Police and American Race Ideology

So far, in the two months I have been writing about police reform, I have said little about the racial aspect of police killings. We know that police, and the criminal justice system as a whole, target African-Americans well out of proportion to crimes committed by that community. Race is central to any reform of the criminal justice system, but not specific to those reforms. This is because the issue of race is central to anything and everything in American society. The legacy of racialized slavery pervades the institutions and ideology of American society. The ideology of race holds white America back from making genuine moral progress. That’s why these past articles about police reform have not touched upon race and the police – race is a problem for Americans in every facet of life. And it is entirely self-imposed. Race is nothing more than an ideological illusion.

We know that race is ideological, because race is not a real thing, in the sense that tables and chairs are real. There are no races in the human species at least not as we think of race. Racial distinctions are not found in the human genome.

Race is a shared illusion that previous generations have tried and failed to justify. The only purpose of the concept of race is the maintenance of a social hierarchy. The racial distinctions that we make are descended from the distinctions made by colonial authorities. African slaves needed to be distinguished from European servants, even though they had similar stations and received similar treatment, to prevent solidarity between them. Race is not about biology or culture; it’s about who will serve and who will command.

The fact that race is not real does not change the fact that it affects people’s lives. The racial inequalities are extensive, so let’s just focus on criminal justice (from the Sentencing Project’s report to the UN):

  • African-Americans are arrested at a rate disproportionate to their crime rate: 30% of arrests for property offenses and 38% for violent offenses are of African-Americans.
  • The arrests of African-Americans for drug crimes rose from 6.5 people for every 1,000 people in 1980 to 29.1 for every 1,000 in 2000, while arrests for white Americans only rose from 3.5 to 4.6 people. There are no significant differences between drug use between the races.
  • African-Americans are more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than white or Hispanics, and more likely to be threatened by police. African-Americans are more likely to be stopped in the first place.
  • Prosecutors are more likely to indict an African-American for killing a white American than vice versa.
  • When juries have a more than five white males, the jury is significantly more likely to convict an African-American and sentence him to death.
  • African-Americans are more significantly more likely to be convicted, and will be sentenced to longer sentences than white Americans.

This only addresses racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. People of color will encounter socially imposed disadvantages everywhere. For example, a black American without a criminal conviction is likely to be hired than a white ex-convict. That’s what race is for, after all. It’s about who matters and who doesn’t.

For some reason, in any discussion about race, white people get uncomfortable or angry. “I’m not a racist”, they say, or “I don’t benefit from being white!” (How would they know if they benefited or not?) They’re missing the point though. They’re worried about being called a racist, or being thought to have racist beliefs. Racial inequality is not a result of conscious racist beliefs, but of the intersection of implicit biases and institutional practices.

Every human being has implicit biases – unconscious biases for and against different groups of people. In the implicit bias test, our biases are determined by how quickly we can associate positive and negative concepts with different groups. For most white people, they have a difficulty associating positive concepts with African Americans, but easily associate negative concepts with them. White Americans have an overwhelming implicit bias against African-Americans, well and above any other race.

While African-Americans have much less of implicit bias against African-Americans, they also have some implicit bias against themselves. This is disheartening, but not surprising. We all have a picture of the social structure in our heads, regardless of race. Implicit biases represent that social structure.

Implicit biases still have an effect on our behavior, even if we don’t want them to. Even if each member of a community has only a slight bias against another group, the overall effect can be significant. Thus, schools and neighborhoods have become segregated again.

Meanwhile, institutions take advantage of those rendered powerless. Once, banks have pursued discriminatory practices called “redlining”, refusing to issue loans to qualified African-Americans, as well as other communities of color, for no other apparent reason than race. In the lead up to the financial crisis, banks engaged in “reverse redlining”, pushing loans on people whom they knew couldn’t pay back. People of color are denied the resources needed for social power, and so become the target of powerful organizations, regardless of whether its members are racist or not. A similar phenomenon probably leads to racialized policing.

As we know, police departments in the United States have a long history of cooperation and collusion with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. In the early 20th century, this cooperation was open and celebrated, but since the Civil Rights movement has become clandestine.

Yet, even if the police are not themselves racist, or are themselves of color, communities of color can’t fight police power the way that white communities can. This is why police forces that are more diverse are not any less racially discriminatory than mostly white police forces.

What Can We Do?

There are two issues here: the implicit biases or individuals and the operations of organizations.

We can only counter implicit biases through positive presentations of African-Americans in media and thorough racial integration. Currently, both news and entertainment media is awash in negative presentations of African-Americans. The media portrays African-Americans, especially black men, as criminals, drug-users, and welfare recipients. While government action is not possible on this point, we can bring social pressure to bear on media organizations.

Countering implicit biases also means bringing people of different races into constant contact with one another. This requires the forced integration of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Communities should resemble the population of which they are a part. Cities should not be broken into white and black parts of town.

Integration means that the state has to set guidelines for organizations to add new members. Organizations will have to alter hiring practices, school entry, and real estate sales to integrate American society.

