Be angry if you want, the time has come for us to get serious about changing the system.
A few weeks ago, model Syd K. Innoveria hit me up about doing an ACAB photoshoot. Desperately wanting a new face in front of my camera and impossibly bored from not being able to shoot the past several months, I jumped at the opportunity, not bothering to ask what ACAB might stand for. Sure, it was obvious that it was something anti-establishment, and that usually is all the information I need; I’m all for anti-establishment causes. When I finally got around to checking on the acronym, though, I had some hard thinking to do.
ACAB=All Cops Are Bitches.
Okay, we have to stop and consider the ramifications. Do I agree with this underlying philosophy and how does it relate to my existing opinions about policing and incarceration? ACAB isn’t an actual, formal organization but more of an Adhoc social media tag for highlighting the discrepancies committed by police officers. Am I being unfair and unreasonable to police officers if I do this shoot?
Then, as I wrestled with the concept, I was reminded, repeatedly, sometimes loudly, of a couple of adages that apply to too many situations. One is, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and the other says, “You don’t build strong houses when all you have is a jackhammer.” Police departments, as they currently exist, are hammers looking for nails. Prisons are jackhammers, destroying rather than constructing.
I expect some people (perhaps most) to respond with, “but it’s only a few bad cops.” Please. Stop. As long as good cops are not reporting bad cops, as long as the system allows bad cops to not be held responsible for their crimes, as long as police who commit murder are allowed to keep their jobs, the problem isn’t “a few bad cops.” The problem is that All Cops Are Bitches in a dysfunctional system fucking over everyone but the elite.
So yeah, we did the photoshoot.
What’s important to me, though, is that the pictures come with an explanation of the problem and a strong proposal for a workable solution. Those who are familiar with Old Man Talking know that I’m rarely at a loss for words, especially on matters I feel are important. This is one of those matters. So, if you want to see the pictures, you’re going to have to read the article, or at least scroll through it. Maybe a paragraph here or there will grab hold.
And if you’re inclined to comment, know that I will absolutely ignore you if you haven’t read the whole thing and followed up on every resource (yes, I can tell). I don’t consider anecdotal evidence factual. Your opinion doesn’t carry substantial weight. We’re dealing in facts here, so if you don’t have source materials at the ready, don’t bother challenging me.
The problem here is undebatable. What matters is the solution. Enjoy the pictures, but consider the words carefully. The time has come for a change.
The police blotter from overnight recently has too many entries for my comfort. Among them are these:
- Woman assaulted
- Foot pursuit of candy bar thief
- Report of shots fired (#1)
- Report of shots fired (#2)
- Report of shots fired (#3)
- Motorcycle collision
- Report of shots fired (#4)
What disturbs me about those events is that they all occurred within a two-mile radius of our home, a neighborhood that, when I moved here seven years ago, seemed quiet and peaceful compared to much of the rest of the city. If there’s a sobering thought here it’s that it still is quieter and more peaceful than much of the rest of the city.
Then, as I’m writing, another alert comes in: Man attacked in stabbing, suspect fled in a car.
Spread the search out to include the entire city and the picture grows darker. Within the past 24 hours, these are just some of the additional incidents that have occurred.
- Person shot at convenience store
- Police pursuit of stolen vehicle
- Residence, vehicles, struck by gunfire
- Report of man chasing people with machete
- Woman assaulted
- Report of shots fired at hotel
- Man shot in furniture store parking lot
- Report of armed man
- Report of man shot
- Report of shots fired
- Home burglarized
- Pedestrian struck by vehicle
- Shot fired from vehicle
- Report of armed robbery
- Woman assaulted during armed robbery
- Report of shots fired
- Report of knife-carrying person in fight
- Report of armed group of eight men and women
- Report of shots fired
- Two men fighting
- Shots fired
- Report of knife-throwing woman
- Two men brandishing guns at Dairy Queen
- Shots fired
- Man making threats with gun and knife
- Armed carjacking
- Shots fired
- Dumpster fire. A real one.
That’s all within less than 24 hours and doesn’t include things like domestic disturbances or other forms of domestic crime that take longer to discover.
Such a list raises a lot of concern. There have been a lot of ideas and conversations around how to address moments of increased violence and very little has worked—nothing that can be emulated over any broad area. More policing hasn’t worked. Gun laws haven’t worked. Faith-based programs haven’t worked. Anti-violence campaigns haven’t worked. To find ourselves in this position in 2020 raises a philosophical question that may be uncomfortable to answer: Are we, as humans, predisposed to violence? Is it possible that we simply cannot help ourselves and that violence is going to happen no matter what we do?
Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not.
Mythology is littered with accounts of early violence in conjunction with early human development. The story of Cain killing his brother, Abel, comes to the mind of those familiar with Abrahamic religious traditions. Other mythologies have their moments of fratricide as well. Madea killed her brother Apsyrtus. In Nordic mythology, Höǒr kills his brother Balder. Romulus killed Remus. Osiris murdered Set. The Pandavas killed their brother Karna. There hardly seems to be a religious tradition of any kind without some form of fratricide in the earliest stories.
But none of those mythologies can be considered authoritative and may have been merely cautionary in their intent rather than attempts at documenting any real history. Making assumptions or conclusions from unreliable and likely fictional accounts is hardly helpful in addressing real-world problems.
Where mythology suggests, science can confirm. In 2001, the late Phillip L. Walker, at the time of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a well-respected anthropologist (and Indiana native) known for developing methods of extracting sociological knowledge from archeological remains, published an article in the Annual Review wherein he laid out a detailed argument that interpersonal violence, especially among men, has been prevalent throughout history. He argues that “no form of social organization, mode of production, or environmental setting appears to have remained free from interpersonal violence for long.”
How deeply ingrained are we talking about? Walker quotes evidence from a 1986 study showing that as much as 600,000 years ago our earliest ancestors in what is now Ethiopia were “defleshing the heads of other people.”
We, mere mortals of the non-scientific world, are enamored with the tales of ancient violent crime as much as we are the not-so-ancient. Our predilection with police procedural television programming is sufficient evidence of our grotesque fascination and it’s at this point that we want to fancy ourselves as kitchen table philosophers, pondering why our ancestors were so violent, as though we have somehow risen above our past. If anything, we have gotten worse. Walker states, “The social anonymity and isolation of modern urban society has also created opportunities for new forms of violence that, as far as we know, did not exist.” He points specifically to serial killers and shaken baby syndrome, two forms of violent crime that did not exist among our earlier ancestors.
Neither does Dr. Walker consider the argument of nature versus nurture to be anything more than “a sterile exercise,” stating that, “We are the products of both our biological and cultural heritage and their combinations are, for all practical purposes, inseparable.” He calls materialist/ecological models simplistic and the myopic focus on chasing after prestige, mates, or gender-based “binaristic” thinking as suspect.
The only strong causal pattern seen over a survey of millennia of violence is the tight, almost forecastable relationship between climate instabilities and large-scale outbreaks of violence. Crop failures caused by dramatic shifts in climate stimulated frequent outbursts of warfare and civil unrest. Most Americans like to think we are immune to that problem, but with one in three Americans not having enough food to eat, should we be surprised that our hunger drives frustration that turns to anger, resulting in acts of violence we would never consider were our lives, all our lives, more financially sustained.
A young mother with a one-month-old baby at home is shot in the chest as she’s driving her car. As her close friends and family ask why, we realize the futility of the question. The young woman was not involved in a declared war. Therefore, her homicide can only be considered an act of malevolence, whether intentional or accidental. Someone irresponsibly handled a loaded firearm resulting in death. End of story.
So, we sit here faced with a couple of soul-stirring questions. Can this tidal wave of violence be stopped and how do we appropriately respond to those who commit these crimes?
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, the predominant belief fell along the lines of “an eye for an eye.” Beyond that, institutionalization, prisons, and mental hospitals were supposed to remove the violent perpetrators from society, theoretically for “rehabilitation” purposes until they are “fit” to be released into society.
