Policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.
I make these arguments all the time, but I think it’s necessary to repeat them in clear language because our cultural understanding of police as heroes feeds our political reliance on them as problem solvers. The longer we hold on to these ideals, the longer communities will be terrorized by police.
And lest it be assumed I’m just saying these things because of my own ill-will toward police, we have the numbers to back this up. A new report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that since 1980, arrests for misdemeanors in New York City have increased from 60,000 a year to almost 250,000. Most of these arrests are for “low-level drug enforcement, especially of marijuana, prohibitions against commercial sex work, the many disorderly activities associated with living on the streets, and a variety of minor offenses mostly engaged in by young people such as graffiti and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” writes Alex S. Vitale at Gotham Gazette. In fact, 25 percent of all misdemeanor arrests since 1980 have been for low-level drug violations.
Last year, the arrest rate for black people in New York City was 6.4 percent, down from its high of 7.5 percent in 2010, but almost double that of its low of 3.6 percent in 1990. For Hispanics, the arrest rate was 2.5 percent in 1990 and jumped to 4.7 percent in 2010. White people, of course, have experienced the lowest arrest rate, at 0.7 percent in 1990 and reaching a high of 1.4 percent in 2011.
So, what do these numbers mean?
They mean policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.
So where do we begin to undo all of this?
We first have to be honest that police are not capable of solving all of the “problems” we have made them responsible for solving. We then have to admit that not every “problem” we have defined as such is a problem that needs solving. Not everything needs to be or should be a crime.
A step in this direction is legislation like Proposition 47 in California. Prop 47 is The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, a voter initiative “that will change sentencing for low-level nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and direct financial savings to K-12 schools, mental health treatment, and victim services,” as explained by the group Artists for 47. It won’t decriminalize drug possession, but it does provide an important stop gap measure, where (mostly young) people will not be saddled with felony charges for low-level drug charges, and the money that is saved from not arresting and prosecuting will be funneled into services that actually go toward building strong, healthy communities.
More importantly, it begins to move us from an over-reliance on police and criminalization as solutions to our societal ills. And hopefully, once we see that the world won’t fall apart if our first response to everything is not “more police,” we’ll be more willing to sit down and talk about how to dismantle the rest of the racist, oppressive police state.