Racially diverse police forces may not be significantly less organizationally racist in our racially segregated society. But police forces may change when the surrounding society changes. In the meantime, we should not lose sight of the unjust power and practices that police present in themselves. Addressing police power directly is more likely to yield benefits than adding more racial sensitivity training in today’s police departments.

Police Reform: Cops Without Guns

Since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police officers have shot many more unarmed African-Americans. In New York City, Akai Gurley was shot in the stairwell of his apartment building. In Phoenix, Rumain Brisbon was shot to death in his home, in front of his wife and children. In Cleveland, John Crawford and 12 year old Tamir Rice were shot while holding toy guns (in an open carry state). In these and many other cases, police turn to their firearm as the first resort instead of the last. In 2014, the police killed 1,000 citizens, dangerous or not.

As this collection of episodes illustrates, the police should not carry firearms, except in exceptional circumstances. This is by no means an outlandish idea: we have several models in the world already. The police forces of Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway all feature unarmed police patrols.

Unarmed Police

The British police are the forerunners of all modern police forces. Unlike almost any of its successors though, British* police officers do not carry firearms on patrol. Instead, British patrol officers are expected to solve problems through persuasion, moral authority, and, if necessary, their baton or taser. British police prefer remaining unarmed; 82% of British police approved of unarmed patrols.

*Because of the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland, the police there are regularly armed. Also, sadly, Scotland’s new national police service has armed its patrol officers. However, the Scots do not generally support this move.

Unarmed British police capture man wielding machete, with innovative use of recycling bin.

New Zealand’s police have a similar view. When their parliament considered arming their patrol officers in 2009, the New Zealand police commissioner wrote:

I have no doubt that carrying handguns would compromise officers’ ability to do their regular work, because when you carry a weapon, your primary concern is to protect that weapon. If this was balanced by a clearly demonstrable increase in personal protection, it would be a price to consider paying. But the protection offered by a firearm — particularly a pistol — is more illusory than real.

This is not to say that the British or New Zealand police do not have access to firearms. An officer can requisition a firearm in special circumstances. In cases where firearms are needed in an emergency, “authorized firearms officers” are dispatched.

The benefits are clear: British police rarely kill anyone, because they can’t do so (easily). Furthermore, firearms officers are specialists whose sole purpose is firearms control. Perhaps that’s why, despite being dispatched 12,550 times in 2012, firearms officers discharged their weapons only 5 times, with only two fatalities. Unjustified killings still happen, including those based on race. In 2007, firearms officers killed a Brazilian national, Jean Charles de Menezes, in the London Underground. In 2008, Ian Tomlinson was killed in 2009 after being tackled by police. And, as in the United States, the courts are unlikely to convict a killer cop. Yet killings by police officers are much less likely.

The Dangers to Police

Most Americans are reluctant to believe that unarmed policing is applicable to the United States. To begin with, Americans don’t believe any international model of anything can be applied to the United States at all. In this case, there is some justice to the objection. The widespread ownership of guns would seem to make the job of American police very dangerous. The pervasive gun culture seems to justify the shoot-first mentality and overreliance on SWAT teams for serving warrants.

I’m sure that the police officer’s job is very stressful; the police have to intrude into citizen’s lives everyday to enforce the law and most people will resent that. It’s not a job where you see the best side of people. Furthermore, police training emphasizes the possible dangers of dealing with citizens. Training videos feature scene after scene of unexpected, and fatal, assaults. So it’s understandable that police officers might experience anxiety in their work.

The problem is that this sense of danger is an illusion. Being a police officer is not that dangerous of a job. In 2013, 8 in 100,000 police officers were murdered. Half of all police deaths occur in traffic accidents. Granted, any death is one too many. But as occupations go, law enforcement is not even in the top ten most dangerous jobs. Loggers, fishermen, groundskeepers, farmers, metal workers, construction workers, paramedics, and anyone involved in driving for a living all have more deaths on the job than the police (by 2013 data).

Crime itself, especially violent crime, has fallen dramatically across the country (the causes of which are only poorly understood). For whatever reason, Americans are becoming less violent.

This evidence suggests that, we not only can disarm police departments, we should. The extraordinary expansion of the use of SWAT teams and the aggressive, militarized policing of protests already demonstrate that police forces must be stripped of their military toys. But given the increasingly common and irresponsible use of deadly force by police, we should disarm the police as well.

Radley Balko’s 2014 Oppression Retrospective

Radley Balko, the Washington Post’s resident libertarian and criminal justice critic, has compiled a list of criminal justice horrors at his WaPo blog. It’s presented as predictions for the coming year, but all of his predictions refer to events from this year.

Here are a few of the more horrifying criminal justice follies from 2014, with links:

• The indiscriminate police raids will continue, with aggressive, door-kicking raids on people suspected of increasingly petty crimes, such as credit card fraud and underage drinking. In a rare moment of sanity, at least one federal appeals court will decide that maybe SWAT raids are an unconstitutionally excessive way to conductregulatory inspections. But such raids will continue elsewhere.

• Some U.S. cities will pay out tens of millions of dollars in police brutality claims. In all but a handful of instances, the individual officers involved will not be held accountable.