Here’s the problem with that philosophy: It doesn’t work.
Granted, once upon a time, it was, marginally, effective. Don Steman, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University, wrote in 2017: “Overall, the increased use of incarceration through the 1990s accounted for between 6 and 25 percent of the total reduction in crime rates.” There is no metric by which a maximum result of 25 percent can be seen as a good thing. Even at its best, incarceration hardly proves itself to be effective at reducing crime.
Steman continues, though, and in the next sentence states, “Since 2000, however, the increased use of incarceration accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall crime reduction.” Zero. Incarceration stopped helping at all.
Steman’s research drives home four critical points:
- Incarceration has a diminishing impact on overall crime.
- Incarceration has little to no effect on violent crime.
- Additional incarceration increases crime in states and communities with already high incarceration rates.
- Incarceration is an expensive way to achieve little public safety.
Putting people in jail does not keep anyone safer. Instead, prisons create an illusion that the government is “doing its job” by keeping “bad people” off the streets. The illusion is crumbling before our eyes and now is the time we must realize that if we want safer streets, safer, neighborhoods, and better relationships between people, we need to be looking for a better solution, probably one that doesn’t involve prisons at all.
Yet, there’s that police blotter that just keeps growing.
- Man shot, in stable condition
- Shots fired at home
- Six shots heard
- Man hit in face with laptop
- Report of woman armed with knife, stick
- Report of shots fired from vehicle
- Man exposing himself, chasing woman
- Person shot
- Person robbed
- Home break-in
- Two men assaulted person at White Castle
- Teen attacking woman
- Person armed with knife
- Man stabbed
- Residential burglary
- Armed carjacking
- Report of men in cars with guns
There was a time when a blotter like that would have meant a busy day for local news media. In 2020, though, none of those stories even made it past the first cut. Instead, they are overshadowed by stories of more dramatic violence, such as the arrest of several men for attempting to kidnap a governor. It’s not enough that violent crime is increasing, but violence on large, extrapersonal scales threatens not only communities but whole sections of society. Consider some of these recent examples.
- Early morning shooting outside an Indianapolis sports bar kills 3, wounds 4.
- Seven people shot at a funeral home in Milwaukee.
- Two people killed, six injured in a shooting at a Waterloo, Iowa motorcycle club.
- Two killed, 14 injured in a backyard shooting in Rochester, New York.
- Two dead, six injured in a shooting near Rutgers University.
- In Manchester, TN, a man killed an injured another firing from inside his car, then attempted to carjack three vehicles, wounding two, before taking two other people as hostages.
- A shooting at a marijuana grow house in Aguanga, California left seven dead.
- Shooting at a Sparta, Georgia birthday party killed one and wounded six others.
Seem excessive? Those all happened within 30 days and were only the largest of what qualified as mass shootings during that time.
We are a violent species. Looking at statistics based on homicides per 100,000 people, the United States ranks 20th, with 5.35 intentional homicides per 100,000 people. There are 19 other countries whose numbers are considerably higher. However, Russia (10.82) is the only other country that would be considered “developed” or “first world.” The expectation, not only among ourselves but around the world, is that we should do better—we should be better people.
Why are we not better people? We can make a lot of excuses, but when one looks at the numbers it comes down to these few things:
- Mental illness
What would baffle us is the fact that none of those causes are new or surprising. We’ve been collectively aware of these causes for at least 50 years and in many cases longer. The evidence supporting these causal events only piles up. Yet, we still have not responded directly to any of these in ways that are lasting and meaningful.
Let’s consider mental illness, for example. We have known for multiple generations that things like child abuse, domestic abuse, and bullying contribute to creating a more violent society. There’s not a worthwhile contradiction to that argument. Yet, we fail to provide any treatment where it can do any good or intervention where it should reasonably be applied. We ignore both the victims and the perpetrators, never treating the PTSD and other mental health issues that perpetuate violent behavior.
Widely accepted studies claim that one in five adults, over 46 million people in the US, experienced serious mental illness in 2018. If that number seems a bit low, it probably is. Testing for mental illness in the United States is extremely low and doctors often don’t report what they consider to be “minor” or “temporary” situations that are treated without medication. Without appropriate levels of diagnosis, anything approaching adequate treatment is impossible.
Mental illness is a massive umbrella that, on its own, fails to get enough attention because for too long the very idea that one would see a therapist or a psychologist was an admission that one was “crazy” and instantly made that person a social pariah. Psychiatry was looked on as a form of voodoo medicine and their practices considered suspect by the mainstream medical community.
I was a young twelve-year-old when my mother was hospitalized for a month in a mental facility. Publicly, church members and friends, even family, were told that she was ill and receiving treatment. Later, much later, Mother would say she had a nervous breakdown. The fact? Mother had clinical depression and was hospitalized following repeated announcements of suicidal ideations. If she were alive to experience the same symptoms today, especially if she were in her late 30s as she was then, she would be treated with medication and therapy and no one would think anything of it, but then, in the early 1970s, few of those options existed, especially in rural Oklahoma. Mental health was strictly for “crazy people,’ and too many of our public perceptions and public policies regarding mental health were shaped by those attitudes.
While acceptance might have changed socially, laws have yet to catch up with the countless ways in which mental health affects our behavior and treats people suffering from acute and critical diagnoses are treated as mere criminals and not given the treatment they need, leading to even stronger anti-social behavior. Even today, with most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) still in effect, federal law does not require health insurance providers to provide any kind of mental health coverage. In fact, according to the most recent data available (2011-2017), over 7.5 million adults with mental illness remain uninsured. Uninsured means untreated and untreated means they are more likely to exhibit antisocial activities.
One of the challenges that has recently come to light is the degree to which dopamine and serotonin affect one’s perceptions. This is critical as we look at the increase in violence as well as the increase in police shootings of unarmed people. The scenario works something like this: A person walking or running at night, let’s say it’s a person of color, is on alert. Dopamine kicks in, making them more aware of sounds and smells and anything that might present a danger. They’re looking around, anxious to get to their destination without anything bad happening.
Into this situation now impose a couple of police officers, or worse yet, a single officer on patrol. They’re following a report of a “suspicious person” in the neighborhood. They see the person of color running and racially-biased training tells them to stop the person and investigate. The officer’s serotonin levels immediately spike, affecting their ability to make rational, informed decisions.
What happens next is the tragic tale of too many unarmed black people. Anxious and scared, the runner’s dopamine makes them chatty and their gestures exaggerated. The officer, equally anxious and possibly equally frightened, has serotonin flooding their brain telling them that every move the runner makes could be a move toward a weapon. In a split instance, the officer, who, at that moment, would clinically be considered mentally incapacitated by the serotonin, pulls their service weapon and fires, not once, but multiple times, killing the unarmed runner for no reason other than the tired excuse, “the officer felt threatened.”
The relationship between serotonin and violence is well documented. Serotonin inhibits one’s impulses, doesn’t allow for reasonable responses, impairs cognition and social affiliation, and dismantles the regulation of emotion. For anyone who already tends towards violence, especially those with police and military training, serotonin is what pushes them to pull the trigger, throw the grenade, or launch the rocket.
Serotonin also affects aggressive acts in a broader social context. Menahem Krakowski (see previous link), states, “… serotonergic function has an effect not only on the individual but also on the group dynamics, and it is in turn influenced by these dynamics.” We see this in the manner in which political rallies can incite violence. The president whips up the crowd, gets them chanting, and serotonin levels for everyone influenced by the speech increases. They, then, under the influence of increased serotonin levels, are more likely to commit acts of violence toward those the president demonizes. This makes the president culpable in those acts because he is inherently responsible for the irresponsible actions of those in attendance. He is responsible for the serotonin increase.
