The report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, paints a clear picture of a justice system fatally flawed by inadequate funding, racial bias and poor-quality police and court services. The report contains many laudable recommendations for reform, including restricting the use of highly discretionary summonses and low-level arrests, reducing police enforcement in schools and creating better mechanisms to hold police accountable for their misconduct. Unfortunately, the DOJ’s main recommendation, community policing, has a consistent record of failure.
Giving a community power to influence local policing might sound great at first. But how do you define “community”? In his book “Citizens, Cops and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community,” Steve Herbert shows that those who actively participate in community affairs do not usually represent the full diversity of views and experiences in urban neighborhoods, especially those that are racially divided. Community meetings tend to be dominated by longtime residents, homeowners, business owners and landlords. The views of renters, youths, homeless people, immigrants and the most socially marginalized are rarely heard. As a result, the problems identified through community participation tend to focus on quality of life concerns, involving low-level disorderly behavior, rather than serious crime. This emphasis on minor offenses can easily facilitate an increase in the destructive broken-windows-style policing that has led to the criminalization of millions of mostly black and brown people.
To be fair, the DOJ report calls for broad consultation in identifying problems and developing policing strategies. But there are no suggestions about how this can be accomplished, given the failures of such efforts in the past. Police officials have few incentives to initiate dialogue with their critics. Instead, they often rely on — or even orchestrate — community partnerships with a strong bias in favor of punitive strategies for controlling crime and disorder.
One of the most frequent concerns of neighborhood residents is the presence of low-level drug dealing and consumption. This generates a tremendous number of calls for police service. Enhancing the ability of police to respond to these community concerns just further criminalizes people involved with drugs — a strategy that has done nothing to reduce the availability and negative effects of drugs. The punitive approach to drugs also produces substantial negative collateral consequences for those arrested and wastes local and state resources.
Community policing tends to turn all neighborhood problems into police problems. Across the country, community police programs have been based on the idea that the community should bring its various concerns about neighborhood conditions to the police, who will then work with them on developing solutions. The tools that police have for solving these problems, however, are generally limited to punitive enforcement actions such as arrests and ticketing. The DOJ report calls for increasing reliance on Police Athletic Leagues, positive nonenforcement activities with youths and getting to know community members. But there is little research to suggest that these endeavors reduce crime or address the larger problem of overpolicing faced by communities of color.
The DOJ proposals rely heavily on improvements in training to address racial bias and excessive use of force. By framing the problem around inadequate training and professionalization, the DOJ avoids directly confronting the ways that policing and the legal system maintain racial inequality by their very nature. However well intentioned, the colorblind, professionalized law and order that the report calls for will only exacerbate the structural disadvantages faced by people of color. Even the racially neutral enforcement of traffic laws invariably has a more punitive effect on poorer residents, who are least able to maintain their vehicles and pay fines.
In the end, the report fails to address the major problems confronting communities such as Ferguson — the war on drugs, the militarization of police and the widespread use of broken-windows policing. Well-trained police, following proper procedures, are still going to spend much of their time stopping people for low-level offenses. The burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color, not because of bias or misunderstandings but because that is how the system is designed to operate. A more respectful and legally justified arrest for marijuana possession could still result in unemployment, loss of federal benefits and social stigma.
Lee P. Brown — who served as New York’s police commissioner, Bill Clinton’s drug czar and Houston’s mayor — has called for a more comprehensive examination of the criminal justice system and its negative effects on communities of color. Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has called for something similar. It is imperative that such a commission critically assess our expanded reliance on policing as the primary and in many cases only tool for managing community problems and propose real alternatives that strengthen communities of color instead of criminalize them. True justice involves more than just reforming police procedures. We need to stop using policing and incarceration to manage the problems of an increasingly unequal society.