• We’ll learn about more cases in which police have subjected innocent people to anal penetration and forced colonoscopies in order to search for drugs.

We’ll start arresting working parents for the “crime” of letting their kids play in public places without supervision. Some of these parents will face felony charges and the possibility of losing custody of their children.

In the latest panic over teen “sexting,” local law enforcement officials somewhere will hit a new low, arguing that a court should allow them to forcibly induce an erection in a teenage boy in order to prove that the boy’s penis is the one depicted in a photo sent to a teenage girl.

• Some drug cops will blow a hole in a toddler’s chest in order to nab a guy suspected of selling $50 worth of meth.

We’ll also start Tasering children.

• Some dumb city officials will order a police raid, arrests and criminal charges because a parody Twitter account hurt the mayor’s feelings.

• In some places, it will become a crime for a pregnant woman to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Radley Balko maintains a blog at the Washington Post called “The Watch”, and is the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Police Reform: Crime Prevention Without the Police

Police Reform Month continues through December and into January of 2015! Happy New Year, citizens!

Readers may be shocked, as I am, at the extraordinary entitlement of the New York Police Department. The NYPD union claimed that protestors of police violence and the comments of New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, were responsible for the deaths of two NYPD officers. At the funerals for these officers, in a public spectacle not performed for any other type of public employee, hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs when de Blasio went to speak. New York’s police have sent the signal that even the mildest criticism will not be permitted; they are beyond accountability to their employers (the public).

Well, good news – they can find employment elsewhere! As we have previously discussed, the police, as they stand now, are neither just nor effective. Some readers have been under the impression that this means that police officers are not good at their jobs. And plenty of police officers aren’t, as we see every week with a new victim of police violence. However, what we are actually saying is that the job of policing does not meet its goal of preventing crime. The tasks that police perform – patrolling, responding to calls for service, and criminal investigation – do not have a significant effect on the crime rate. For reasons that are still unknown, crime has fallen across North America regardless of the actions of particular police departments.

Social scientists are only now beginning to understand how we can actually prevent crime. The International Center for the Prevention of Crime collects the best practices for interventions that prevent crime from happening in the first place. Several factors make people more likely to be a criminal offender, or a victim of crime, or make a location more likely to be a source of crime. Preventing crime involves identifying people and places that are at-risk and solving the problems that lead to crime. While police departments often have crime prevention offices, they are often poorly funded and staffed. The tools of the police are the powers of search and arrest, and police departments usually revert to these tools, even after thorough reforms. The crime prevention methods discussed below do not require the skills the police are trained in.

Violence Prevention

Persons who are at-risk for committing violence are born into difficult circumstances: poverty, poor housing, and with uncaring or even abusive parents. We now know that the chronic stress of poverty is corrosive to the development of the human brain. Stress hormones reduce the development of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that inhibits our impulses. Identifying the most at-risk children and families and providing parental counseling and educational enrichment is an effective way of preventing crime in the long term. Chicago’s Child-Parent Center Program is one of the oldest such programs. Children followed through the program are 32 percent less likely to be arrested by the age of twenty.

That’s the long term, but what about crime happening right now? There are also non-coercive programs for that. Previously, we discussed the Cure Violence program and its pilot projects all over the world. Its founder, the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, found that violence has a pattern similar to the spread of disease. In fact, the best predictor of violence is exposure to violence. Thus, Slutkin reasoned, we can apply the epidemiological solution to violence. Cure Violence programs do this by finding community volunteers with credibility in violence-ridden areas. These ‘violence interrupters’ use their reputation to find persons who have been exposed to violence and use persuasion to change their behaviors. The program also provides counseling and educational opportunities. Everywhere the program is fully implemented, it finds significant success.

While Cure Violence is a non-profit, some cities have taken the initiative to implement similar programs. Richmond is a city in California adjacent to Oakland, and shares its reputation for violence. It has recently acquired fame for its highly regarded police chief, Chris Magnus, and his participation in protests against police violence. But the city also instituted an Office of Neighborhood Safety, headed by DeVone Boggan, in 2007. The office identifies the fifty most likely violent offenders and helps them to develop a plan for their life. Participants can receive up $1000 every month as long as they renounce violence. The office monitors them to make sure they keep their promise.

The murder rate in Richmond, California, has collapsed, from 47 killings out of 100,000 people in 2007 to 15 per 100,000 in 2013. However, we don’t want to fall victim to a post hoc fallacy. The NYPD pats itself on the back and claims that “broken windows” reduced crime in New York City, despite the same fall in crime across the country. Similarly, Richmond’s fall in murder rates are only a little better than the nation-wide fall in murder rates. Also, police chief Chris Magnus implemented his community policing reforms in Richmond around the same time, which may have had an effect.

Nonetheless, these public health methods are notable for getting results without violence, or the threat of violence. The volunteers do not carry weapons of any kind, and only have their personal credibility to protect them. No one dies on their patrols, despite being present in situations of armed violence.

