The Problem Is Overpolicing

(Photo: Thomas Hawk)(Photo: Thomas Hawk)

Once again we are confronted by the horrifying images of black men being killed by the police. A hauntingly familiar refrain has emerged along with it, calling for better use-of-force training and policies, more diverse police forces, and more federal intervention by the Department of Justice to hold officers accountable for unnecessary use of deadly force. However, an increasing number of people are rejecting these calls and instead pointing a finger at the larger problem of overpolicing that has played a central role in so many recent deaths and is at the center of the problem of policing in America.

Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill, on Democracy Now, said that we “have to ask what role do we really want police officers to have? Do we want them to be an occupying force in our community?” Writing for the Nation, Kai Wright argues:

We need to start asking why we have so much law enforcement in the first place, and whether much of it is truly needed. Law enforcement agencies are among the largest and most powerful bureaucracies in most localities and they are deeply enmeshed in our daily lives, particularly in communities of color. They are our first responders. They are in our schools. They are our immigration officials. For the most vulnerable among us, they are often what passes for social workers and mental health care providers. And they are armed. At some point, we must question whether all of this law enforcement is necessary, and whether public safety is best served by having much, much less of it.

Some will say that it was wholly appropriate for police to respond to a call about an armed man or make a traffic stop for a vehicular infraction, but that in these cases the officers misreacted or overreacted to a perceived threat, using excessive and deadly force. At first glance, this may seem like an issue of poor use-of-force training and policy, accompanied by racial bias. South Carolina Law School professor Seth Stoughton rightfully points out that part of the problem with US policing is the dominance of a warrior mindset among police that is instilled through training and police culture. Too often police seem to be looking for a justification to shoot rather than a strategy to avoid shooting, especially when it comes to young men of color. But that warrior mindset is driven by the fact that we have asked the police to be at war with the public, especially those they perceive as implicated in a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, and a war on disorder — most of whom are not white. When we ask police to be at war, excessive use of force is inevitable. Changes to training and even the prosecution of a few officers is not going to meaningfully change this dynamic.

Philando Castile was killed during a routine traffic stop. After informing police he was legally armed, he was shot repeatedly while reaching for his ID and registration. Was this just a case of a poorly trained and racially biased trigger-happy cop? No. We need to ask what the real purpose of the traffic stop was. It is widely known that police engage in pretextual traffic stops, not because they are concerned about vehicle safety but because they are fishing for something else, usually drugs. These stops are notoriously racially skewed, though exact figures are hard to come by because of a lack of data from police. Even when well-intended, these kinds of stops have a dramatically more detrimental effect on the poor, whose vehicles are more likely to have minor defects, and who are least able to pay the increasingly exorbitant fines — which then lead to warrants and enhanced penalties.

Over the last few decades, cities across the country have significantly increased this kind of low-level traffic enforcement as both a form of revenue generation and as part of the war on drugs. There is no evidence this kind of enforcement leads to greater safety on the roads or reduced traffic deaths, and it certainly hasn’t done anything to reduce the availability of drugs. It was also a major factor in Ferguson, Missouri, where black residents felt unjustly targeted for low-level vehicle infractions by the mostly white police department there. Also, when police view a traffic stop as a potential drug bust, they are much more likely to fear for their safety and perceive those they stop as a source of danger, leading to frequent cases of unnecessary force and degrading treatment.

The case of Alton Sterling is more complicated and demands that we take a bigger step back. Some have tried to link this murder to the killing of Eric Garner by pointing out that both men were engaged in innocuous informal economic activity. Such low-level enforcement is driven by the Broken Windows theory and is a stark example of abusive and unnecessary overpolicing. But the call to 911 also involved the presence of a gun. If the police get a call about a man with a gun harassing or threatening someone, a response is certainly called for. The whole incident, however, screams for a deeper analysis of the failed social dynamics at work.

Why was Sterling carrying a gun in the first place? Early reports suggest that, after hearing about how a friend engaged in the same line of work was robbed, he was concerned with defending himself in a state that encourages people to do exactly that — carry guns for self-protection. This is part of a larger ideology about the role of the state. Louisiana continues to cut the most basic social services, while investing heavily in police and prisons to manage the fallout of declining living standards, racism and entrenched poverty. Louisiana also leads the way in insulating police from accountability in the form of police bills of rights and even hate-crimes protection.  It should be no surprise that in such an environment, people will come to have little confidence in the ability of government to do anything positive for them. It is a certain brand of libertarianism at its logical conclusion.

Why was Sterling selling CDs? Because he was a poor black man with few legitimate economic prospects and no support, who turned to the informal economy to survive. Part of the way that informal economies operate is that you can’t call the police when you are robbed or have a business dispute, so you must be prepared to protect yourself. Unfortunately, these “black markets” have become heavily criminalized and by extension all young men of color in a place like Baton Rouge are viewed as likely criminals to be managed by heavy handed policing. Too often, police who are tasked with controlling such informal economic activities day in and day out come to view young men of color as suspects, and by extension, sources of danger. In a state where it is legal to carry a gun, the police moved immediately to violently subdue Sterling rather than question him from a place of safety because most likely, in their minds, he was always already a threat.

It is possible that these officers will be held accountable in some way for their actions. Perhaps they will lose their jobs or even be criminally prosecuted, but the likelihood of this is slim. Neither local DAs nor the Department of Justice have much success on this front. Even in the rare cases that an officer is convicted, there is little evidence that it contributes to improved policing or real justice for the victims’ families.

As I pointed out after the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, tinkering with police training and diversifying police forces is not going to end this problem. If the US wants to reduce police killings, it needs to figure out how to provide stable formal economic activity to young people instead of driving them into dangerous and illegal “black markets.” There is little evidence that the intensive and invasive overpolicing of young people does anything to reduce any informal economic activities — whether the selling of CDs or the selling of drugs. The US has been waging a war on drugs for 40 years, and drugs are cheaper, of higher quality, and more widely available than ever before. A police-centered approach merely criminalizes people in a way that exacerbates racial and economic inequality and undermines the legitimacy of government in those communities. States like Louisiana, and increasingly the whole country, have put themselves in a position where social problems go unaddressed until they become a source of violence or disorder that, in turn, is defined as a problem to be addressed exclusively through policing and punishment. This is what must change.