This is the effect of mental illness on our society, though. Serotonin dysfunction is just one of the many diagnoses that can lead to violence and yet is routinely unrecognized in the majority of people it affects. Therefore, if we are going to reduce violence in our streets, we have to immediately address the mental health problem. Not only do our insurance laws need to change so that mental health coverage is universal, the situation demands that social workers, not armed police, be available to address situations that are not already presenting violence. We’ve tried teaching police de-escalation tactics but that defies their own serotonin dysfunction which ultimately wins out.
Poverty is another significant issue that not only leads to initial violence but recurring violence after incarceration. The Brookings Institute published an empirical study in 2018 showing the strong connection between poverty and crime rates, something that was already evident anecdotally but carried even more punch than expected. Among their findings was this statement:
“Three years prior to incarceration, only 49 percent of prime-age men are employed, and, when employed, their median earnings were only $6,250. Only 13 percent earned more than $15,000. Tracking prisoners over time and comparing employment and earnings before and after incarceration we find surprisingly little difference in labor market outcomes like employment and earnings. …In the first full calendar year after their release, only 55 percent of those previously incarcerated have any reported earnings, and the median earnings of those that do are just above $10,000.”
Poverty doesn’t just lead to violent crime, though that is an area where crime has been increasing. Poverty also influences burglary, shoplifting, and online scams resulting in mail fraud charges. Scroll back up to the first list of police blotters. See that entry about foot pursuit of a candy bar thief? That’s a perfect example of how poverty results in small and relatively meaningless crimes that then end up putting people into a criminal system that is nearly impossible to escape and contributes to further poverty in the future.
The severity of poverty as a factor in crime is not something that can be understated. According to the Brookings Institute study, “In almost all states, between 40 and 50 percent of the prison population grew up in families in the bottom quintile [20 percent] of the income distribution.” Additionally, it found that “Neighborhoods and social inclusion matter to incarceration and labor market outcomes. Prisoners are also disproportionately likely to have grown up in socially isolated and segregated neighborhoods with high rates of child poverty and in predominantly African-American or American Indian neighborhoods.”
To be fair, poverty doesn’t affect only affect people of color. Caucasian families account for roughly ten percent of the total poverty population. If we’re going to look at who is most affected by poverty, there are better ways to chop up the numbers.
24/7 Wall Street reviewed 2017 American Community Data from the U.S. Census Bureau to identify 11 distinct groups that are more most prone to poverty. Nothing here is remotely surprising to those who are in the listed groups, but for those who are privileged, it helps to go over them yet again.
Poverty rate: 10.7 percent
• Total in poverty: 26.2 million
• Service workers as percentage of U.S. population: 8.2 percent
• Service workers as percentage of poor population: 6.6 percent
Poverty rate: 14.5 percent
• Total in poverty: 23.6 million
• Women as percentage of U.S. population: 51.0 percent
• Women as percentage of poor population: 55.4 percent
HISPANICS AND LATINOS
Poverty rate: 19.4 percent
• Total in poverty: 11.2 million
• Hispanics and Latinos as percentage of U.S. population: 18.2 percent
• Hispanics and Latinos as percentage of poor population: 26.2 percent
CHILDREN UNDER FIVE
Poverty rate: 20.2 percent
• Total in poverty: 3.9 million
• Children under 5 as percentage of U.S. population: 6.1 percent
• Children under 5 as percentage of poor population: 9.2 percent
Poverty rate: 20.4 percent
• Total in poverty: 4.5 million
• Non-citizens as percentage of U.S. population: 7.0 percent
• Non-citizens as percentage of poor population: 10.6 percent
BLACK AND AFRICAN AMERICANS
Poverty rate: 23.0 percent
• Total in poverty: 9.1 million
• African Americans as percentage of U.S. population: 12.5 percent
• African Americans as percentage of poor population: 21.4 percent
ADULTS WITH LESS THAN A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA
Poverty rate: 24.7 percent
• Total in poverty: 6.3 million
• Adults w/o a high school diploma as percentage of U.S. population: 8.1 percent
• Adults w/o a high school diploma as percentage of poor population: 14.9 percent
AMERICAN INDIANS AND ALASKA NATIVES
Poverty rate: 25.4 percent
• Total in poverty: 670,571
• American Indian and Alaska Natives as percentage of U.S. population: 0.8 percent
• American Indian and Alaska Natives as percentage of poor population: 1.6 percent
AMERICANS WITH A DISABILITY
Poverty rate: 25.7 percent
• Total in poverty: 9.6 million
• Disabled as percentage of U.S. population: 11.8 percent
• Disabled as percentage of poor population: 22.6 percent
Poverty rate: 30.4 percent
• Total in poverty: 2.6 million
• Unemployed as percentage of U.S. population: 2.7 percent
• Unemployed as percentage of poor population: 6.1 percent
SINGLE RECENT MOTHERS
Poverty rate: 44.3 percent
• Total in poverty: 592,588
• Unmarried recent mothers as percentage of U.S. population: 0.4 percent
• Unmarried recent mothers as percentage of poor population: 1.4 percent
As frightening as some of those numbers are, consider that they are looking at a society well before the current recession caused by the global pandemic. Economic shutdowns have caused a severe boom in unemployment that adversely and disproportionately affects service workers and people of color. For those who fit within multiple categories, the situation only grows direr, and too often the result is crime, and too often that crime results in violence.
The United States has never done well in addressing poverty. From the earliest moments in the Jamestown colony, we have held to the notion that those who don’t work, don’t eat. While that sounds like a fantastic hedge against laziness, it’s a moronic capitalistic concept that ties a person’s value to their occupation. Moreover, in contemporary terms, having what is considered a full-time job doesn’t mean one is still not in poverty. In 2016, the last year for which numbers are available. 3.4 million full-time employees were still below the poverty line. Again, during the pandemic recession, those numbers have significantly increased.
If we are going to put a dent in poverty-related crime, the United States is going to have to get more creative and more aggressive in addressing poverty. We’re not simply talking about employment opportunities, either. If we are going to address poverty, we need to make sure the federal minimum wage is sufficient for a full-time worker to afford a two-bedroom apartment reasonably close to their place of work. If we are going to address poverty, we need to make sure no one, regardless of employment status, goes without food, shelter, education, and health care. If we are going to address poverty, we need to look more at comprehensive public transportation, remove prohibitive insurance requirements, and improve overall infrastructure.
There’s a lot to be done, a lot that can be done that doesn’t involve police or prisons. We should focus on every possible alternative before turning to something like policing that has not only failed to stop violent crime, but itself has become rife with corruption and outright murder.
Hand-in-hand with poverty is the issue of hunger. Hunger and poverty are not the same, though. Even where people have incomes that one might consider sufficient to take care of food costs there are often extenuating circumstances, especially in minority and/or single-parent households that leave people, especially children, without enough to eat.
The 2018 Report on Food Crises reported that conflict and insecurity are the primary culprits behind food insecurity in 18 countries, accounting for 60 percent of the global total. The number of food-insecure people needing urgent humanitarian action is growing and in nearly all regions. Climate disasters, such as droughts, are also a main driver.
The World Food Program reported earlier this year that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to an 82 percent increase in global food insecurity, affecting around 270 million people by the end of the year. WFP Executive Director David Beasley said that “until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos. Without it, we could see increased social unrest and protests, a rise in migration, deepening conflict, and widespread under-nutrition among populations that were previously immune from hunger.”
In 2016, Alex Piquero authored a study looking at the link between nutrition and violence. He wrote for the El Paso Times, “…37 percent of the study’s participants who had frequent hunger as children reported that they had been involved in interpersonal violence. Of those who experienced little to no childhood hunger, 15 percent said they were involved in interpersonal violence.”
José Graziano de Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) wrote in 2016, “For human beings to prosper, they need to enjoy peace and freedom, and they shouldn’t live in fear. Together with the eradication of hunger and poverty, these three elements are vital if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by all countries. Assistance to guarantee food security and protect and rehabilitate the agricultural sector is an important contribution that often goes unnoticed. Together with its clear role in the fight against hunger, it can also help to mitigate and even prevent conflict.”