Community Mobilization

Neighborhood watches are now a common element of local crime control. They are also not very effective. Most watches have failed to adopt the essential elements of the original project, Seattle’s 1968 Community Crime Prevention Program. Whereas many neighborhood watches are nothing but lackluster patrols, the Seattle program mobilized neighborhoods to identify vulnerabilities to crime and address them, including installing new locks and how to address strangers. While it sounds pretty simple today, the program saw burglaries drop by half in the targeted areas.

The neighborhood watches organized by the Citizens’ Local Alliance for a Safer Philadelphia (CLASP) were even more dedicated. Besides mutual assistance in installing new locks, timer lights, homemade alarms, marking personal property, and connecting neighbors, CLASP watches heavily patrolled their blocks with horns and flashlights. Like medieval townspeople, neighbors were expected to respond to the “hue and cry” of the patrols to drive criminals away. CLASP watches reduced crime by an average of 75 percent in organized blocks.

The police assist communities in establishing neighborhood watches as a part of “community policing”, the official national policy for policing. In community policing, specific officers are assigned to neighborhoods as a foot patrol, so that residents have regular interactions with the police. In some programs, such as the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, neighborhoods even have ‘beat assemblies’. The police and the community are supposed to work together to identify problems and develop solutions. The reality is usually that citizens complain and the assigned officer commands. Although community policing has worked to reduce crime in some locations, on average it has no effect, although citizens often feel safer and are more satisfied with their police department. Both neighborhood watches and community policing associations have a tendency to be captured by the police department, the citizens becoming passive, and any effectiveness of the program reduced.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design

We can also reduce crime by altering the environment to eliminate opportunities for crime. The basic principles of this method include, first, controlling access to a location. This means delineating the area, and who belongs in the area, by building paths, fences, and gates to guide users of the area.

Second, planners design the area for “natural surveillance”. People should have a reason to be in an area so that there are a lot of eyes on each other. This involves creating dense, mixed neighborhoods of residences and small businesses. Small businesses attract large numbers of people that deter crime in the residential neighborhood because of the increased chance of getting caught.

Third, the design should encourage identity and a sense of possession for its residents or users that encourage them to question the presence of strangers. This means creating clear markers between public and private areas and uses.

J.D. Trout gives an account of one experiment:

In Brooklyn, two adjacent high-rise buildings prompted classic research on crime-resistant architecture. These two buildings had the same clientele but different architectures. One (Brownsville) dissuaded crime and reduced situations for committing crime…. The other (Van Dyke) did not: ‘Van Dyke Homes was found to have 66 percent more total crime incidents, with over two and one-half times as many robberies (264 percent), and 60 percent felonies, misdemeanors, and offenses than Brownsville.’ (loc. 360)

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (also called “situational crime prevention”) has some effect, but the field is only just ripening. Further research will yield new methods.

Clearly, there are a number of crime prevention strategies, including those for immediate crimes, that do not require the police powers of warrantless arrest and search and the use of force. However, we can’t know whether these methods would work without the police at all. As always, progress towards a free society is through institutional and organizational experimentation.


Institute for the Prevention of Crime, Making Cities Safer: Action Briefs for Municipal Stakeholders, Ottawa, March 2009

Irvin Waller, Less Law, More Order

J.D. Trout, The Empathy Gap

Diane Zahm, Using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Problem-Solving

The Christmas Truce

By December of 1914, the First World War had been destroying European civilization for six months. An absurd chain of events had followed from the murder of a member of the decaying Hapsburg dynasty to the unprecedented deaths of millions. When Christmas came, the troops of all the warring nations had realized that the war was pointless; like all wars, they are born from the fitful, ideological nightmares of the ruling class. So, on the dark morning of December 25th, one German proposed a truce, and an Irish soldier (under the British flag) accepted. The benevolent virus spread throughout the trenches, becoming the Christmas Truce.

The Christmas Truce is amazing because, for a short time, the social illusions that drove the war were lifted. The illusions of borders and nations and fear were banished, and the soldiers saw themselves as the single species that they were. Only the true social distinction of human society remained: that of ruling and ruled. The generals were horrified that human beings weren’t killing one another and forbid fraternization between opposing forces. As much as the common soldier had been dedicated to the unity of humanity, the ruling classes of all nations were united in its destruction.

It was some years before soldiers began to turn their guns against their real enemy.

…Merry Christmas from Democracy in Principle!

Police Reform: The Nature of the Problem

Before we can solve the problem of the police, we must define the problem. There are two problems associated with the police as an institution. First, there is the racial aspect. This is a wider problem of implicit biases that we all share, for which there is no immediate solution. However, white privilege is a very real and significant problem. Second, and more tractable, is the problem of the legal powers of the police and the means of making that power accountable. This is an institutional and organizational problem, which we can more easily address.

The police are a variety of law enforcement officers organized by state and local governments for the purpose of patrol and criminal investigation. There are other varieties of law enforcement officers, such as fire marshals, park rangers, and investigators attached to other departments. Police are unique by having both a focus on the enforcement of criminal law, and duties related to non-criminal public services, like traffic direction.

