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Policing the US police

How can racism in police practices be curbed?

Last updated: 26 Jun 2014 12:25
Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist in San Francisco, formerly based in the West Bank, Palestine.
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US police has become increasingly militarised [AP]

Today there are nearly 12,000 local police departments in the United States; each with its own protocol for conducting internal investigations, documenting police use of force and reporting allegations of misconduct to the public. There is little obligation or oversight over their actions.

Yet the fruits of their dispersed labour are tangible and pooled together in the United States' massive prison population. Police are the point of entry into the criminal justice system, as Michelle Alexander writes in her ground breaking book, The New Jim Crow. Scrutinising the racist practices within the police force is crucial to understanding the staggeringly disproportionate rates of incarceration of men and women of colour in local jails, as well as state and federal prisons. Is it just the plain old vicious racism of individual cops that makes a black person so much more likely than a white one to end up in prison?

US Attorney General Eric Holder has made gestures towards addressing racist policing by appointing the Department of Justice as the custodian of law enforcement agencies around the country. Utilising the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the Department has opened around 20 civil rights investigations into local police forces for suspected biased policing - more than any other administration since the law was implemented in the 1990s. In 2011, Tom Perez, former head of the Justice Department's civil rights unit, said his department was pursuing the investigations "with a focus on systemic reform".

But the system of racist policing goes far beyond the local departments the Justice Department is currently pursuing. Racist policing is not merely the product of personal attitudes, but compelling forces well outside the views or practices of individual cops and local police departments.

The need for more data

There is currently no aggregated information on police conduct, particularly how it disparately affects people of colour. This means that the FBI collects statistics on hate crimes perpetrated by civilians, but those committed by the state remain unaccounted for.

There have been some attempts to calculate, on a national scale, law enforcement's lethal racism. In 2012, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that 120 black men and women in the US were killed by police, security forces or vigilantes in the first six months of 2012. Smaller-scale studies have found stark racial biases in stop-and-frisk checks and traffic pullovers.

Fault Lines - Deadly Force: Arming America's Police

Chris Burbank, Chief of Police for Salt Lake City, explained to me, "We report all of our criminal activity to the Department of Justice," which is then published in the Uniform Crime Report by the FBI. "But what we're missing is data on what our officers are doing."

Burbank has helped launch a new and ambitious database that aims to standardise data collection of police departments. The database is designed by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) at the University of California Los Angeles, and has received $1m from the National Science Foundation.

So far, nearly 60 police departments around the country have expressed interest in participating in the database, on the condition they remain anonymous.

Dr Phillip Goff, a sociologist and the president of CPE, told me, "There are some pretty fundamental questions about police conduct that I'm frustrated we don't know."

Initially, the database will analyse pedestrian stops, vehicle stops, and use of force. But Goff hopes the new database will provide more insight other than proving that police are racists.

Goff and Burbank were both outspoken critics of Secure Communities, a federal programme that turns beat cops into immigration officers and has enabled the deportation of over 100,000 people. Burbank suggested the idea for the database to Goff as a way for police departments to address systemic racism.

Indeed, "reforming" racist policing at the local level, as Holder's Justice Department investigations do, removes the responsibility for the powerful role federal agencies play in fuelling the racism that is apparent in police practices.

Consider the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program that has, since 1988, amply rewarded police departments for drug arrests, which are primarily for low-level drug possession.

As journalist Aaron Cantu reported, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) culled data from the 2013 police report and found that, "blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession". Concluding, Cantu wrote: "These young people are the cash cows that police apprehend in order to fatten arrest statistics submitted in state annual reports."

Police departments can thank US President Barack Obama for this perk, as his administration revived the rewards programme in 2009 - after his Republican predecessor was willing to let it die.

Furthermore, since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has served as a source of cheap and ready-to-use military equipment for small-town police departments. Even when forced to lay off officers to save money, they're able to procure expensive technology: the first ten years after 9/11 saw $35bn worth of equipment handed out. And now the US Department of Defense is offering up Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles that were once deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every day across the country, 100 to 150 SWAT raids occur in this highly militarised environment of local police forces. The ACLU just published a report that found that 54 percent of those raids are made against Black and Latino households.

Police departments are rife with racist cops, no doubt. And cops kill and maim with impunity. But it's military-strength equipment and financial resources that enable - indeed encourage - racist policing. Any effort to hold police departments accountable for overt discrimination that does not involve turning off the spigot flowing with money and weaponry is doomed to fail.

After all, why wouldn't the police continue to abuse their power when we just keep giving them more of it?

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist in San Francisco, formerly based in the West Bank, Palestine.

Follower her on Twitter @CharESilver

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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