Police and Violence

The Connection Between Police and Violence

A few weeks back the United States saw huge protests against police violence and use of force by law enforcement officers. That violence and use of force falls disproportionately on minority populations who have been evicted and incarcerated at rates beyond what one would expect given the demographic breakdown of the United States population. Amidst protests of police brutality, in several dramatic and high profile instances, what the United States saw was extreme police aggression toward protesters, bystanders, and media reporters that seemed to confirm the idea that police use of force was out of control and in need of reform.

 

Following the protests, there were questions about whether police presence at protests actually incited more violence than it prevented. People asked if police needed to show up in riot gear at Black Lives Matter protests, and what would happen to the police and during protests if police forces had not shown up with riot gear.  Many argued that the police themselves sparked the violence that they responded to with force – in effect, the argument suggests that police showing up prepared for violence furthered the violence.

 

The idea that police enforcement lead to an increase in violence is one that I came across about a year ago while reading Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream. In the book, Hari argues that greater drug enforcement and more police action against drug users and dealers leads to more crime, not less. He writes, “Professor John Miron of Harvard University has studied the murder statistics and found that statistical analysis shows consistently that higher [police] enforcement [against drug dealers] is associated with higher homicide, even controlling for other factors. This effect is confirmed in many other studies.”

 

Arresting drug dealers and gang members doesn’t reduce the demand for drugs in a given region. Arresting low level drug dealers and gangsters doesn’t lead to much other than an arrest record for the individual, making it hard for them to find legitimate work, leaving drug dealing as one of the few lucrative opportunities available. Arresting a high level drug dealer or gangster creates instability. If you remove a leader in the drug trade, then a power vacuum exists. Competing gang members will vie for the top spot, and might also have to face off against rival gangs to defend their turf. Arrests and enforcement end up creating instability and more violence than they solve. This is part of why homicides increase after a gang member is arrested.

 

Similar to police forces that respond to protests with riot gear, and contribute to the likelihood of people actually rioting, police who arrest gang members and drug dealers actually create more violence and murder, not less. At a time when we are questioning the role and effectiveness of our police services, we should think about whether their actions achieve their intended goals, or whether their actions create a cycle that leads to more police enforcement. If responding in force creates situations for violence violence, then our police should not respond forcefully before it is necessary. If enforcing drug laws creates more violence, then we should ask whether we should be doing something else with our law enforcement.

 

Our police can be what we need them to be and what we ask them to be. The last few decades, what we have asked them to be is a quasi-militant force. The focus was not saving all lives, but on showing force and dominance. It is fair to ask if this is the goal we really want for the police, or if we want them to actually contribute to more safety and less violence for all lives in our communities.

Policing

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote this in his book Between the World and Me to describe the relationship of our nation’s police force to the citizens of our country. The quote is brutal, honest, and hard to talk about, especially in today’s environment.What Coats argues is that our police behave in a way that society encourages or at the very least accepts as normal.

 

Much of the debate surrounding police shootings of African American men focus on the idea that a single bad officer made a bad decision. We understand that not all police officers are bad or act with racist motives,  but have trouble addressing crime, disparities in our criminal justice system, and trends among law enforcement and lawbreakers. We have trouble fitting personal responsibility (on both the officer’s and the criminal’s side) with societal expectations and observations. Coats encourages us to look beyond the actions of the police, and understand the climate in which the police operate. A society that truly did not accept police violence against racial minorities or against the population as a whole would not structure itself in a way that put police officers in difficult situations where they had the option to use deadly force or act in ways that allowed implicit bias to affect the lives of other people. There are choices we make as a society, and Coats argues that our society has chosen to allow a system to be in place where officers through no fault of their own intention, find themselves in situations where the use of deadly force (particularly against African American men) is justifiable in the moment, even if it does not seem justifiable in hindsight.

 

Coats argues that we cannot pin all the blame on a minority of police officers with poor attitudes. We equip our officers with weapons, send them to be the first point of contact when dealing with everyone from known criminals and gang members to psychologically traumatized but otherwise typical citizens. By organizing a society where minorities lived in tightly concentrated (and easy to police) neighborhoods, we built a system where policing and enforcing our laws lands disproportionately on certain individuals. There may not be easy solutions to these problems, but these problems did arise at least to some extent as a result of societal decisions. These decisions were made with tribal instincts operating under the surface, and often with fear driving the emotional state of individuals and communities.

 

By understanding that policing and crime does not take place in a vacuum we can understand the meaning of the quote at the start of this post. It is not just a few bad officers or individuals who have created a system that is racially charged and has lead to disparities in arrest rates or disparities in the use of deadly force. It is the will of a society that accepts violence against the poor, against racial minorities, and against those who seem dangerous that has created the explosively charged environment of our society today. Unless we acknowledge society’s role, we will never make the changes and address the issues that allow the situation to continue.