Law enforcement officers are distinct from other public employees in having certain legal powers beyond those of ordinary citizens. Law enforcement officers (or, more traditionally, peace officers) are officers sworn to uphold the laws, who have the power to execute search or arrest warrants, perform warrantless searches and arrests given probable cause, and carry and use a firearm to enforce the law.

Law enforcement officers are subject to the laws themselves. Yet the ancient problem remains, “who watches the watchmen?” The existing mechanisms of accountability do not work.

The first recourse citizens have to police misconduct, especially in the case of a shooting, should be prosecution. However, the police act as witnesses for prosecutors in other trials. Prosecuting a police officer thus risks alienating other police officers and losing future valuable testimony. Left to their own devices, prosecutors have an interest in not prosecuting police misconduct.

Grand juries should direct prosecutors to send killer cops to trial, but we’ve seen how that plays out. Prosecutors don’t want to prosecute police misconduct, and they basically control the grand jury. The grand jury hears the evidence that the prosecutor provides, without anybody there to challenge that evidence. Thus, you get witnesses like Witness #40 at the Ferguson grand jury, who turned out to be a crazy person. Because the prosecutor does not want to prosecute police misconduct, grand juries will fail to do so as well.

A reasonable assumption is that a police officer who kills an unarmed citizen will be fired. After all, even if the police officer was excused by the state for his killing, he is at the very least terrible at his job. Unfortunately, police unions are good at their jobs, and successfully prevent police departments from firing even the worst officers. If only all unions were so powerful.

This is why the only recourse for the victims of the police is a civil suit. Between 2006 and 2011, police misconduct cases cost their municipalities $730 million, with NYPD costing its city $350 million. Because the cities pay this bill, and not the police departments or the offending police officer, civil suits do not have a deterrent effect on police misconduct.

Most suggested reforms attempt to increase transparency with the hope that this will lead to improved accountability. Body cameras have become a popular solution, and have been endorsed by the Brown family. And there is evidence to support their effectiveness. The positive effect of body cameras may be short-lived though. Dashboard cameras seemed promising as well, twenty-five years ago, until police learned how to manipulate them to avoid accountability.

All of these mechanisms, both existing and proposed, seek to affect police behavior through deterrence. However, prevention is better than deterrence. This requires how and when the police wield law enforcement powers.

The solutions to police power that we will look at before the end of the year will include the following strategies:

  • Reducing the scope of police activities: Many aspects of crime control do not have to involve law enforcement powers at all, such as patrol, general services, community liaison, and some aspects of criminal investigation. Civilian professionals, who would not possess law enforcement powers, can handle these duties. Also, some issues dealt with the police do not need to be handled by the police. For example, a different law enforcement service can manage traffic regulation. Some public health departments take on responsibilities for violence prevention and victim services.


  • Restricting the use of law enforcement powers: On the one hand, we can reduce the material capacity of the police to use force, and on the other hand, we can reduce the legal capacity of the police to use force. Reducing the material capacity of the police involves not only the demilitarization of police departments, but also the disarmament of the police. Disarmament goes hand in hand with restricting the legal right of the police to use deadly force.


  • Insulation: By creating new civilian crime control positions and restricting the responsibilities of law enforcement officers, citizens will be insulated from potential misuse of law enforcement powers.

The ideal situation is one in which we can dispense with the enforcement of laws altogether. The most democratic state would be a republic in which compliance with the laws is achieved through the persuasion of offenders and mediation between parties at conflict. However, we are only part of the way there. We have good evidence for how to prevent crime and resolve disputes without coercion, but not quite enough to do away with all law enforcement entirely. I am fairly confident that we can end the traditional police institution as we know it though.

In our next installment, we will discuss reducing the scope of police activities.

Police Reform: Are the Police Effective?

Police reform… because black lives matter.

Protests burn across the country! Demonstrations, walk-outs, and actions against the unindicted police murders of unarmed African-Americans continue. As a matter of simple survival for almost 15% of the population, this new Civil Rights movement for police reform and racial equality shows no sign of slowing down. Democracy in Principle wants to help in any way that it can, and so December is devoted to police reform.

Last week, we asked whether the police are politically legitimate, or just. We concluded that, as the powers of law enforcement officers stand now, the police are not a just institution. The powers and protections of sworn police officers are so much greater than that of citizens that a citizen has no power against them. The citizen is completely at the arbitrary power of the police officer. Thus, the police are not legitimate if we assume a compelling principle of justice and test the institution against that principle.

Other philosophical perspectives would contend that the police might be legitimate for another reason. While the police are costly to human lives, perhaps the institution is worth it because of the costs that they prevent. If there were no police, so the argument goes, there would be no law or order. In that case, we are asking whether the police are effective. Do the police solve past crimes and prevent future crime?

The answer is no, the police do not, in general, either solve crimes or prevent crime.

The criminal investigation of past crimes is not terribly successful, despite the uncountable murders that the police solve on television and in film. If the victims and witnesses of crimes can provide some way to identify suspects to the police, then the police will likely build a successful case against the suspect from there. Otherwise, the police are very unlikely to solve the crime.

