The Problem Is Overpolicing
Alex Vitale writes in Truthout:
Once again we are confronted by the horrifying images of black men being killed by the police. A hauntingly familiar refrain has emerged along with it, calling for better use-of-force training and policies, more diverse police forces, and more federal intervention by the Department of Justice to hold officers accountable for unnecessary use of deadly force. However, an increasing number of people are rejecting these calls and instead pointing a finger at the larger problem of overpolicing that has played a central role in so many recent deaths and is at the center of the problem of policing in America.
Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill, on Democracy Now, said that we “have to ask what role do we really want police officers to have? Do we want them to be an occupying force in our community?” Writing for the Nation, Kai Wright argues:
We need to start asking why we have so much law enforcement in the first place, and whether much of it is truly needed. Law enforcement agencies are among the largest and most powerful bureaucracies in most localities and they are deeply enmeshed in our daily lives, particularly in communities of color. They are our first responders. They are in our schools. They are our immigration officials. For the most vulnerable among us, they are often what passes for social workers and mental health care providers. And they are armed. At some point, we must question whether all of this law enforcement is necessary, and whether public safety is best served by having much, much less of it.
Some will say that it was wholly appropriate for police to respond to a call about an armed man or make a traffic stop for a vehicular infraction, but that in these cases the officers misreacted or overreacted to a perceived threat, using excessive and deadly force. At first glance, this may seem like an issue of poor use-of-force training and policy, accompanied by racial bias. South Carolina Law School professor Seth Stoughton rightfully points out that part of the problem with US policing is the dominance of a warrior mindset among police that is instilled through training and police culture. Too often police seem to be looking for a justification to shoot rather than a strategy to avoid shooting, especially when it comes to young men of color. But that warrior mindset is driven by the fact that we have asked the police to be at war with the public, especially those they perceive as implicated in a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, and a war on disorder — most of whom are not white. When we ask police to be at war, excessive use of force is inevitable. Changes to training and even the prosecution of a few officers is not going to meaningfully change this dynamic.
Philando Castile was killed during a routine traffic stop. After informing police he was legally armed, he was shot repeatedly while reaching for his ID and registration. Was this just a case of a poorly trained and racially biased trigger-happy cop? No. We need to ask what the real purpose of the traffic stop was. It is widely known that police engage in pretextual traffic stops, not because they are concerned about vehicle safety but because they are fishing for something else, usually drugs. These stops are notoriously racially skewed, though exact figures are hard to come by because of a lack of data from police. Even when well-intended, these kinds of stops have a dramatically more detrimental effect on the poor, whose vehicles are more likely to have minor defects, and who are least able to pay the increasingly exorbitant fines — which then lead to warrants and enhanced penalties.
Over the last few decades, cities across the country have significantly increased this kind of low-level traffic enforcement as both a form of revenue generation and as part of the war on drugs. There is no evidence this kind of enforcement leads to greater safety on the roads or reduced traffic deaths, and it certainly hasn’t done anything to reduce the availability of drugs. It was also a major factor in Ferguson, Missouri, where black residents felt unjustly targeted for low-level vehicle infractions by the mostly white police department there. Also, when police view a traffic stop as a potential drug bust, they are much more likely to fear for their safety and perceive those they stop as a source of danger, leading to frequent cases of unnecessary force and degrading treatment.
The case of Alton Sterling is more complicated and demands that we take a bigger step back. . .