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Overpolicing Doesn't Solve Underpolicing
A "cops should do their jobs" manifesto
A lot of people think of policing as a sort of dial. If you turn it up, you get more civil liberties violations, but people are safer. If you turn it down, people’s rights are respected, but crime isn’t punished. This thought process seems to be particularly common on the right: it gets you cops with Punisher T-shirts talking about how they’re the thin blue line against anarchy.
I live in Oakland. The Oakland police force has been under federal oversight for twenty years because of its persistent disrespect for civil liberties. The SF Chronicle has a good timeline of my city’s police force’s disgraceful history; the incident I find most personally upsetting was the multiple police officers who coerced underage sex worker into sex.
Now, you might think that, with all this police misconduct, Oakland residents are at least being protected from crimes. We are not! Unambiguous crimes, like theft, routinely go uninvestigated. There are few statistics about this, for the obvious reason, but I know multiple crime victims whose cases the police simply refused to record as having happened. Living in Oakland is the best argument I’ve ever seen for anarchism, because I’ve learned that apparently, if you have no functional law enforcement, most people will just refrain from committing crimes out of the goodness of their hearts.
Or consider Ferguson, Missouri. As we see from the Department of Justice report, the Ferguson police routinely performed unconstitutional searches, used excessive force, and arrested people for minor offenses in order to earn fine revenue. Their actions disproportionately affected African Americans. But as this report from the Ferguson Civilian Review Board shows, they were also shitty at solving real crimes! In 2019, the Ferguson police cleared less than 10% of violent crime cases, while nationally 45% were cleared.1
Or consider tough-on-crime celebrity Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who, well, Nathan J. Robinson has a good summary:
As Arpaio’s officers were harassing, detaining, and beating citizens and non-citizens alike, with jail employees routinely calling inmates “wetbacks” or leaving them to die on the floor, Arpaio let hundreds of serious sexual abuse cases go uninvestigated, in one case resulting in a child being continually raped. He was not just a “tough” sheriff, but a cruel and incompetent one, faking clearance reports for serious crimes while abusing the power of his office to arrest and intimidate journalists, judges, and county officials. Some of Arpaio’s acts bordered on the psychopathic: in a deranged re-election plot, Arpaio oversaw a scheme to pay someone to attempt to assassinate him, even supplying the man with bomb-making materials, so that he could entrap the fake “assassin” and send him to prison, ruining the hapless man’s life. Arpaio treated the Constitution with contempt, inflicting what the Mayor of Phoenix called a “reign of terror” upon the city’s Latino community.
Probably, on the margins, if a good police force does somewhat more unconstitutional searches then it will solve somewhat more crimes. But I think that debating this is missing the enormous number of police forces—many, like the Ferguson and Oakland police forces, in heavily black areas—that are just bad. They violate people’s civil liberties and let cops get away with murder, and they don’t even solve crimes.
Several factors play a role in this phenomenon.
First: when a cop assaults or rapes or murders someone that is, in fact, also a crime? It doesn’t stop being a crime when you are a government employee? Actually, that makes it a worse crime? If there is an armed criminal gang roaming the streets immune from prosecution, it’s actually worse if I’m paying for them with my tax dollars.
This is a pretty obvious point, but there’s a more subtle aspect. Many police departments have a culture that tolerates all forms of police misconduct: excessive force, faking evidence, civil liberties violations, corruption, letting police officers get away with criminal activity, and refusing to solve crimes. There’s no underpolicing/overpolicing tradeoff, because the primary reason for both overpolicing and underpolicing is the culture that cops can do whatever they feel like. I believe this is the primary factor in the existence of bad police departments.
Second: police officers can only do so many things. If they’re spending all their time going after minor traffic offenses and broken windows and jaywalkers and people standing on street corners minding their own business, they are not solving thefts or murders. This misallocation of resources causes serious problems for public safety.