That many Americans think it is perfectly acceptable to allow people, especially children, to starve right under their noses is inexcusable. The studies showing the links between hunger and violence are numerous and conclusive. If we want to reduce violence, hunger is one of the first and more important areas that has to be addressed.
What’s important to realize, however, is that hunger problems have to go beyond food pantries and school lunches. Hunger affects adults at similar proportions as it does children and adults are the ones more likely to commit acts of violence as a result. Food stability is the key, not occasional handouts from charitable sources that may be present one day and gone the next. People need to know that the meal they’re eating tonight isn’t going to be the last one they have for the unforeseeable future. Confidence in keeping families fed is critical to holding down incidents of violence. Where American cities fail is thinking that one-time programs make a long-term difference and that concept has yet to produce viable results.
Compounding all these problems and adding critical elements of its own is racism and to this end, there has been so much scholarly study and research done over the past 30 years that one would think the matter is incontrovertible. Yet, continued backlash and reluctance on the part of predominantly white government officials to commit to any worthwhile change beyond mere symbolism is deeply disturbing.
Let’s be clear: painting Black Lives Matter on a street, pulling down statues of Confederate generals, renaming institutions to minimize the popularity of racists is a nice gesture, but gestures don’t change the long-standing policies that have caused systemic racism throughout the United States long before its founding. If we are going to see a reduction in violence, more than anything else, white people are going to have to get on board with a truckload of changes for long-standing policies they didn’t realize were holding back black, indigenous people of color (BIPOC).
There’s a ton of data to unpack on this topic, so hold on to your eyeballs, I’m going to throw a lot at you all at once. I’ll leave it to you to chase down the rabbits that cause you the most concern.
- The effects of socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, exposure to poor neighborhoods, poor access to public education, poor access to early childhood education, and exposure to harmful chemicals (such as lead) and pollution have been effectively covered by Robert J. Sampson (September 1987). “Urban Black Violence: The Effect of Male Joblessness and Family Disruption”. American Journal of Sociology. 93 (2): 348–382. doi:10.1086/228748 and again in 2005, . “Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence”. American Journal of Public Health. 95 (2): 224–232. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.037705
- Racial housing segregation, redlining, and racism in mortgage lending prevent BIPOC from living in lower crime neighborhoods. Again, the evidence is rather overwhelming. Let’s start with Ben Feldmeyer (September 1, 2010). “The Effects of Racial/Ethnic Segregation on Latino and Black Homicide”. The Sociological Quarterly. 51 (4): 600–623. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2010.01185.x. ISSN 0038-0253, then Brendan O’Flaherty; Rajiv Sethi, (November 1, 2007). “Crime and segregation”. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 64 (3): 391–405. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2006.07.005, followed by Edward S. Shihadeh; Nicole Flynn, (June 1, 1996). “Segregation and Crime: The Effect of Black Social Isolation on the Rates of Black Urban Violence”. Social Forces. 74 (4): 1325–1352. doi:10.1093/sf/74.4.1325.
- Without touching any of this summer’s horrible crimes, when we examine racism in policing and the judicial system, we can go back to these sources. Robin S. Engel, (2014). Bucerius, Sandra (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration. Oxford University Press. p. 147. ISBN 9780199859016; Kevin Drakulich; Eric Rodriguez-Whitney, (June 22, 2018), “Intentional Inequalities and Compounding Effects”, The Handbook of Race, Ethnicity, Crime, and Justice, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 17–38, doi:10.1002/9781119113799.ch1; and Elizabeth Hinton; DeAnza Cook, (June 29, 2020). “The Mass Criminalization of Black Americans: A Historical Overview”. Annual Review of Criminology. 4. doi:10.1146/annurev-criminol-060520-033306, all of which represent the smallest tip of a gigantic iceberg on the topic.
- Police searches (including so-called no-knocked warrants), bail decisions, and biased sentencing are yet another well-studied factor in how racism plays into the ongoing problem of violence. M. Marit Rehavi; Sonja B. Starr, (2014). “Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences”. Journal of Political Economy. 122 (6): 1320–1354. doi:10.1086/677255; David Arnold; Will Dobbie; Crystal S. Yang, (2018). “Racial Bias in Bail Decisions”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 133 (4): 1885–1932. doi:10.1093/qje/qjy012; Emma Pierson; Camelia Simoiu; Jan Overgoor; Sam Corbett-Davies; Daniel Jenson; Amy Shoemaker; Vignesh Ramachandran; Phoebe Barghouty; Cheryl Phillips; Ravi Shroff; Sharad Goel, (May 4, 2020). “A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States”. Nature Human Behaviour. 4 (7): 736–745. doi:10.1038/s41562-020-0858-1; and then “Black men sentenced to more time for committing the exact same crime as a white person, study finds”. Washingtonpost.com.
- But wait, there’s more! Let’s go ahead and talk about documented patterns of racial discrimination, patterns of police brutality, and repeated disregard for the constitutional rights of BIPOC. The documentation of horrendous crimes in this area stretched back to the 17th century, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just go with these sources. Jason Hanna; Madison Park. “Chicago police use excessive force, DOJ finds”. CNN; Suzanne Ife Williams. Police brutality: case study of Philadelphia/Move. OCLC 84480572; Simon Balto. (2019). Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. University of North Carolina Press. doi:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469649597.001.0001; Laurence Ralph. (2020). The Torture Letters. University of Chicago Press. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226650128.001.0001; and Max Felker-Kantor. (2018). Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD. University of North Carolina Press. doi:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469646831.001.0001
Then, there’s the president, the 45th one, the one who thinks racists can be “nice people.” Putting aside rhetoric and anecdote, the Brookings Institute looked at the influence of the president in the rise of race-related crime, not just that committed by BIPOC, but crimes committed against BIPOC. Looking at the data, stripped of personal bias and emotion, they found, “FBI data show that since Trump’s election there has been an anomalous spike in hate crimes concentrated in counties where Trump won by larger margins. It was the second-largest uptick in hate crimes in the 25 years for which data are available, second only to the spike after September 11, 2001. Though hate crimes are typically most frequent in the summer, in 2016 they peaked in the fourth quarter (October-December). This new, higher rate of hate crimes continued throughout 2017.”
They continue: “ In a 2017 survey, researchers randomly exposed some respondents to racist comments by the president, such as:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Other respondents were exposed to a statement by Hillary Clinton condemning prejudiced Trump supporters. Later in the study, the respondents were asked their opinion of various groups, including Mexican people, black people, and young people. Those who had read Trump’s words were more likely to write derogatory things not only about Mexican people, but also about other groups as well. By contrast, those who were exposed to Clinton’s words were less likely to express offensive views towards Muslims. Words do matter, and data prove it.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified over 900 cases of harassment following the 45th president’s election.
An analysis of FBI data over the years by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino yielded more specific results when it came to intense political debates.
It found that during August 2017, the month of the violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia — when Trump infamously said there were “very fine people on both sides” — reported hate crimes nationally increased to 663 incidents, the second-highest tally in nearly a decade.
November 2016, immediately after the election, saw hate crimes increase to a record-setting 758 incidents.
Speaking of the FBI, their own data in 2019 shows a 16-year high in hate crime-related violence. Understand, the vast majority of hate crimes are never reported. The ones that the FBI does receive are especially egregious, heavily violent, and involve more than a single person.
Would pictures help? Here, try this:
Should we analyze that chart for a moment? Yes, we should. One sees that peak in violence occurred in 2001, largely attributable to the events surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks that precipitated violence against anyone who remotely looked as though they might be Muslim. That violence remained high through President Bush’s two terms in office. The numbers dip considerably during President Obama’s tenure, not completely disappearing, but staying low until the rhetoric around the 2016 election began in late 2015. Since the 45th president’s inauguration, the numbers have gone back up to a level not seen since 2001 and have continued to rise.
