I keep harping on the difference between “what” and “how”–and the too-often-unrecognized importance of “how.” I’ve been frustrated, for example, by public reactions to recent Supreme Court decisions that have largely focused upon agreement or disagreement with the holdings– ignoring the Court’s far more concerning willingness to break Constitutional rules about standing and jurisdiction.
That tendency to focus on the “what”rather than the “how” also characterizes most public debates about crime. Most pundits begin with the assumption that public safety requires more policing, and even critics of police misbehavior rarely dispute that assumption. They just want better hiring and training practices.
Balko began with what we all know–the horrific incidents that have become common are not the result of “rogue” officers–they reflect institutional cultures.
In a staggering report last month, the Department of Justice documented pervasive abuse, illegal use of force, racial bias and systemic dysfunction in the Minneapolis Police Department. City police officers engaged in brutality or made racist comments, even as a department investigator rode along in a patrol car. Complaints about police abuse were often slow-walked or dismissed without investigation. And after George Floyd’s death, instead of ending the policy of racial profiling, the police just buried the evidence.
The Minneapolis report was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. It doesn’t read much differently from recent Justice Department reports about the police departments in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Ferguson, Mo., or any of three recent reports from various sources about Minneapolis, from 2003, 2015 and 2016.
Balko points to a common response by many in law enforcement: all this criticism is preventing police from doing their jobs “right.” Many officers- defeated and demoralized–quit. Fewer police, more crime.
Lying just below the surface of that characterization is a starkly cynical message to marginalized communities: You can have accountable and constitutional policing, or you can have safety. But you can’t have both.
As Balko notes, calls for more police fail to take into account the ways in which police brutality and misconduct erode public trust, and how that erosion of trust affects public safety. He then points to the experience of a prosperous Minneapolis suburb.
Golden Valley is 85 percent white and 5 percent Black — the result of pervasive racial covenants.
“We enjoy prosperity and security in this community,” said Shep Harris, the mayor since 2012. “But that has come at a cost. I think it took incidents like the murder of George Floyd to help us see that more clearly.” The residents of the strongly left-leaning town decided change was necessary. One step was eliminating those racial covenants. Another was changing the Police Department, which had a reputation for mistreating people of color.
Golden Valley hired a high-ranking Black policewoman and a Black Chief of Police, prompting members of the overwhelmingly white police force to quit — in droves. And police unions continue to warn officers against joining the Golden Valley force, despite excellent pay and a relatively low crime rate.
What happened after the police force lost some half of its officers?
Balko concedes that Golden Valley is far from a perfect model; it’s a wealthy community with very little crime. But he also notes that its experience isn’t unique, either.
When New York’s officers engaged in an announced slowdown in policing in late 2014 and early 2015, civilian complaints of major crime in the city dropped. And despite significant staffing shortages at law enforcement agencies around the country, if trends continue, 2023 will have the largest percentage drop in homicides in U.S. history. It’s true that such a drop would come after a two-year surge, but the fact that it would also occur after a significant reduction in law enforcement personnel suggests the surge may have been due more to the pandemic and its effects than depolicing…
At the very least, the steady stream of Justice Department reports depicting rampant police abuse ought to temper the claim that policing shortages are fueling crime. It’s no coincidence that the cities we most associate with violence also have long and documented histories of police abuse. When people don’t trust law enforcement, they stop cooperating and resolve disputes in other ways. Instead of fighting to retain police officers who feel threatened by accountability and perpetuate that distrust, cities might consider just letting them leave.
In Indianapolis, the Republican candidate for mayor is basing his campaign largely on his “plan” to improve public safety–a plan to hire more police officers and to “let them do their jobs.”
He clearly doesn’t understand that we won’t get to “what”–less crime–unless we address the importance of “how.”