It's Time To Start Dismantling One Of The Nation's Oldest Racist Institutions: Law Enforcement
from the Blue-Line-flags-are-pretty-much-Confederate-flags-tbh dept
For as long as cops have been poorly-behaved, people have talked about defunding the police. This talk has gotten louder in recent years and almost deafening in recent weeks as protests over police brutality erupted around the nation in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
But what does it mean to defund the police? In most cases, it doesn’t mean getting rid of police departments. It means taking some of the millions spent on providing subpar law enforcement and spreading it around to social services and healthcare professionals to steer people trained to react with violence away from people who would be better served with social service safety nets or interventions by people trained to handle mental health crises.
Those opposed to defunding police departments (that’s most police officials and officers) say it can’t be done without ushering in a criminal apocalypse. Police departments demand an inordinate amount of most cities’ budgets but law enforcement officials refuse to agree money should be steered away from them even as cities prepare to redirect some calls cops normally handle to other city services.
Cops believe they’re the “thin blue line” between order and chaos. They believe they’re the only thing standing between good people and criminals. But that’s just something they say to make themselves feel better about the babysitting and clerical work that consumes most of their working hours. Josie Duffy Rice’s excellent article about the long racist history of American law enforcement brings the receipts. What’s standing between us and supposed chaos is barely anything at all.
New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.
What was a handy way to keep slaves (and then former slaves) in line evolved into the law enforcement community we have today. We may no longer send out police officers to round up slaves but we do allow a bunch of racist garbage data to decide where they should focus their efforts. Predictive policing is impossible to differentiate from the low-tech policing of yesteryear. In both cases, enforcement efforts focus on poor residents and minorities.
And, like employees everywhere in every business, far too many cops look for the path of least resistance. Meaningful busts that actually reduce criminal activity are the exception. Low-level BS busts are better. They kill time, look busy, and turn citizens into junk content for the justice system. Clickbait churn but for human beings.
It’s the sort of thing that led to Charleston resident Henry Earl becoming a late night talk show punchline and the subject of nationwide ridicule. Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times — almost always for public intoxication. Every two or three days, cops would pick up Earl and toss him in jail for three to five days. This happened over and over again for fifty years. And for what? What was the societal net gain of arresting the same man 1,500 times for a low-level violation? Well, it kept the cops paid and they got to look like they were doing something to earn their paychecks.
This is how the “thin blue line” actually operates. And it bears no resemblance to the lofty statements they make in defense of their own profession. Most police work is busywork. But in this nation, the busywork tends to negatively affect certain people the most. This is the fact cops and law enforcement officials can’t admit to themselves:
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape.
Given the history and the current state of policing, it makes sense to start stripping law enforcement down to its basic components and rebuild it to serve the public, rather than its own interests.