There is a preponderance of evidence for the myriad ways the system established by governments, local, state, and federal, participate, encourage, and maintain the atmosphere of violence that generates sufficient fear so that we think we need the system they’re providing, despite the fact we know the whole thing is a broken mess of power manipulation and greed.
I am further frustrated by those who, upon seeing anything regarding violence, comment to the effect, “Oh, that’s just a black thing.” No, it’s not. Anti-Semitic violence spiked in 2019. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes have increased by 43 percent. Disabled people are 2.5 times more likely to experience violent victimization. 64.0 percent of the women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date. Crimes against homeless people increased by 24 percent in 2019. Violence affects all of us and the solution must, of necessity, include all of us. This isn’t something that privileged white people get to sit out. Set aside your white fragility and let’s tackle this.
When I first started hearing calls this year to “abolish” the police and, subsequently, to abolish prisons, my response was like that of many people, “That can’t possibly work.” Such an attitude is an aspect of privileged fragility, however. When I sat down and listened to the people talking, listened to what historians and sociologists and scientists are saying, my attitude began to change. Now, I am thoroughly convinced that not only can we dissolve policing and incarceration as we currently know them, we must rebuild the system from the ground up if we are going to begin addressing the problems leading to violence.
First, I think it is important to understand the racist beginnings of policing in the United States. Believe it or not, police, as we know them now, did not exist in colonial America. Nothing close to what we call police roamed the streets of early New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. Our country started without them. For a while.
What appeared first were slave patrols. That fact alone should cause a full stop in how we think about policing. They started in North Carolina, and by the time John Adams became the second U.S. president, every state that had not yet abolished slavery had them. They could enter anyone’s home, at any time, without reason or warning, to investigate allegations of harboring those who might be hiding or helping escaped slaves. We should find it disturbing the degree to which those same tactics are still being used even if the technical reasons have changed.
Larger cities in the North, particularly Boston, New York, and Philadephia, created night watch patrols that, in theory, were to warn of impending danger. You know, “the Red Coats are coming,” type of deal. That didn’t work either. Watchmen were often drunk or asleep. While they were supposed to be volunteers, many were conscripted by the town as a form of punishment. Others took the watch positions to avoid military service. The first day watch didn’t come until 1833 in Philadelphia and the concept was slow to catch on around the rest of the country. [Gaines, Larry. Victor Kappeler, and Joseph Vaughn, Policing in America (3rd ed.), Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson Publishing Company, 1999.] Gradually adding to the watch system were constables who could arrest and fine troublemakers but also performed civic functions such as land surveyors and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures.
By the late-1800s, most cities had a more formal municipal police department in place. The construction of these police departments was fairly simple.
- They were publicly supported and bureaucratic in form;
- Police officers were full-time employees, not community volunteers or case-by-case fee retainers;
- Departments had permanent and fixed rules and procedures, and employment as police officers was continuous;
- Police departments were accountable to a central governmental authority. [Lundman, Robert J., Police and Policing: an Introduction, New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.]
What’s interesting is that at no time was there any evidence of a “crime wave” spurring the formation of police departments. Instead, they were a response to “disorder,” a definition that changed according to the needs of business owners in each town. Things such as putting down migrant uprisings, wage strikes (unions were not yet a thing), and the maintenance of the “public good,” a phrase that still is in use today. A public police force was better able to balance municipal interests than the private security employed by larger businesses. [Spitzer, Stephen and Andrew Scull, “Privatization and Capitalist Development: The Case of the Private Police,” Social Problems 25, no. 1 (1977).]
Given this beginning, it didn’t take long for the concepts of social control and criminal control to merge. The demonization of the “underclass” included accusations that they were biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled, and uneducated. We should not be surprised that this underclass was composed largely of the poor, immigrants, and free blacks. Neither should one be surprised that many of the “crimes” they were accused of committing, such as public drunkenness, only occurred because of the rise of corporate venues that encouraged public drinking. [Lundman]
As the United States entered the 20th century, the presence of police departments leads to a change in how their purpose was perceived. Instead of reacting and responding to specific crimes as they happened, the emphasis shifted to crime prevention by subjecting everyone to surveillance and observation, especially the “dangerous underclass.” Here’s where we see the worthless excuse, “If you’re not doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about,” take hold as an authoritarian police state slowly takes over. [Parks, Evelyn, “From Constabulary to Police Society: Implications for Social Control,” In Whose Law? What Order?, edited by William Chambliss and Michael Mankoff, New York, New York: Wiley (1976).]
Being that this is the United States we’re talking about, no one should be surprised to learn that early police departments were notoriously corrupt and bent on violence. Under the control of local politicians, who were often also the tavern, brothel, and casino owners, police routinely took payoffs from illegal businesses, participated in vote-buying schemes, and organized professional criminals, trading immunity for bribes. [Walker, Samuel, The Police in America: An Introduction, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.] Police were little more than what Walker calls “delegated vigilantes,” given the authority to use overwhelming force to deter the criminality of the “dangerous underclass.”
What exists in the majority of American cities is simply an extended and modernized, militarized version of that same concept. Police are taught to watch for specific characteristics, including race and religious beliefs, that might indicate a person is likely to commit a certain kind of crime. While racial profiling is technically illegal, it still occurs in other forms and is one of the most common field tools used by police in their attempt to “deter” crime.
Why did I spend so much time with the history lesson? Because it speaks to why police departments can’t be reformed. We’ve been talking about police reform all my life and none of those discussions, none of the alleged changes, have improved policing or brought about any reduction in violence, especially officer-involved shootings. The core of the system has been corrupt from the beginning. Therefore, like treating any disease, the only logical option is to remove what exists and replace it with something better.
Easy for me to talk, sitting here in my office chair typing away at 3:00 in the morning, isn’t it? What do I know? I’ve never actually been arrested (came close once, but that’s another story). I’m not routinely followed when I’m driving my light blue minivan. I’ve never stared down the barrel of a service revolver. I’ve led a ridiculously privileged life in that regard. So, what reason do I have for criticism?
The answer comes in listening to the voice of people who have never had and never will have the privilege I’ve known. My privilege creates an obligation for me to magnify their voices, to repeat their stories, to amplify their ideas, their needs, their worries, and their concepts. So when Naomi Murakawa, Princeton African American Studies; Abolitionist Papers series editor, Haymarket Books, talks about the failures of attempts to “reform” policing, not only am I going to listen for myself, I’m going to repeat her words because they ring with realism I can’t deliver on my own.
Writing for LEVEL, Ms. Murakawa addresses the many ways in which attempts to “reform” policing has failed. Here are a few of the high (low) points:
- Body cameras funded by a $43 million grant from the Obama administration, were paired with facial recognition software and used to expand surveillance powers and identify protestors at Black Lives Matter marches.
- The Johnson administration’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration distributed over $10 billion for programs with titles such as “community policing,” “guardian policing,” or “procedurally just policing,” none of which worked in reducing violence.
- In 1994, the Clinton administration created the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) which has, so far, funneled another $14 billion to police programs, including the hiring of another 3,000 officers in response to high unemployment among “at-risk” (largely black and Latinx) populations during the current pandemic.
- Black people comprise 13% of the U.S. population but roughly 30% of the arrested, 35% of the imprisoned, 42% of those on death row, and 56% of those serving life sentences. Nearly half of people murdered by police have disabilities, and sexual violence is a routine but invisible form of police brutality used especially against LGBTQ youth, sex workers, undocumented women, and black women.
- “Because police look lawless, reformers hope that new laws will rein in their power. But the premise is wrong. Policing is not the law’s absence; it is the law’s essence in a system of racial capitalism. In this system, laws affirmatively protect the police’s right to racially profile, to lie, and to kill.”
- “In the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner decision, for example, the Supreme Court held that Memphis police wrongfully killed Edward Garner, a Black child in the eighth grade. It was wrong to shoot the child in the back, the Court found; such violence was justifiable only if an officer feared deadly injury to bystanders or themselves. In effect, a ruling on the illegality of killing gave police something more: instructions on how to kill legally. Police learned the script, “I feared for my life.”