Solving, or “clearing”, crimes does not have an effect on the rate of crime, though. For example, while the clearance rate increased from 1980 to 1990 by 4%, the violent crime rate increased by 22.7% (Bayley 1994). Furthermore, the clearance rate only accounts for the crimes reported to the police. The recorded clearance rates look great; almost half of all violent crimes are cleared. Unfortunately, less than half of all actual victimizations are reported to the police. Of those, the police ignore some proportion of reported crimes. In the UK, police were found to have failed to record as many as one third of violent crimes. The actual crime clearance rate may be as little as 5% of all crimes. And none of these figures account for the accuracy of these clearances, that is, the guilt or innocence of the suspects.

Of course, it’s notable that crimes are resolved at all for the purposes of justice. We must accept though that criminal investigation does not prevent crime or improve public safety.

Crime prevention is the purpose of police patrols. By patrolling our neighborhoods, the police demonstrate authority, deter criminals, and detect crimes. That’s the idea, anyway. A famous claim is that a police patrol will happen to be within 100 feet of a burglary only once every eight years. In other words, police patrols will rarely encounter street crime. Nor do regular patrols have any effect on crime. In a classic experiment in Kansas City (the Missouri side), police reduced, doubled, and removed patrols in randomly designated neighborhoods. No one noticed the change in police presence, and the incidence of crime did not rise or fall. These are motorized patrols, of course, and most people believe that foot patrols will lead to improved policing. The data from the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment does not bear this out, however. Foot patrols increase people’s sense of security, but do not prevent crime.

The overall ineffectiveness of police patrols has one exception, referred to as “hot-spot policing”. Because most calls for police service come from a few very select streets in a few neighborhoods, the police will label these as “hot-spots” and focus police presence there. This method is one of the most effective police practices. Hot-spots policing is a type of problem-oriented (or problem–solving) policing that identifies specific crime-causing problems in communities and reduces crime by solving the problem.

The reason hot spots and other problem-oriented policing work though is not the result of the particular nature of the police, however. The police are sworn peace officers, which means they can make warrantless arrests on probable cause and exercise violence to that end. This is what we mean, I think, when we talk about policing. While patrols in hot spots may enforce laws, most problem-solving policing does not require policing per se.

For example, in an early example of problem-oriented policing in Newport News, Virginia, police officers were assigned to resolving the high incidence of burglaries in a particular neighborhood. Their report suggested improvements to the physical environment, including better lighting and tearing down a dilapidated housing project. Burglaries declined by 35%. As in this case, most problem-solving policing does not rely on the use of force and arrest that we grant to sworn officers.

Neither criminal investigation nor patrol, the two main activities of the standard police model, prevents crime. Criminal investigation can resolve cases reported and send them to court, but this does not deter future criminals. Regular patrols also do not deter criminals.

Overall, the police are not effective at performing their task. In addition, we have now witnessed the visible costs of police violence – dead fathers, dead children. Thus, we can and should abolish the police.

But wait, didn’t I just show that problem-oriented policing has promise? That’s true, I did. But we also saw that the tasks involved in problem-oriented policing did not involve the principal feature of the police: their right to use force. In fact, leaning on the use of force is what’s gone wrong in New York City, where you may know this method of policing as “broken windows”. Instead of improving high-crime neighborhoods, the NYPD focused on enforcing infractions of the law. Problem-oriented policing theorists don’t say “issue a ticket and a punch in the face to every minority you see”. They recommend community engagement, analyzing the local causes of crime, and improving neighborhoods. You know, fixing broken windows. But issuing tickets at the end of a baton is easier and more satisfying to a uniformed thug.

Given the lack of success of the sworn police officer in controlling crime, we do not need them to be involved in crime prevention and control.

Problem-oriented policing is merely performing at a small scale what prevents crime at a larger scale. Street crime is produced by a variety of social factors, typically by age, education level, income and wealth, gender, and the physical environment. Problem-oriented policing prevents crime by identifying the local instances of these factors and resolving them. If unemployed and undereducated young men are a source of violent crime in a community, then give them jobs and education.

We prevent crime by resolving these social factors more generally. This means providing healthcare, education, social services, employment, and income, achieving equality, guaranteeing justice, etc. None of these require the use of force granted to sworn law enforcement.

In our next piece on police reform, we’ll start looking at options for reform beyond demilitarization and body-cameras.

Police Reform: Are the Police Legitimate?

A movement for racial justice and police reform sweeps the nation in response to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. The problem is bigger than the murder of Michael Brown, of course. The names of unarmed African-Americans killed by police are many. The solutions offered, police body-cameras and civilian oversight, are positive tweaks, but probably insufficient. At Democracy in Principle, we have proposed wholesale police reform, or more hyperbolically, abolition of the police, as the only solution to the problem. To that end, Democracy in Principle will devote the month of December to police reform and alternatives! The first question we must is, are police legitimate?

We will say that a state institution is legitimate when the institutional actors have the right to issue commands and others have the duty to obey them. Sociologically, state institutions are legitimate when people believe they are legitimate. The sociologist, Max Weber, identified a number of causes of political legitimation, including charismatic leadership, appeals to tradition, and the rationality of state administration. Philosophically though, we want to identify when a state institution is actually legitimate, not just when people believe it is legitimate.

