Policing: Social, political, economic violence

Policing as a means to serve and protect the public without discrimination and guarantee “equal protection under the law” came into effect in the US when the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted in 1868.1 Previous to that policing was motivated by racial superiority, white supremacy, and racism during times of enslavement, to control the enslaved.2,3 Since then policing has been promoted as the means to serve and protect the public mediated by peace officers or police officers. In the 1980’s and 1990’s crime and police misconduct and corruption increased prompting research into the reasons people will follow the law.4 Studies suggested that only when they feel police officers are acting with legitimate authority conferred in procedurally just ways will people follow law enforcement.4 Procedurally just ways are described as: treating people with dignity, giving individuals “voice” during encounters, being neutral and transparent in decision making, conveying trustworthy motives.5

Policing in the US shows none of these characteristics in regard the increased shooting and killing of black and brown people. A recent survey in 2014 reported that non-whites are less likely to feel that the police protect and serve them, not acting in line with procedurally just ways.6 These perceptions came during a period of increasing scrutiny of policing in the United States after several fatal incidents. The incidents occurred over a 9-month period, of police violence resulting in the death of black men in Ferguson Missouri, Staten Island, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, and North Charleston, South Carolina .7 Since then, Baltimore Maryland , Chicago, Illinois and others ware added to this list. This is the short list, the one we are most familiar with and does not include all the other incidents of police violence not made public. A current example of this is the police shooting of 17 year old Laquan McDonald in Chicago. The video of his killing by a white police officer shooting him 16 times was intentionally kept from the public. This type of corruption does not support “acting in line with procedurally just ways”. The personal violence is clear in this video and confirms the fear that most black and brown people in America have in interactions with police officers.

Police officers and the departments which support them can be perceived as a means of collective violence targeted against dark-skinned individuals and communities. The World Health Organization defines violence as “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”. The type of violence is characterized by the person or group committing the violent act and include self-directed, interpersonal (violence committed by an individual or small group of individuals) and collective violence.8,9 The act of neglect is also included as a violent act when assessed from the role of power and intention of the perpetuator.9 WHO defines violence as it relates to the health and wellbeing of individual -and subsequently communities as individuals congregate to form communities. As a part of law enforcement agencies police officers are empowered by government and political bodies to act for the safety and security of all individuals and institutions. When such collectives perpetuate violence, targeted against one group of individuals, this is categorized as social violence by WHO’s classification system (Collective violence is further categorized as social, political and economic according to the motivation behind the collectives’ intention). Collective violence, in this case the police system, can be motivated and affected by one or all three of these factors simultaneously.

Racial profiling is an example of an institutionalized mediated social agenda which when incorporated into policing results in disproportionate harassment, arrest, imprisonment and death of non-white populations.10 Current trends in police arrests and incarceration confirm the continued racial profiling and targeting embedded in policing in the US.11,12 In 2010, black and Hispanic men were six and three times as likely, respectively, as white men to be incarcerated in federal, state and local jails, a gap larger than past decades and correlating with an increased gap in median household income and wealth between blacks and whites.13 Between 1980 and 2010 black males without high school diplomas were more likely to be in jail than those with high school diplomas, both groups more likely to be institutionalized than white males, with or without a high school diploma.22 Black men were more likely to be institutionalized than employed, significantly greater between the ages of 20-29 years.14 A recent report concluded that the excess deaths in black versus white men ages 15-34 years between 1960 and 2010 due to legal intervention is both longstanding and modifiable, regardless of income.15 This data supports previous studies showing deaths by legal intervention greater in black (63%) versus white (34%) men between 1979 and 1997.16