- “Chokehold bans, for example, prohibit a technique of killing but not the fact of killing. The bans are nonetheless hailed as victories, and New York City just celebrated its recent chokehold prohibition. …Just weeks after cops killed Eric Garner in 2014, the NYPD used the chokehold on Rosann Miller, a Black woman who was seven months’ pregnant, after they confronted her for barbequing in front of her house. The departmental ban was in full effect.”
What spoke to me most clearly was this statement: “Courts validate endless police stops. Stopping someone for walking in a “high-crime area”? Perfectly legal. Searching a car for drugs because the Black driver paused too long at a stop sign? Perfectly reasonable. As police commonly joke about racial profiling, “It never happens — and it works.”
A story I’ve told multiple times bears repeating right here. When I first moved to Indiana, in April 2005, I lived in the small community of Brownsburg, a place small enough that, at that time, I had to leave town to find a coffee shop but could walk to the grocery store. At least, I thought I could until I tried it.
The distance was less than a mile from my house to the store. All I needed was a gallon of milk. I walked down, bought the milk, and was walking back, on the sidewalk, when I was stopped by a Brownsburg police officer who demanded to see my ID and asked what I was doing, as though he didn’t see the gallon of milk. His excuse for violating my civil rights was that a woman, in the neighborhood to which I had just moved, had reported a “suspicious-looking character” matching my description. The stop was wholly improper from beginning to end, but completely legal.
That experience has only happened to me once in almost 60 years, but for most who identify as BIPOC, stops like that, routine violation of their human rights, constant harassment, and profiling, accusations, and mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement are routine and none of the attempts to “reform” police has made the situation any better. The only thing that “reform” has done over the past 50 years is reward police with more toys and more ways of harassing and killing innocent people.
Right now, as I’m writing at 3:44 on a Friday morning, my phone dings with an alert. “Gunfire heard, 1.0 miles away.” I listen for the unmistakable sounds of a police response. I hear nothing.
Mychal Denzel Smith, Author of Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream wrote a compelling article for the September 2020 issue of The Atlantic. As tempted as I am to copy/paste the whole thing, which is illegal and disrespectful, I won’t. However, pay attention to this specific statement:
When asked “What would you have us do with the police?” I make a point of saying, unequivocally, “Abolish them,” because that is what I mean. I seek a world without police. When I explain that achieving such a world would require us to enact a number of redistributive policies and educational programs aimed at providing for everyone’s basic needs and reducing violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned, I’m asked why I don’t lead with that rather than the potentially alienating “Abolish the police.” And my answer is that I believe in stating, in clear language, what you want, because otherwise you are beholden to the current state of consciousness and accepted wisdom. I want a world in which the police do not exist, and there is no clearer way to say that.
In the past, I have been accused of hating the police. And I do. Such an admission may be taken to mean that I hate each police officer as an individual whom I have judged unfairly on the basis of his or her occupation. But I hate the police the same as I hate any institution that exists as an obstruction to justice. It’s important here to define justice, as the U.S. legal system has perverted our sense of it. It cannot be punishment or retribution for harm caused. Justice is not revenge. Rather, justice is a proactive commitment to providing each person with the material and social conditions in which they can both survive and thrive as a healthy and self-actualized human being. This is not an easy thing to establish, as it requires all of us to buy into the idea that we must take responsibility for one another. But it is the only form of a just world.
The police have never been capable—historically, presently, either in statement of purpose or in action—and, I believe, will never be capable of fostering such conditions. And so I hate them, because I have grown past impatient with injustice. I am incensed by the delusion, so prevalent among the country’s supposedly serious thinkers, that tinkering around the edges of an inherently oppressive institution will lead to freedom.
Abolishing the police, doing away with prisons, is where a lot of white people who claim to be allies start dropping off. “We can’t completely do away with the police,” they say. “We still need some form of incarceration for the really bad people. What are we supposed to do with terrorists and murderers? What about white-collar crime?”
Questions come from a place of fear, a comic-book enhanced perception that, without severe policing, the world becomes like the Gotham of DC Comics, overrun with criminals who prey on the city relentlessly. Policing doesn’t work in Batman’s world, either. Batman’s been at his fictional game for over eighty years and the situation in Gotham hasn’t gotten better.
As a country, the United States holds to this mythological idea that we are all inherently safe and that if we’re not safe it’s someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem, and individuals should never have to be concerned or have to deal directly with such matters. We have put upon police departments an impossible burden, expecting them to keep our world ideal when the world itself is grossly imperfect. There is no plausible scenario in which policing accomplishes what we dream of because the human factors of greed, power, and corruption as just as much present in police departments as they are anywhere else.
The white perspective of public safety is distantly removed from the reality of public safety for the black community. Josie Duffy Rice writing in the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair brings that difference into sharp relief:
America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.
Not only does the current system of policing and incarceration not keep us safe, but we’re also wasting a lot of money that could/would be better spent on more efficient and effective programs. For all the billions of dollars we (the US) spend on policing, we’re getting precious little on our return. Again, this isn’t something that can be fixed through gradual reform. Andre M. Perry, David Harshbarger, Carl Romer, and Kristian Thymianos wrote a statement for the Brookings Institute that highlights some of the financial inefficiencies. They divide the financial concerns into four areas.
- Policing costs “hamstring” city budgets.
“A 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100 examined the budgets of 12 major U.S. cities and counties over the last three decades. They found that funding dedicated to incarceration, corrections, and policing has come at the expense of infrastructure spending, mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, food benefits programs, and other basic services that Black communities desperately need. Black-majority cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland, Calif. far exceeded the average for police funding, and most of the 12 budgets allocated more than a quarter of general funds to policing. Of the cities and counties profiled, Oakland gives police the largest slice of the pie: 41%.”
- Too many people in jail shouldn’t be there in the first place.
“According to a 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, 39% of prisoners should be in treatment, community service, or probation rather than incarcerated because they are nonviolent, low-level offenders, or have already served long sentences. This amounts to nearly 600,000 inmates. To release them would not only mean freeing those citizens, but also freeing $20 billion per year—enough to employ 327,000 teachers.”
- Police funding prevents more appropriate public employment
“The infrastructure is already in place to absorb new jobs in local economies. There are counselors and programs for victims of sexual assault, services for people experiencing homelessness or suffering from addictions, and departments which respond to domestic abuse. These programs exist, but they are not adequately funded. Reducing incarceration and police department’s bloated budgets will allow us to bolster these services and alleviate the burden we lay on police and prisons.”
- Militarization of police produces no positive return
“The militarization of police in urban areas exemplifies the inefficiency of racism. Local cops driving tanks do nothing to make communities safer. …Military equipment in urban areas represents the extent to which we consider Black people enemies of the state, not members of it. If we truly want to add value to Black-majority neighborhoods, we should defund the police and prison systems to reprioritize that money in ways that respect the members of society that Black people are.”
Going beyond the financial inefficiencies of policing in its current form, the sad truth is that they’re not all that great at solving crime, either. We have developed this concept from watching too many police procedural dramas on television that once police get a case, they work on it obsessively until it’s solved. Uhm, no, that’s not the way it happens.
According to FBI data, which is overstated due to the voluntary manner in which information is recorded, for violent crimes, just 62.3% of murders, 33.4% of rapes, 30.4% of robberies, and 52.5% of aggravated assaults ended with arrests. For property crimes, just 13.9% of burglaries, 18.9% of thefts, 13.8% of motor vehicle thefts, and 22.4% of arsons ended with arrests. [Michelle Mark, Insider, “US police don’t end up solving most crimes” 18 June 2020.]
Those numbers, at best, only refer to crimes that were reported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey found that in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, just 42.6% of people who were the victims of violent crimes reported the incidents to police. For property crimes, just 34.1% of those who were victimized reported the incidents to police. [Mark]
Reasons for not reporting crime varied, of course. Some didn’t think the crime was sufficient to bother the police, others didn’t want to cause any additional harm to either party. What’s most concerning, though, is that a number of people (exact percentages are not given) who don’t trust the police to deal with the crime appropriately. This attitude is especially dominant in BIPOC neighborhoods where the consequences of reporting the crime are often worse than the crime itself.