Both modern philosophy and recent centuries tell us that a state institution is legitimate when the institution derives from the consent of the governed – a democracy. This preserves the moral autonomy of a state’s members. A state that preserves moral autonomy must ensure that the relationships that its citizens can enter into are fair. By this, I mean that the members in any relationship recognize one another as equals, even if their roles and positions are different. This requirement ensures that one person does not have the power to force another to do something they did not want to do. Unfair relationships, in which one person has an advantage over the other, compromises the moral autonomy of the weaker party.

Do the police satisfy these conditions? Insofar as the state and federal governments in the United States are empowered by the people, they satisfy the condition that their powers derive from the consent of the governed. I have my doubts about that, but we’ll put them aside for the sake of argument. Do the police in the United States satisfy the second requirement? Do police officers and citizens enter into fair relationships?

Clearly, the answer is “no”. First, the police officer is armed. This puts any unarmed citizen at a disadvantage. Second, the police have legal protections that citizens do not. For example, the right to use force according to circumstances of their own judgment. Finally, the Supreme Court has given the police the right to kill a citizen if the citizen is putting someone’s life in danger. In all controversial cases, this has meant the life of the police officer. But if the police officer does exercise this right, the citizen has no recourse to contest this decision. These inequalities would be bad enough if the citizen could expect justice in the courts, and see that the police officer making a bad decision is punished. But, as Wilson and so many killer cops before have shown, the police are given an undue advantage in the judiciary.

If the police are to be a legitimate state institution, then their recognized rights and duties must be “rebalanced” to become more equitable with those of a citizen. If the police are to have greater rights, then they must also have greater duties towards the citizen. Even better would be to reduce the special powers of the police, to remove their legal protections, their weapons, and their privileged standing in court. If this cannot be done, then the police must be abolished and replaced with a new, legitimate method of crime control.

Abolish the Police!

Ferguson, MO
Ferguson, MO

BREAKING: The grand jury investigating Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson has decided not to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed teenager. Wilson claimed that his response was justified because he was in fear for his life. This is the common response in the case of police shootings, and such shootings rarely go to trial. In the aftermath, Ferguson police have fired upon protesters. Protests have erupted all over the nation.

It is the position of Democracy in Principle that the criminal justice system, especially the police, in the United States is utterly broken and requires root and branch reform.

While grand juries almost always indict on the recommendation of the prosecution, they almost never indict police officers. Jurors tend to defer to authority, and prosecutors, who work closely with police, don’t want to try police officers anyway. Prosecutors have complete control of the evidence gathered, including witnesses called. There is no opposing party in a grand jury investigation that can act as a critical voice. The grand jury system needs to be reformed to act as an effective, impartial, and informed check on prosecutors. In England, and in most states, grand juries have been abolished. However, juries in general could be once again a powerful democratic tool for criminal justice.

The police in the United States have become a significant danger to the lives of its citizens. As Radley Balko has abundantly reported, SWAT teams have become an overused instrument, used to serve code violations as well as in cases of actual danger, and often murdering innocents in their homes. The deadly results of SWAT teams include the complete disfigurement of a 19-month-old baby in Cornelia, Georgia. No SWAT officer was indicted for this barbarism. Besides the human victims of SWAT teams, dogs are also the frequent victims of SWAT violence.

Yet SWAT teams are not the only source of police violence, as Americans can no longer deny. Ordinary police patrols are threats to the lives of Americans, especially of young African-Americans. Police officers have cited every possible source of harm as a threat to their life: dogs large and small, unarmed men, and children with toy guns. In Utah, police officers are the 2nd most common cause of homicides, killing more people than gang members, drug dealers, or child abusers. Police use of force has increased, despite the crime rate being lower than ever and police being safer than ever. Whether the cause of this is police cowardice or misinformation is irrelevant. What is clear is that the police themselves are now a threat to public safety.

Tweaks and cameras and reforms are not going to solve the problem of out-of-control police. We need to abolish the police as we know them. To this end, we need to:

  • Disarm, not just demilitarize, police forces, as is the case in the United Kingdom;
  • Purge police forces of its Darren Wilsons, and those “who stand with Darren Wilson”;
  • Abolish the legal protections and immunities that the police enjoy for legal deception, the use of force, and other legal protections;
  • Raise the standards for the education of criminal investigators, as better educated police officers are less likely to be racist and more likely to be professional;
  • Begin establishing the alternative public safety service, employing persuasion and scientific community-oriented crime prevention policies instead of panic-fueled violence;
  • The general decriminalization of non-violent offenses.

The police are an historically recent invention whose main effects have been to enforce public order crimes instead of actually protect people from violence. People generally refrain from violence because it is costly to hurt others. People obey the law because they believe the law is legitimate. If these facts were not true, no number of police officers would ensure our safety. We do not need to fear one another. But abolishing the police does not mean abolishing public safety patrols, or crime prevention, or public servants to help us when we need them. Abolishing the police means an end to armed men with no oversight or control, roving our neighborhoods and killing innocent citizens.

