Are there too many police or are there too few? In the months since Black Lives Matter activists first organized protests against police violence, the concept of over-policing has become key in understanding the dynamic against which they fight, especially in dramatically over-policed places like Ferguson. Some opponents contend that black communities are actually under-policed, citing rates of violent crime and 911 response time as the reason to increase police presence. The focus on numbers, however, belies the fact that both over- and under-policing have been used to oppress black communities.
Thus, it is time to view under-policing and over-policing as the same problem.
The logic against over-policing is easy enough to follow: Police departments—empowered by judges, politicians, and public opinion—use high crime rates in poor minority communities to justify deploying more officers and using more aggressive tactics in those neighborhoods.
According to activists, over-policing creates a constant state of occupation where unnecessary police encounters often lead to an endless spiral of prison, spiked by human rights abuses and death. Yet, many local law enforcement agencies (and staunch police supporters) believe aggressive over-policing tactics, like New York City’s infamous Broken Windows and stop-and-frisk, are necessary methods to root out crime and deter those who break the law. These tactics often lead to gross civil rights violations, including but not limited to the deaths of unarmed citizens and torture, that would never be tolerated in wealthier, whiter communities. But these tactics are still defended by plenty of ostensibly non-racist people, including NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and political pundits like Bill O’Reilly. Ostensibly.
That ostensibly non-racist logic colors discussion of the supposed Ferguson Effect, which is said to be a newfound reluctance by police (in largely black communities) to perform their usual duties, for fear of facing either community opprobrium or actual threats to officer safety, following unrest in New York City and Baltimore. The existence of this Ferguson Effect has been endorsed by FBI Director James Comey and DEA Chief Chuck Rosenberg. This reluctance has led, it is claimed, to an increase in crime in those very communities.
If that smells like bullshit, that’s because it’s bullshit. President Obama thinks so. Comey’s former boss Eric Holder thinks so, and warns that the idea of a Ferguson Effect relies mostly on anecdotal data. A specialist in criminal justice, Yale Law professor Tracey Meares told me that interpreting causal effects from limited time-series data is useless, adding that “the only thing you know to be true [statistically] is that it’s 2015 instead of 2014.” But the lack of data obscures another problem that has been hinted at and sometimes outright confirmed by police unions: police and police defenders are increasingly using hypothetical or actual under-policing—a specific denial of a public service—as a veiled threat.
But isn’t that the type of reform activists and black communities wanted? It’s complicated. In late October President Obama addressed the International Association of Chiefs of Police, stating: “[T]hey want more police presence in many of these communities, not less.” Since black citizens migrated en masse to dense cities in the early 20th century, research has showed that blacks have faced paradoxical problems of both police underservice and over-policing. How are these problems reconcilable?
According to Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, “there’s an ugly history of [under-policing] happening in black and brown communities,” but it has since been supplanted by “more of an over-policing and over-aggressive law enforcement tactics in these communities.” In “Seesaw Injustice,” a paper authored by Dr. Shaun Ossei-Owusu and Nicole Lindahl, it is argued that the two problems are not opposite sides of the coin, but a cycle; a continuum of targeted police underservice and blindness to crime that eventually serves as its own rationale for over-policing and pursuing more aggressive tactics.
In spite of evidence on crime rates and along with union statements and several reports of police pullback in New York and Baltimore, this theory has credence. Over-policing and under-policing are part of the larger whole, a dynamic of inappropriate policing that includes lack of police oversight and lack of community empowerment, among other problems. This view encompasses many of the policing problems in communities of color and marginalized city regions like Walnut Hill in Milwaukee, Southeast Washington, D.C., or East New York: from slow response call times to killings of unarmed citizens. Police in black and brown areas are entirely uncoupled from the demands and oversight of the people they are supposed to serve, and with that uncoupling comes an obvious result: tyranny.
Tyranny, of course, can take many forms. In Chicago, the national avatar for faux-concern about black lives, the ACLU has filed suit against the police department for disparities in response times to 911 calls in black neighborhoods; subsequently, community meetings between police and community members have decreased. At the same time, the Washington Post reports that Chicago has the highest racial disparity in traffic stop searches among surveyed cities, with black drivers five times more likely to be searched than white drivers. In cities like Chicago and Baltimore, black families who lose loved ones to violence are less likely to see justice, as police routinely leave murder cases unsolved in black urban centers. Meanwhile, black citizens are more and more likely to be thrown into the criminal justice system because of nonviolent crimes and police profiling. Even as arrests for violent crimes have decreased among black citizens since 1980, the Brookings Institute reports that arrests for drug possession and abuse have increased by almost one million since then.
“Community policing”—which has become a buzzword solution—has been advanced by several police departments, high-ranking officers, and by President Obama himself. It is the way forward to end this tyranny, they say; these are statements often advanced alongside proposals to put more cops on the beat. As the Washington Post notes, however, this approach is hollow and destined for failure when police still act unilaterally with no concern for civil rights and have no community oversight. The true definition of community policing involves “efforts for co-production of safety,” according to Meares. “In other words, it’s not police agencies doing something for communities. It’s certainly not things that police do to communities, but something where they help communities help themselves.”
True community policing in many black and Latino neighborhoods would then necessarily involve an inversion of the traditional power structure and a dismantling of tyranny. Efforts for co-production of safety necessarily involve eliminating scenarios in which police themselves put the safety and long-term well-being of community members at risk. And, as Charney notes, the central conceit of bad policing—that safety necessitates granting police broad powers to violate constitutional rights, to profile by race, to kill and to brutalize—is more self-serving language than a reflection of reality. According to Charney, “it’s one thing to put more officers in a ‘high crime neighborhood,’ but that doesn’t give those officers the right to violate people’s rights when they’re there in terms of how they behave towards civilians. It doesn’t give them license to just stop and search and frisk everyone they see.”
So the question of “more police or less police” is best understood as a way to reduce arguments about police legitimacy to the point of nothingness, often by those who tend to defend the status quo of this New Jim Crow. Of course, in many areas where police do act as stop-and-frisk occupiers and sources of constant anxiety and heartbreak, people want fewer police enacting those terrors. And in places where police routinely ignore or respond inappropriately to calls from citizens, people want more attentive cops. But what communities are clamoring for, broadly, is for police to answer to them; to respond to their need for safety not by being a danger themselves, but by responding in a way the community deems adequate. They cry for accountability and for their lives to matter. They call for police to derive their legitimacy not through force or fear, but through earned respect.
In other words, people want their police to protect and to serve them.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]