If we’re going to build a better system of public safety, those numbers, all of them, have to be addressed. Solutions that “come close” are not acceptable. If we’re not dramatically improving upon the status quo, then we’re wasting our time. Raze everything to the ground, the whole of the so-called justice system, and start over with a hard and unforgiving eye toward a system that values everyone equally, responds to situations appropriately, and minimizes (or eliminates) the armed use of force.
All that is easy enough to say. Those are lofty ideals, to be sure. Yet, we know that we can improve because there are places, predominantly in white communities, where it’s already happening. In June of this year, Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote the following:
There is a different world, one in which people need not be arrested for many of these offenses or be otherwise racially targeted and criminalized. We can shrink outsized and misused police power and responsibilities, along with their budgets, and strive to ensure they don’t come into regular, unnecessary contact with community members.
We know this is possible because this different world exists today, for communities that are largely white. The harsh reality is that policing in communities of color looks very different than it does in wealthy, white communities. In those communities, police are often only present when responding to specific serious disruptions to the community, rather than just constantly intruding on people’s everyday lives. To understand the impact of this approach, one only has to look at the approach to policing marijuana — which is used at almost equal rates by Black and white people, though Black people are still arrested at a rate that is almost four times that of white people. Racialized policing is the best way to understand this disparity.
White communities are also more likely to see significant investment in community resources that are purposefully and programmatically used to maintain safety, health, and stability, all without police intervention. The lived reality that white communities already enjoy and take for granted is what we are demanding for communities across the country — an end to over-policing, an end to constant surveillance and harassment, an end to enforcement of non-serious offenses, and an end to the targeting of people of color.
Knowing that we can do better, that there are programs out there that are working already, colors my concept of what a solution must have to operate efficiently and effectively on a large scale. I have poured over what feels like endless concepts and ideas the past few weeks and largely dismissed those based on rhetoric rather than any evidence-based proof system. Addressing the fears that come with phrases like “Defund The Police” must be part of the solution or the whole program is disabled from the beginning. A strong system also needs to take into consideration how persons with disabilities are treated and often locked out completely. If we’re not addressing the root causes of all our issues we’re simply trading one set of problems for another.
So, I get to this point, some 10,000+ words in, and feel pressure (perhaps self-induced) to wrap things up and offer a solution. If all I do is complain I’m not adding anything constructive to the conversation, am I? Aggregating information from several sources, which I’ll try to credit as we go along (follow the links), here, in no particular hierarchy, is what I think we need to do.
- Deploy the right people to address the situation.
Stop sending armed police officers into non-violent situations. There is too much evidence that sending people with guns into situations that didn’t involve any type of violence tends to have a negative result. Situations become escalated when an undertrained cop thinks they need to put their hands on their service weapon, or worse. Instead, look at examples such as Cure Violence and Advance Peace who employ people within local communities who are trained to intervene appropriately, without violence, and mediate conflicts before violence becomes a factor. Programs such as Bushwick, Brooklyn’s Sista 2 Sista have, for the past ten years, effectively trained and deployed patrols of local women resulting in reductions in everything from catcalling to partner violence and gang murders. Countries such as the UK, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, and South Africa have found success with what they’re calling Community Safety Workers, who do everything from checking abandoned buildings, notifying authorities of infrastructure issues, and addressing social needs to directing traffic, mediating conflict, and securing assistance for illness and accident-related injuries.
I was amazed to discover how many similar programs have already been in place for more than a decade in both large and rural areas, reducing the amount of crime overall and especially impacting violent crime by helping address situations before they reached a violent point of conflict. The tests have already been run and found too effective to not be copied and implemented across the United States. There’s no question in my mind that this step alone makes all our communities dramatically safer.
- Review state and local criminal codes with the intent of removing as much as possible.
There are too many laws on too many books that serve no purpose beyond putting the “underclass” in jail. If a “crime” is so inconsequential as to be labeled a misdemeanor, chances are pretty high it shouldn’t be a crime in the first place and those remaining likely don’t warrant incarceration. This would include items such as non-aggressive public nudity, prostitution, mandatory insurance laws, non-aggressive trespass, disorderly conduct, public intoxication that does not involve motor vehicle operation, drug possession for personal use, and many others that do not directly affect overall public safety. Decriminalization of these events doesn’t mean that they go unaddressed. Rather, when problematic, community response teams would assist the person(s) involved in finding appropriate solutions if necessary, or otherwise helping secure the individual’s safety. No fines. No jail.
Included in this are many traffic laws that, while once might have been important as the number of vehicles on city streets exploded following World War II, now serve only as a means of police harassment. An extensive study concluded that there is no justifiable reason for armed police officers to address traffic stops. In fact, police officers are more likely to be harmed during traffic stops because of the conflict they inherently bring into an otherwise non-violent situation. Were the laws different, both Philandro Castile and Sandra Bland, among thousands of others, might still be alive and living productively.
Also important in this consideration are laws that prey unfairly and unnecessarily on the mentally ill. While there are symptoms of mental illness that are antisocial, few are inherently violent and most should always be addressed by trained professionals and do not require any form of incarceration. Approximately a quarter of fatal encounters with police involve persons with mental illness, and nearly half of all prison inmates are mentally ill. The CAHOOTS program in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, is a strong and working example of how these situations can be handled non-violently without armed police. A highly trained team of specialists in mental health counseling, social work, and crisis de-escalation are deployed to address situations involving homelessness, addiction, drunkenness, or mental illness. For over 30 years, the program has worked. Teams can call police for backup if they feel it necessary but have done so in less than one percent of situations. Neither have they had a serious injury or death for which the team was responsible. The program is dramatically scalable and is far more efficient and effective than armed police.
- Prioritize repairing the harm over punishing the criminal
This is not a new concept at all. Known in different locales as Reparative Justice, Restorative Justice, or Transformative Justice, it has proven effective and efficient in as diverse communities as South African anti-apartheid guerillas to Afro-descendant communities like San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia who’ve used this approach successfully for centuries. The key working points here are that victims get to participate in the resolution of the crime and that criminals are allowed to directly address the consequences of the crime without unnecessary incarceration. As a result, there’s no imprisonment where it doesn’t need to exist. Communities are kept safe. Families remain united when possible. The budget-busting costs of prisons and associated mechanisms such as bail bonding and probationary offices are eliminated.
Perhaps what strikes me most about this approach is the fact that it introduces the possibility for compassion into the justice system, something that is too often missing in US courts, especially at the state and local levels. Those who come from an Abrahamic religious tradition (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), should be aware of the mandate for grace applied to those convicted of crimes and this is one approach that provides ample opportunity for that concept. Facilitating cooperation between opposing parties creates the possibility for addressing the underlying conditions that caused the conflict, thereby reducing the likelihood of future conflict and potentially eliminating recidivism. The only sticking point is when participants stubbornly refuse to participate in the process, something that is most likely to diminish as success is exhibited within each community.
- Solve community problems at the community level
This is a significant issue for a couple of reasons. First, there are too many instances where police ignore community issues when they’re small because they feel they’re a waste of time. People in that community feel that police are unresponsive to situations that challenge public safety. Eventually, the problem grows to the point that some form of violence becomes involved and with it, too often, the loss of life. Community solutions address those problems when they first arise, reducing the likelihood of them developing into violent situations.
A perfect example is playing out in my neighborhood. We have an issue with some number of people thinking that it is acceptable to drive down neighborhood streets, ignoring stop signs, at excessive rates of speed. With dozens of children living in the neighborhood and playing in the streets, the danger is real but police cannot respond promptly to address the situation. If funds were available to a community safety panel of some kind, perhaps we could install speed bumps or other preventive measures to address the issue without requiring any involvement outside the community.
