The Underpolicing of Black America
February 1, 2015 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Ghettoside is "about a very simple idea... Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic... The [problem]'s source was not general perversity of mind in the population that suffered. It was a weak legal apparatus that had long failed to place black injuries and the loss of black lives at the heart of its response when mobilizing the law, first in the South and later in segregated cities." - Jill Leovy (previously)

Leovy on the Daily Show, on Tom Ashbrook, interviewed by Dan Slater.

Jelani Cobb on how Black communities are hemmed in by crime and aggressive policing.

James Forman, Jr. on better alternatives to stop-and-frisk.

Glenn Loury and Tracy Meares on police legitimacy.
posted by AceRock (21 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, thanks. Still working my way through the links, but this NYT article about Camden, NJ, which historically has been troubled by both underpolicing and antagonistic policing, and actually disbanded its own police force entirely a couple of years ago, seems potentially relevant here. I don't have a lot of other information about how things are going there, but if they're really going nearly as well as the article suggests after the reforms they've been implementing, it definitely gives me some hope for the future.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:37 PM on February 1, 2015

I just got this book, but haven't started it yet. Saw her on the Daily Show, and heard the interview on Fresh Air (transcript & audio). Looking forward to it (I have a plane trip this week I'm saving it for).
posted by rtha at 4:18 PM on February 1, 2015

From that NYT article about Camden:

It hired civilians to use crime-fighting technology it had never had the staff for.

Smells like an extrajudicial surveillance network. I googled, here's an article from the Camden County Police Department:

The Camden County Police Department will be hiring more than 50 police aides for the department that will be working on crime scenes to operating the eye in the sky technology to become a force multiplier for the Metro Division.

Called it. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:23 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's disturbing and disappointing, if not surprising.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:25 PM on February 1, 2015

both underpolicing and antagonistic policing

That combination is what most poor communities around the world face -- no police most of the time, so no help with crime prevention or investigation, and then when the police to come it is with maximum force and violence. It's a terrible combination and leads to extra-judicial justice (ie vigilantism) and exposes the most vulnerable people to the highest amounts of violence.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:22 PM on February 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

These two things reinforce each other.

Crime flourishes in an under-policed area, which creates convenient excuses for police violence.

Police violence causes the residents of these areas to cease to call for police protection, further allowing crime to flourish, and excusing the absence of police from the area.

But really, there are no excuses for the police to not do their job.
posted by rustcrumb at 5:40 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Poor people are policed but not protected and rich people are protected but not policed.
posted by srboisvert at 6:45 PM on February 1, 2015 [25 favorites]

In some jurisdictions, not only is crime under-investigated, but any witnesses that step forward can expect to be accused.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:01 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Any discussion of this topic is misleadingly incomplete without mention of the role of lead in crime rates, and the especially concentrated soil lead levels in urban areas.

On a more philosophical level, I wish the discussion also covered the apparent break from Peelian principles in American policing.
posted by NortonDC at 8:48 PM on February 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

NortonDC, thanks for sharing those links. The Peelian principles are interesting, but not sure describing the current state of American policing in Black communities as a "break" from them is accurate.

Leovy for instance argues that the American legal system's relationship with Black Americans has historically always been characterized by a preoccupation with control, nuisance abatement, and "prevention" rather than responding to victims of violence. The Jim Crow-era legal systems, for example, often hammered Black men for petty crimes but was lenient towards those who murdered other Black men, a tradition that appears to have been carried forward to the present in different forms.
posted by AceRock at 9:25 AM on February 2, 2015

Not to derail the thread, but just to contextualize the lead comment

Lead is the environmental waste that we know the most about--we have the most science on lead from the field, to the lab, to human body. That's the main reason we can conduct the kind of analysis you link to.

Arsenic is probably the next metal that the various environmental science and health disciplines will amass a critical amount of evidence on.

There are many other pollutants dumped on people of color, particularly Native American and Black communities. So health impacts are also caused by these other pollutants, compounded with lack of access to health care.

My experience and my estimate is that african americans in the US are much more concentrated in urban areas, thus this discussion; but I wonder if there is much documentation of the policing / protecting divide that srboisvert summarized in Native communities as well.

