Most people view the police favorably. Most people are white. When I point out massive problems with police brutality, abuse of authority, and policing tactics, I am met by yawns, defensiveness, or anger amongst most of my social and political circles, circles that extend to social media. While mine is a diverse social network, it remains predominantly white. However, I am part of at least three sub-cultures online (African-American, people with mental illness, and liberal, often peace or Occupy, protesters) that do discuss police misconduct with a great deal of seriousness and concern. These social circles are all talking about Michael Brown and Eric Garner right now.
When I regularly share the examples of police abuse these communities generate, I get the feeling no one likes it very much. Folks, and I’m mainly talking about white people, just don’t like to hear about their police forces mistreating people, so they just seem to deny it happens. Or maybe they think the only people jumping up and down hollering about the police are anti-government conservatives. I think that’s why I have watched police officers repeatedly escape punishment for brutalizing people in clear-cut cases where the jury would have had to be blind not to witness the video evidence. For example, the case of Kelly Thomas, a homeless, mentally ill man in Orange County who was beaten to death by officers as he screamed out for his father’s help, represents an example of the police seeking out a petty crime and then violently killing a man, yet remarkably, inexplicably, inexcusably, these officers were exonerated by a jury for an obvious case of murder. His father, a retired police officer, cried out in agony and shock at the verdict, unable to understand how his fellow officers were let off the hook for killing his son. I have had a nightmare where I am being beaten to death by the police, and I am screaming for my father, as a result of seeing the video of Mr Thomas’s death. Other people seem to give it a shrug.
Another example is the death of Eric Garner, who was killed by a police chokehold, when police were arresting him for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes. Mr. Garner was sick of being harassed by the police and he felt it happened because of his race. He said so. Right before he died at the hands of the NYPD. Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager that was just killed in St. Louis, got into his altercation with the police over being disobedient about walking on the sidewalk versus in the street, at least according to the teen’s surviving friend and eyewitness.
All of these encounters have the same commonality. They involved the police tactic of “broken windows” policing. This policing strategy was developed by George R. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. The idea is that you crack the whip with small offenses ranging from loitering to vandalism to even jaywalking in a community, and this will decrease crime of all types. However, this policing tactic has been shown to lead to racial profiling as well as targeting of poor people in general.
More importantly, I believe it leads to inevitable conflict. I’m even going to propose a theory to serve as a corollary to broken windows theory. Let’s call this theory, “Guaranteed Conflict Theory.” According to this theory, when the police approach someone accustomed to being harassed by the police about a petty offense — such as sitting on the front stoop (NY), walking in the street, or just standing around in public – ‘offenses’ not enforced in other neighborhoods - the accused will feel insulted, may return the disrespect or defy the ‘order.’ As a result, the police officer reacts as if he’s the offended party and escalates the situation until a violent outcome is achieved. I believe it is a dynamic that it is repeated time and again in interactions between the police and minority groups.
A nearly perfect example of the Guaranteed Conflict Theory is the case of an Arizona professor being thrown to the ground under arrest for jaywalking. The professor was shocked and disturbed that she was being stopped for a behavior that people do every day, and she responded to the officer with some degree of resistance because she simply couldn’t believe she was being targeted for such a petty crime. The (white) officer became angry with the disobedience he received, and he escalated the interaction into a physical conflict. Let’s be clear. It is the officer who has provoked this situation in these types of interactions, whose authority is questioned in such a way that he or she can’t bear it, and it is the officer who becomes violent. The officer’s inability to empathize with the individual he or she is dealing with is key. He doesn’t understand how it feels to be harassed for petty crimes; told that when you gather with friends, you are loitering. When you enter the ‘wrong’ neighborhood,’ you looked suspicious.
Stop-and-frisk programs lead to stops of white people only 11% of the time in New York. Eleven percent. The rest of the time, it’s African Americans (a whopping 56% which is actually a decline) and Latinos (29%). Unless you’re truly bad at math, you can immediately calculate that a group, African Americans, who are 25% of the city’s population, are being stopped twice as much as they would be if officers were targeting citizens at random for stop-and-frisk. Of course, we know they don’t do that. Racial profiling is a given. If you want to get your drugs across the city of New York, send them with a white courier, odds are good he or she will not be stopped. Hint, hint, you’re losing the War on Drugs because you never look at white people with money. Then again, policies like stop-and-frisk and its progenitor, broken windows theory lead to racial profiling, zero tolerance, and guaranteed instances of police brutality, misconduct, abuse of authority, and hostility between the police and the community. As protests rage in Ferguson, MO, over Michael Brown’s death, a Ryan Reilly, reporter from Huffington Post, described the SWAT forces “overkill” “acting as a military force” with a “disturbing mentality” that was physically aggressive and only served to make the tensions worse between police and the community.
There is no excuse for an officer who can’t handle being disobeyed, especially if they are going to be spending all of their time on the enforcement of petty crimes through the broken windows policing method. Way too many people want to let the police officers off the hook in these situations, because the person of color “didn’t obey orders,” while few seem willing to honestly ask themselves what it would be like to be targeted by the police in this way, under the “broken windows” approach. By selectively micro-policing minority and other marginalized groups of people, the police guarantee a level of resistance and conflict with both these individuals and the communities they belong to. The police stay busy, provoking certain people and communities as a matter of policy. These people and communities react accordingly, as any of us might. Jails stay full. And the lives of those targeted – which never seem to enter into the calculation — are damaged, if not taken outright.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.