The following piece is from The Nation. It was written by Alex S. Vitale.
By: Alex S. Vitale
Protests against the recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys—Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio—have put the policing of communities of color on the top of the local and national agenda. Signs are even emerging of a new level of social movement activity around racial justice and the criminal justice system that may outlast the current wave of anger and heartbreak.
What stands before us, therefore, is the hard work of both building political power and articulating what that change might look like. So far politicians, police and even many community leaders have trotted out many of the well-worn proposals that have failed to deliver in the past and offer little hope for the future.
While the racial imbalance between the police and the policed in Ferguson was no doubt a contributing factor in the breakdown of community trust in the police, increasing police diversity is unlikely to improve things much on its own. Increasingly, large urban police departments are becoming much more diverse and reflective of the communities being policed. For years, Philadelphia police have had to live in the city, resulting in a department that largely mirrors the city’s demographics. That department, however, has been rife with corruption, mismanagement and excessive use of force. As a result, residents of color have seen little relief from the daily indignities of discourtesy and aggressive criminalization. Even the NYPD has significantly enhanced its diversity in recent years in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and language skills, but few are likely to claim that this has led to a dividend of courtesy or respect.
Recent uproars over the diversity of NYPD leadership in recent months are a further red herring. There is no evidence that black and Latino police executives have been a force for moderation under either Commissioners Kelly or Bratton. Top cops like Phil Banks and Rafael Pineiro oversaw a massive expansion of stop-and-frisk under Kelly and fully embraced the over-policing of communities of color as the primary strategy for crime reduction.
Everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood police officer who knows and respects the community and can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. Unfortunately, this is a mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing. What distinguishes the police from other city agencies is the legal authorization to use force. Their primary tools of problem solving are arrest and coercion.
While we need police to follow the law and be restrained in their use of force, we cannot expect them to be significantly more friendly given their current role in society. The reality is that when given the task of enforcing a war on drugs, stamping out quality-of-life violations and engaging in “broken windows” policing, their interactions with the public in high crime and disorder areas is going to be at best gruff and distant and at worst hostile and abusive. When their basic job is to criminalize all disorderly behavior, the public will resist them and view their efforts as intrusive and illegitimate, and the police will react to this resistance with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.
Training of police officers is notoriously inadequate and at times laughable. Officers are subjected to paramilitary drilling and discipline, lectured on paperwork and legal procedure, taught how to drive and shoot a gun, and then let loose on the public, where their colleagues quickly tell them to forget everything they learned in the academy. So, yes, training improvements are needed, but their effect on communities of color are unlikely to be significantly beneficial.
While inadequate training and supervision may have played a role in some recent high-profile incidents, the fact remains that the massive criminalization of communities of color is being carried out using “proper procedures.” The tens of thousands of arrests for low-level drug possession, trespassing, jumping subway turnstiles and dozens of other “broken window” offenses are generally carried out consistent with police policy, if not strict legal standards. Eric Garner may have been killed by improper arrest procedures and use of force, but he was also killed because the police were following orders to arrest people for selling loose cigarettes.
Community Control of the Police
Even more radical strategies like calling for community control of the police have serious drawbacks. There are two main problems. The first is that communities are not well suited for this task. Most people have very little interest or expertise in undertaking the role of managing a complex city service. In addition, no matter what it might say on paper, community power is typically no match for the entrenched bureaucratic power of the police. Numerous studies show that even when the community is supposed to be given a role in directing police services, the police quickly come to control the community process. Second, even if communities were to develop the power to direct the police, we might not like the results. Given the highly segregated nature of American cities, enclaves of racialized policing could be expected to emerge, as white communities attempt to wall themselves off from the perceived threats of outsiders. Even in communities of color, local community leaders are not always operating with the best interests of the entire community in mind. Those that tend to populate community institutions tend to be older, more conservative and closely tied to local landlords and businesses. These players are unlikely to be the source of dramatic changes in police policy.
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