a “point in time” statistic. It isn’t fixed or written in stone. It is something that can be influenced and improved or it can deteriorate and decline, but it isn’t permanent. I know how frustrating it can be for many of the 1.2 million law enforcement officers in America[1] to be judged because of the actions of a few people. It was no different for the 1.4 million members of the military who were judged because of what eleven soldiers did at Abu Ghraib. While national news outlets have been effective at shaping the current negative perception of police officers, that image does not have to endure. In the wake of the Baltimore riots this past April, allow me to provide an approach and a method to police officers who want to rebuild trust and support in the communities they patrol and overcome the negative narrative.

The 20-60-20 Theory is a framework that I recommend law enforcement officers consider when seeking to earn the trust of the neighborhoods they work in. The 20-60-20 Theory helps to define things that you can control and should in turn focus on, as well as the things that you can’t control and shouldn’t spend time dealing with. The 20-60-20 Theory is built off the Pareto Principle, which is often discussed as the “80-20 Rule,” which says that, for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. If you were to apply the 80-20 Rule to business, it would say that 80% of a company’s revenue comes from 20% of their customers. Another example is that 20% of a company’s employees cause 80% of their problems. If you apply a standard distribution to the 80-20 Rule, you would create a bell curve with an equal 20% of the population on each end of the spectrum and a remaining 60% of the population in the middle, as shown in the diagram.

20-60-20 Theory

From Theory To Policing

When you apply the 20-60-20 Theory to law enforcement, this principle shows that there is going to be 20% of the population that is never going to support police officers. There is simply nothing that you can do to influence this group or sway them. For this negative 20 percent of the population, there is a corresponding 20 percent of the population that is going to show unwavering support and adoration for police officers and their mission. There is quite literally nothing that you can do to cause this group to stop supporting our nation’s law enforcement officers. These two groups on the extreme ends of the spectrum are often easy to identify because they display their emotional responses to each and every news story that is released and refuse to even consider opinions contradictory to their own. These two groups also represent the 40% of the population that we do not want to spend any time with because they aren’t evaluating situations rationally or logically, and we will never be able to change their opinion. By identifying this 40% of the population that we will not be able to influence in either direction, we are also able to identify the 60% of the population that we do want to focus our efforts on.

The remaining 60 percent of the population in the middle of the spectrum represents the group of people who have yet to make up their minds about whether to support or protest law enforcement. While recent events, such as national news coverage after the Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner incidents, might have caused the 60% to lean in one direction or the other, their views and opinions are not fixed and they are constantly looking for new information to help shape their opinions. Earning or losing the support of this informed and well-rounded 60% is essential because they are the majority. As the 60% has the ability to tip the scales significantly in either direction, police supporters need to be campaigning for the 60%’s support, and they have to do it while police critics are also attempting to influence the 60% with their anti-police narrative.

The decision to focus on the undecided 60% of the population isn’t just theory, but has also proven to be effective in recent history. During an extremely violent period of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007, local leaders throughout Iraq’s Al Anbar Province decided that supporting Al Qaeda instead of the U.S. Marines and Soldiers in the cities was no longer in their best interest. At the time, Marines were actively searching for and fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq (the negative 20% of the population) in cities like Ramadi, Haditha and Fallujah, while building a local police force from the supportive 20% of the population. Progress in Al Anbar was slow, however, because the middle 60% of the population were still supporting Al Qaeda. As the 60% of the population began to see the consequences of living in an Al Qaeda-controlled city and saw what their version of Sharia law entailed, their opinions changed, and the Al Anbar Awakening began.[2] When the local religious leaders started recommending that the men from their followings join the Iraqi Police, recruitment numbers exploded. As the local population turned on the negative 20%, Al Qadea operatives in Iraq were run out of the cities.

There are numerous similarities between the Anbar Awakening and the current situation for police officers here in the United States. Admittedly, a significant portion of a police officer’s job requires that you spend time focusing on and trying to prevent the negative 20% of the population from committing crimes, but focusing only on this group forces officers into a reactionary mindset. Spending time to earn the trust and support of the open-minded 60% of the population can help police officers get ahead of the curve. This doesn’t require an elaborate plan, just some basic human skills of showing respect, learning the names of the people in the community (not just the criminals,) helping people out where you can and demonstrating that you actually care. The 60% of the population you want to influence isn’t going to be swayed or influenced by words, but are going to be looking at your actions to determine how serious you are about building and earning trust. While the steps to actually develop a relationship aren’t anything new for police officers, we hope that by defining the target of your efforts (the 60%,) we can help to make your time spent in this pursuit more effective. The time to begin engaging with the neighborhood isn’t when an incident has just occurred because it is hard to build trust in high stakes situations. By talking with the middle 60% of the population and shaping their perception during low risk times, you will be able to make the steady and systematic gains to counter the negative narrative.

[1] Numbers based on 2008 data provided by two Department of Justice reports that can be found here and here.

[2] You can read a well-documented report by the Institute for the Study of War on the conditions leading to the Al Anbar Awakening and the results, here.