Update: edited to say that “police use of force has increased”, where before it had said that it had decreased.

Interstellar Politics: Impartiality and Partiality

SPOILER ALARM! for those who have not seen Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been taking it hard in the press. Some people want to fault the science, but with the extensive assistance of physicist Kip Thorne, that seems implausible. Most reviewers accurately identify the screenplay as the problem: the uneven pacing, the unnatural dialogue, and the problematic plotting. I thought it was pretty implausible that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers the secret NASA installation and then becomes their last-best-hope pilot. In movies, you’re only allowed one coincidence in the plot. That’s too many coincidences. Overall, Christopher Nolan is a far better director than he is a writer, and it shows in the contrast between the beautiful shots of space and alien worlds on the one hand and the weird way the characters spoke on the other.

Also under the microscope are Christopher Nolan’s politics. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse to criticize Chris Nolan for his politics. The Dark Knight Rises was a distressingly fascist parable, where Occupy Wall Street are supervillain terrorists and Gotham City needs a billionaire dictator dressed in a bat costume to save it. In the case of Interstellar, however, I think the political implications are more ambiguous.

Sady Doyle at In These Times writes that “Christopher Nolan Disease” involves stories of sad men whose wives are dead (that seems accurate) whose “sadness… fuels his life’s grandest endeavor: The blowing up of cool shit.” Nolan isn’t known for his explosions, I would think. She also claims, like many reviewers, that Nolan does not how to write for women. That’s not fair – he doesn’t know how to write for anyone. Doyle, in particular, claims that women in Interstellar serve no purpose other than to motivate men. Murph Cooper (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain) only exists to motivate Cooper to save the world. Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is only there to fall down and “derail a mission so she can visit her boyfriend”. These sentiments surprise me because the women in the film seem like the heroes of the tale.

Emotional decision-making is the core of Interstellar. Cooper succeeds not because he is motivated to save humanity, but because he is motivated to save his family. Likewise, Amelia Brand’s emotional decision to want to see her lover, Dr. Edmund, is, as we find out, the correct decision. Cooper pushes her to visit the world scouted by Dr. Mann, which is the rational, but incorrect, choice. Indeed, that’s the role of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) in the film. When our heroes find Dr. Mann on his world, he has been driven insane by his isolation and lied about the suitability of his world for colonization. His dedication to humanity in the abstract is intended to be a sign of his insanity. He shares the outlook of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Amelia’s father, that the survival of the species is all that matters. Brand has even “sacrificed his humanity” by lying to his daughter on the prospects of saving Earth’s population.

So on the one hand, we have our heroes Cooper, Amelia, and Murph, who are driven by their deep, emotional connections to their loved ones. When they make decisions based on those connections, they make the best decisions. On the other hand, we have Mann and Professor Brand, who make decisions based on an impartial devotion to humanity in the abstract. Brand is ultimately wrong, and Mann is crazy. The heroes succeed because they trust in their connections. The women, along with Cooper, are heroic for the their emotional decisions, because “love crosses dimensions” (barf). In the end, Murph, whom Doyle presents as having daddy issues, is the savior of humanity because she has the rational mind to unify quantum mechanics and gravtiy, while retaining faith in her long-lost father.

The distinction reminds me of Equality and Partiality, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. As Nagel says, justice demands equality, or impartiality between persons. No one is more important than another. But of course we are also partial to some over another. Some people will always be more important to us than others. Nagel concludes that this tension will remain in human society.

Interstellar comes down for partiality – our emotional connections to others will be the salvation of humanity. Damon’s Mann represents impartiality as an insanity, as he self-righteously pontificates about saving the species while trying to kill his fellow astronauts. Is this a sign of Nolan’s “crypto-conservativism” that she sees in The Dark Knight Rises (calling it “conservative” seems a bit gentle)?

The film is less ambiguous about its technological optimism, which is about as loony as you can get. In one of McConaughey’s monologues, he says human beings are “explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” The reason for the interstellar journey is the collapse of agriculture on Earth, due to some implausible blight killing crops. Curing the plants seems like a far cheaper and easier task than colonizing a planet in another galaxy. It would probably cost a fraction of what secret-NASA is spending on sending astronauts to die on another planet.

For some reason, the film sets up some division between “exploration” and “caretaking”. In the real world of a changing climate, we won’t be able to explore and colonize the universe if we don’t take care of where we live. It’s far easier to solve climate change than develop the ability to live in space. But that requires civic engagement, trusting our fellow citizens, and putting ourselves out there politically. Somehow, that’s become harder than colonizing space. As George Monbiot writes of the movie, the technological optimism of such science fiction reflects a lack of political imagination and will. “Just as it is easier to pray for life after death than it is to confront oppression,” he writes, “this fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life of Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics”.

The incredible challenges to humanity that we face cannot be solved by being motivated only by our personal connections. We have to yoke our reason to a more universal social motivation to solve climate change, end war, and abolish poverty and slavery. (If real life were like a Nolan movie, I would blow up in an airlock before I could end this sentence.)