Political violence evidenced in neoliberal strategies of policing is well documented as the “War on Drugs”, affecting urban areas locally and globally.17,18,19,20 In the US, these policies were initially enacted in the 1970s and revived in the 1980s.21 The policies to enact the War on Drugs resulted in increased funding for personnel and subsequent increased arrests for drug charges: drug arrests increased from 7.4% of all arrests in 1987 to 13% in 2007, the greatest increase seen in marijuana arrests.22 A specific policy of the War on Drugs, Zero Tolerance, aimed at protecting the public space, was introduced in US cities like New York and Baltimore that had high crime rates and drug activity. This resulted in mass incarceration of young men, primarily African American and Latino.23,24 Zero Tolerance policies allowed police to stop and arrest individuals for quality of life offenses, such as drinking alcoholic beverages in the street, urinating in public, panhandling, loud radios, graffiti and disorderly conduct.25 Zero Tolerance policies enacted in urban schools resulted in school age children being punished more harshly for disorderly behaviors with expulsion, suspension, and juvenile court referrals, behaviors previously characterized as normal teenage mischief.26,27 Some resulted in arrests, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of black and brown people.20 The War on Drugs has singularly resulted in mass incarceration and depletion of young men from their communities, increasing community fragmentation, and decreasing this population’s opportunity to develop and determine politically and economically healthy and sustainable communities. 28

Economic violence includes attacks or perpetuation of violence by large groups for economic gain, i.e.. purpose of disrupting economic activity, denying access to essential services, or creating economic division and fragmentation.17 Incarceration of young men and women in urban communities lead to arrest records which initiate a cycle of potential chronic displacement and temporary housing, unemployment and underemployment, disconnect from services and family networks. Housing management offices can now legally discriminate against them for a record of incarceration under “one-strike you’re out” policies, another War on Drugs policy. Their communities lose the benefit of a generation of young men, unable to qualify for employment, housing, public assistance, educational assistance, and family reunification, continuing the cycle of economic violence and neighborhood and individual poverty. This cycle of community destruction through further fragmentation and uprootedness of young men via mass incarceration — facilitated by the school-to-prison pipeline — increases the likelihood of crime and alternative means of income and other behaviors results in unstable, fragmented, and unhealthy communities.29,30,31,32,33,34 For some this alternative economy provides for the basic essentials of food, shelter, clothing, and health care, even while it increases crime and risk of police violence and incarceration.35

Many of these urban communities targeted by the “war on drugs” and increased policing are communities which have been historically disinvested and abandoned since the early 1900s-violated socially, politically, and economically. Such communities were the targets of segregated real estate housing covenants and redlining tactics by the Federal Housing Administration who steered investment in housing and community development into white communities.36 In these disinvested communities, social fragmentation continued in the 1950s with urban renewal. Urban renewal resulted in mass displacement of many of these existing poor and of-color neighborhoods to make way for moderate and market rate development. Planned shrinkage continued with serial forced displacement of these communities followed by gentrification and mass incarceration. The psychological, social and economic effects of being uprooted from one’s home multiple times contribute to community fragmentation,37,38,39 and risk for low life expectancies and high disease burden.40,41,42,43,44,45

Both disinvestment and displacement undermine access to resources needed for health and wellness, including: functional schools, health and social services, parks and recreational opportunities, employment and workforce training opportunities, stable and sanitary housing, housing code enforcement, access to healthy foods, and infrastructure for mobility and physical activity. The resultant places of high unemployment, decreased educational achievement, low-income and high income inequality, predispose the people to generational poverty, high crime, high drug activity, and inequitable health outcomes.45,46,47 Corrupt policing and law enforcement systems continue this trend of social, political and economic violence currently experienced by hyper-segregated cities like Baltimore.48

The path forward toward equity and non-violence must address all ways policing and law enforcement agencies perpetuate these forms of violence.Training officers and all members of these agencies in transforming racism and oppression begins the personal transformation. But the institution and its policies must also be changed. Policies which block accountability and transparency and protect and propagate the violence perpetuated by these unfair systems must be challenged and changed. The larger systems of government and their private partners which rebuild communities and continue hyper-segregation must change. Government must be willing to transfer the wealth accumulated unfairly from the exploitation of black and brown people over the years. Such wealth can begin to change community and economic development in line with equity and sustainability-justice. Government must serve the people, not the rich. Training all public servants in the history of unfair wealth accumulation and the etiology of current wealth and health gaps must occur. Intentional structural, institutional, and individual transformation will begin to dig up the roots of violence-in policing and in all structures of the US.


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