Toxic wastes and Race at Twenty (2007)

Just Oil? The Distribution of Environmental and social Impacts of Oil Production and Consumption

But back to the subject at hand--the "environment" can become a weapon against people in what gets defined as the ghetto, by the police --what gets called a "known drug area". the police define the geography of crime, in other words. Don't step into that area while black, or you are stepping into a profile.

I have known people to be jumped out upon (cops in plain clothes with guns drawn) and put in jail for "dealing drugs" because they were standing on a corner, or sitting on a front porch next to a corner in a "known drug area."

I don't think there's been a break in "Peelian Principles" in American policing, because american policing has historically been an extension of the plantation system.

cf Raymond Pettus Bridge and Alabama police whipping demonstrators

cf Sheriff control over the Jim Crow convict labor system / encouragement of terrorism and lynching

cf the Angola prison farm.
posted by eustatic at 9:53 AM on February 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have trouble taking seriously an article that says there is a "disastrous murder epidemic" going on when violent crime is down across the board.
posted by quillbreaker at 9:58 AM on February 2, 2015

Consider modern-day Egypt, which had long been a low-homicide nation in the vise of a police state.
What the modern black ghetto needs today is a bigger, more respectable, more competent authoritarianism.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:53 PM on February 2, 2015

No doubt I am advertising my history of privilege in positing a break from Peelian principles because it's now obvious enough to be a concern for *me*, but I'll still go with the idea that a troubling change is afoot in the formalized goals and aspirations of the police system. I'm thinking in terms of the utility of the ideal, like with journalism and the ideal of objectivity, despite its concrete unobtainability, versus the wreckage wrought by abandoning the ideal by the likes of Fox, et al.

eustatic, have you read The Arsenic Century? It covers exactly the territory you're pointing to, in great detail. Perhaps too much detail. I admit to reading only two thirds of it, despite finding many sections completely engrossing. It just became to much of a formal defense of a thesis, with mountains of supporting text, for a personal reader. But when it's painting the picture of the times, wow.
posted by NortonDC at 3:51 PM on February 2, 2015

Rustic, can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not. The sentence you quoted does indeed point to somewhat of a paradox in Leovy's (and other's) argument. The state, as an institution that supposedly holds a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of violence is also, by its very nature, designed to carry out violence, and in many cases can indulge in violence and despotism rather than hold it in reserve/restraint. That being true doesn't make the basic argument, that Black communities are too often effectively "stateless" and that violence is higher in stateless environments, not true.
posted by AceRock at 5:32 PM on February 2, 2015

My point is that if your example of Doing It Right - low homicide rates, after all! - is an even more repressive police state, maybe your model leaves something to be desired. I'm also not sure that the statelessness of a country in the middle of a revolution is comparable to the "statelessness" of a neighborhood with a police force that prefers cracking skulls to arresting those who crack them. The state is there, but it's there to serve interests besides those of the locals.

It makes me wonder whether the reforms Leovy advocates in her interview with Stewart are possible on anything like a broad scale. If, as the end of the WSJ piece says, devoted police really want to solve the serious cases, then why are they settling for the easy pickings of vice-and-nuisance enforcement? Is it really that the government is keeping them from doing so, as the piece's last sentence implies, or is it that the easy pickings are easy, the serious work is hard, and there's nothing preventing police from opting for the former every single time?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:14 PM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm reading this book now. My personal preference would be for it to "show" more and "tell" a bit less, but it's a good book, and I hope it has the impact it is trying to have.

One of the details that resonates with my own observations is how little media coverage a lot of homicides get. There have been several murders in my neighborhoods that received just 250 words and zero follow up. At least one, my landlord knew the family, and it wasn't some tit-for-tat series of drive-by gang shootings. The man was taking a walk with another guy's ex or crush or something like that, and the spurned male shot at the pair. All the media storytelling that often goes on around murdered young people and their wasted potential was nowhere to be found, and even now, two years later, there's nothing in the news about anyone having been charged with the crime.
posted by slidell at 8:24 PM on February 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older 4th place gets a QB Eagles candy bar from 1989   |   Humans Need Not Apply Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments