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.

Some Thoughts from MLK

In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker speaks about social activism and racial tensions in the United States. He shares some thoughts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that helped him make sense of the difficult state of race relations in the United States. A passage from Booker with influence from King Jr. reads, ““It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary decent housing conditions. He condemned riots and violence as “socially destructive and self-defeating,” creating more problems than they solve. But he also called riots “the language of the unheard.””

The Civil Rights Movement is looked back at with fondness from both white and black people in the United States today. We have somewhat romanticized the time period, elevating figures like Dr. King Jr. and remembering demonstrations as solely peaceful. In our minds, freedoms were quickly forthcoming and there were no violent riots and protesters had a clear message and simple demands for fairness.

I have not studied the Civil Rights Movement in depth, but I have a sense that this idealized notion of the movement does not match the reality of the time. We want to look back and believe that all demonstrations were non-violent from the start, but I’m not sure that is the case. This is important because how we look back on that period of time shapes the perceptions we build regarding racial minorities today.

In 2017 there seems to be less of a racially charged atmosphere than existed in 2015 when multiple black men died in police interactions as a result of police officer discretions and interpretations of the situation. The response has been demonstrations, calls for greater recognition of institutional racism, and in some instances riots. What I have seen from our society is a lack of understanding of how we should respond when racial minorities call for action, demonstrate, or even riot. I agree with Dr. King that riots become devolutionary and take the focus off of the issue originally being pursued and limit the discussion that we should be having regarding race relations in the United States, and at the same time I agree with the last part of the quote that Booker shared, that riots are the voice of the unheard. I have seen many marches and demonstrations at the University I attend and across the country, but non of the non-violent demonstrations seem to get much attention, and most often the responses I hear from white people are dubious of the claims of solved racial disparities in our society.

Turning to riots and violence seems like a logical response for a group that has been ignored and criticized when demanding acknowledgement of injustice. I think we ought to ask ourselves not just whether we think a group has a right to demonstrate or riot, but how a group should behave when they perceive that they are being victimized. We all love a peaceful protest, but at what point does a group demand more and allow frustrations to bubble over in the hopes that a message is truly communicated or at least addressed?