Third: a lot of officer misconduct—coercing confessions, faking forensic results, planting evidence, bribing jailhouse informants with early release—is justified on the grounds that the police officer knows who’s guilty and they just need to get around the technicalities. But that’s not actually how it works. As the work of the Innocence Project and similar organizations has shown, police officers who are very sure they’ve nabbed the right guy are very often wrong. Collecting accurate evidence is not just something namby-pamby bleeding heart liberals care about because they care about criminals’ feefees; it is the sine qua non of making sure you actually get the right guy.
Of course, arresting an innocent person because you violated their basic rights is bad from a civil-liberties perspective. But it’s also bad from a preventing-crime perspective. Punishment doesn’t work to deter crime if you know that the police will just arrest someone in the area at random. And a person who commits a violent crime and goes free will very likely commit more violent crimes in the future.
Fourth: another common form of overpolicing is arresting people for minor offenses, often—as in Ferguson—in order to earn money from fines. The problem is that overconvicting people for minor offenses literally turns people into more serious criminals.
People who are in jail for weeks or months because they can’t afford bail will usually lose their jobs. A criminal record, even if it’s only a misdemeanor, makes it more difficult for people to find jobs. Fines and fees2 aren’t adjusted for income, so they can be far beyond people’s ability to pay, especially if they also have (say) child support obligations. In most states, failure to pay fines and fees makes you ineligible for TANF, food stamps, low-income housing, and SSI. Even penalties we don’t normally think of as criminal can impoverish people: in one study, two-fifths of people whose licenses were suspended lost their jobs. Of those, half couldn't find another one, and 90% of those who could find another one made less than they did before.
So what do you do if you can’t find a job and you have huge financial obligations you can’t pay? You sell drugs or you steal.
And, of course, if you already have a criminal record, judges will be less lenient. And that means next time you’re arrested—for a minor offense that you really shouldn’t be arrested for, for the theft or drug dealing you’re doing to make a living, for the assault you needed to do to keep yourself safe, for a crime you didn’t do but hey there’s this guy with a criminal record right here and the cop has some Vibes and the evidence can be faked—all the consequences of arrest will be worse. It’s a vicious cycle that traps many people in a life of crime.
Fifth: If you’re regularly harassed by the cops, you’re going to feel ashamed, dehumanized, violated, hopeless, and outcast, and you’re going to hate cops. If the police kill people who weren’t posing a threat, or laugh as people die horribly in jail, or rape underage sex workers, the community they allegedly serve is going to be frightened that they’re next. If the police arrest innocent people, no one is going to think that calling the police will, like, help.
And so people don’t call the police when they experience a crime. If the police ask witnesses for information, the witnesses will clam up and say that they didn’t see anything sir and they want to speak to their lawyer. If the police are looking for a suspect, mysteriously no one has seen them. If a person sees someone else shoplifting, no they didn’t.
You can’t actually solve crimes unless the community trusts you. And every excessive-use-of-force case, every forced confession, every petty cruelty in a jail, every resisting-arrest case that is really a sassing-a-cop case, every police officer who gets away with a crime because of police solidarity, every time a teenager is stopped and patted down for no reason other than being young and black and male—that decimates community trust.
On the whole, people who live in badly policed areas have two requests of their police departments:
Stop doing things that you are not supposed to do, like violent crimes or faking evidence or ruining people’s lives over minor drug and traffic offenses or harassing random teenagers.
Start doing things that you are supposed to do, like solving murders and rapes and thefts.
There’s not a spectrum between underpolicing and overpolicing. Bad police departments, I think, usually do both. Ideally, they should do neither.
Experts generally consider the violent crime clearance rate to be a more accurate measure of the police force’s competence, because it’s harder to simply fail to record a violent crime and pretend it never happened, thanks Oakland police.
Required payments that aren’t technically part of the punishment, such as paying for your mandatory drug tests, your jail stay or your public defender. Or sometimes the justice system just tacks one on for the hell of it.