Before the most recent political unrest in the country, this concept was playing out well in Venezuela and has only suffered as political concerns have taken over the local systems with heavy-handed police tactics. Such a predicament is going to be true anywhere justice systems are decentralized and more locally democratized. The move takes power away from a handful of judges and allows communities to more fairly and directly address crime within their community. Pushback from the establishment is likely inevitable, but the long-term progress maintains the greater benefit.
- Start addressing mental health with the same seriousness and level of resources as physical health.
The numbers relating mental health to crime and incarceration are unforgivable. What we are doing is putting people in prison for symptomatic behavior rather than providing treatment that could help them become valuable contributors to society. When anywhere from 40-50 percent of a prison population is mentally ill, it should be obvious that we’re taking the wrong approach to address a very real problem. Dozens of programs already exist with the tools and resources to better handle mental healthcare starting at the earliest stages of diagnosis. Utilizing these services, including their specialists in responding to calls such as domestic conflict, disruptive antisocial activities such as public vandalism, and abuse situations can make a dramatic impact on violence at every level of society, especially among veterans and at-risk youth communities.
Bringing an armed police officer into a mental health situation is too often a destabilizing, traumatic triggering event that causes a mentally ill person to respond according to the level of perceived violence. This not only endangers the public but the police officer as well. Strong mental health intervention programs, applied at the local neighborhood level, help prevent those public mental health-fueled events from taking place by providing appropriate care, counseling, and medication to underserved portions of the population without putting a burden on personal finances or insufficient insurance programs. The amount of good these programs can do with a fraction of the budget spent on over-policing could result in a reduction of violent crime by more than fifty percent if applied equally across all portions of society. Through active programs of stress and anxiety reductions, some mental health programs could also reduce workplace conflict, a too-frequent source of mass homicide. This isn’t a spoke of the wheel waiting to be invented; the options are already there waiting to be implemented. All we have to do is make the funding shift, removing police and inserting appropriately trained professionals.
- Spend more money on keeping people alive and healthy.
So long as poverty and hunger are rampant on American streets they are going to remain significant contributors to crime. As long as people are living on the streets, homeless, without any form of protection, they will attract crime and violence both as victims and perpetrators. Existing economic security programs have already dramatically reduced the poverty rate since the late 1960s, yet those are the most frequent targets for funding cuts, fueled by unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Evidence of how much these programs can make a positive difference came earlier this year when Congress approved a $600/week payment for unemployed Americans due to the coronavirus pandemic. The program, for the brief time it existed, allowing recipients to pay bills, buy food, and help keep the overall economy afloat.
As the pandemic has illuminated the fragile nature of the economy and individual economic stability, the concept of universal income has gained significant traction that it didn’t have a year ago. Programs like this, many of which are still in their infancy within certain limited areas, hold the potential to dramatically impact hunger and poverty issues where they are the most rampant: in the underserved communities of inner cities. While there are many ways in which the concept could be applied, expanding the national economic safety net to include enough income to guarantee basic housing, healthcare, and access to food may be the single largest factor in helping to eliminate violent crime.
Partnered with a universal income strategy comes a mandatory rise in the federal minimum wage. There is no state in the union where a person working 40 hours a week can afford a two-bedroom apartment making only minimum wage. While 37 states have minimums set higher than the federal minimum wage, the lack of consistency from state to state reduces its overall effectiveness, especially in relation to crime and violence. While raising the minimum wage is not a panacea for solving poverty, it is a significant step in reducing crime and violence. No additional study needs to be done. This is a well-proven fact.
- Make sure everyone has access to the healthcare they need.
Wait, we’re talking about decreasing crime and violence. Does universal healthcare play into that equation? Yes, it most definitely does. Both violent and financially-motivated crime goes down when adequate healthcare is ubiquitous. Again, this isn’t new or startling information. This is one change that we, as a country, are lagging in adopting. We are behind and we’re paying a significant price for our stupidity. When it is cheaper for an American citizen to leave the country for basic surgery then we’re automatically creating hardships that lead to criminal activity. Police don’t solve this problem. Better healthcare coverage solves this problem. We need to get off our asses and make this one happen regardless of what else we may or may not do.
- Eliminate volume-based metrics throughout the justice system.
There has too-long existed this horrible notion that those involved in the justice system, from attorneys general to judges at every level, are successful based on the number of people they put in prison. Police are measured by how many people they arrest, the number of tickets they write, and the amount of money they bring into city and county budgets. We have created a system that incentivizes fraud, racism, entrapment, and police violence. There is absolutely nothing about this process that is justifiable. Every last bit needs to go away immediately.
Any paradigm for the justice system, not just policing, needs to focus on the amount of community involvement, the number of cases settled through local mediation, the rate of non-violent interaction, feedback mechanisms, and overall community improvement records. One cannot say the justice system is working well if any measure of crime is increasing. Elected justice officials especially should be judged based not on how many people they’ve convicted of crimes but how their policies have kept crime from occurring in the first place. How many people have they helped keep out of jail? There’s no argument that measurement helps chart success or failure but the measures currently in place only lead to more over-policing and illegitimate incarceration. This has to change.
- Commit to the regular external evaluation of all crime-reduction programs
One of the reasons we are at the level of dysfunction currently oppressing the majority of people is because we’ve allowed the justice system to monitor itself and decide internally whether they’re doing a good job. Naturally, as most people would, they think they’re doing just great and would like you to give them more money. We cannot continue to operate under those conditions.
Suggestions for changing evaluation methods to something more external and collaborative have been raised at least as far back as 2001. While there are myriad options available, two things stand out if we are going to eliminate police and prison institutions. Evaluation of any program has to be ongoing, and must heavily consider external adjudication of processes, performances, and behaviors with sufficient power to precipitate change where failure exists. Not everything is going to work and where tweaks and minor changes in programs can increase positive results those things need to happen quickly to reduce any additional harm. Without this step we are likely, again, trading one set of problems for another.
There are, of course, different ways to break all this down, some more elaborate and detailed than others. What is important for this conversation right here, right now, is to acknowledge that,
- Violent crime is at an unacceptable level
- Policing and incarceration does not reduce crime
- Non-violent, unarmed solutions are more equitable and efficient
Back in 2017 (my, how time flies), I wrote a book you haven’t read. I know you haven’t read it because I know exactly where all the copies are. Rethinking ‘Merica was my response to obvious fallacies following the 2016 election and, much like this document, proposed several solutions that everyone has ignored because, again, no one read the book. Several things in that tome apply to this situation, but one particular comment stands out:
What is important in this conversation is that we not look at the matter in terms of simply patching the existing structures. We need to replace and update everything from sewer systems to airports, transit systems, dams and levees, schools, and the rail system. For many, the systems are still attempting to operate on equipment from the mid-1900s, making maintenance a nightmare.
To the extent that we continue to ignore these problems and push them off on state and local municipalities, we commit an injustice against every person who utilizes that infrastructure. We need to look to the future, invoking new and emerging technologies and even creating new technologies in anticipation of solving problems before they occur.
Police and prisons are among those parts of our infrastructure that needs to be replaced. We cannot expect to adequately address the underlying issues related to crime, especially violent crime, any other way. We’ve tried reform repeatedly since 1888. None of it has worked. It’s time to put our money and our allegiance behind a better plan.
In a June 2020 opinion piece published in the New York Times, Mariame Kaba writes:
“There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.
So when you see a police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until he dies, that’s the logical result of policing in America. When a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.”
Every reasonable effort to end corruption within policing has failed. Either we’re all safe or none of us are safe. Either we’re all equal or none of us are equal. As long as black people or my indigenous family or immigrants of any background are mistreated and targeted by law enforcement and a biased justice system, there is no justice for anyone. Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter. Until there is equality across the board, without the smallest exception, there is no equality.
Maybe people should listen this time. No police + No prison = No Violence. I’m right. Try it.
And thanks, Syd, for giving me this push.