Thursday, June 04, 2020

American Policing Needs To Be Radically Reformulated

taibbi |  Even as rates of both violent crime and property crime have been decreasing steadily since the early nineties, rates of incarceration have been exploding in the other direction. For most of the 20th century the rate of incarceration in America was roughly 110 per 100,000 people. As of last year, the number was 655 per 100,000. Although the numbers have dipped slightly in recent years, down from a high of about 760 per 100,000 in 2013, the quantity of prisoners in America remains absurdly high. 

Such aggressive, military-style policing would be not be tolerated by voters if it were taking place everywhere. It’s popular, and continues to be embraced by politicians in both parties, because it’s only happening in “those” neighborhoods (or, as Mike Bloomberg once put it, “where the crime is”). Even during the Covid-19 crisis, 80% of the summonses for social distancing violations are given out to blacks and Hispanics. Does anyone really think that minorities account for that massive a percentage of those violations? Do they think black people really commit 3.73 times as many marijuana offenses as white people? 

Basically we have two systems of enforcement in America, a minimalist one for people with political clout, and an intrusive one for everyone else. In the same way our army in Vietnam got in trouble when it started searching for ways to quantify the success of its occupation, choosing sociopathic metrics like “body counts” and “truck kills,” modern big-city policing has been corrupted by its lust for summonses, stops, and arrests. It’s made monsters where none needed to exist.

Because they’re constantly throwing those people against walls, writing them nuisance tickets, and violating their space with humiliating searches (New York in 2010 paid $33 million to a staggering 100,000 people strip-searched after misdemeanor charges), modern cops correctly perceive that they’re hated. As a result, many embrace a “warrior” ethos that teaches them to view themselves as under constant threat.  

This is why you see so many knees on heads and necks, guns drawn on unarmed motorists, chokeholds by the thousand, and patterns of massive overkill everywhere – 41 shots fired at Amadou Diallo, 50 at Sean Bell, 137 at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in Cleveland, and homicides over twenty bucks or a loose cigarette. 

Police are trained to behave like occupiers, which is why they increasingly dress like they’ve been sent to clear houses in Mosul and treat random motorists like potential car-bombers – think of poor Philando Castile, shot seven times by a police officer who leaped back firing in panic like he was being attacked by Freddy Krueger, instead of a calm, compliant, educated young man. Officers with histories of abuse complaints like Daniel Pantaleo and Derek Chauvin are kept on the force because senior officers value police who make numbers more than they fear outrage from residents in their districts. The incentives in this system are wrong in every direction.

The current protests are likely to inspire politicians to think the other way, but it’s probably time to reconsider what we’re trying to accomplish with this kind of policing. In upscale white America drug use is effectively decriminalized, and Terry stops, strip searches, and “quality of life” arrests are unknowns. The country isn’t going to heal as long as everyone else gets a knee in the neck.