Communities Of Color Are Over-Policed
Above Photo: The arrests and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black mothers and fathers for non-violent offenses isn’t making their families or communities more stable — it’s doing the exact opposite (OXFORD/GETTY IMAGES)
Widespread policing makes skin color itself a crime
Today is Part 10 in a five-week, 25-part series exploring solutions for police brutality in America. The problem of police brutality is actually deeply entrenched and amazingly complicated. Most of the factors that ultimately lead to fatal encounters happen long before the actual incidents ever take place. Police brutality has no quick fixes. No one single solution will solve the problem. Instead, it must be tackled from dozens of different angles, but as a part of one comprehensive plan. This series will lay out that plan with reasonable, achievable solutions that will drastically reduce police brutality in this generation.
On the evening of Nov. 26, 2013 Baton Rouge area police arrested a 38-year-old black man named Ervin Edwards. Edwards, who struggled with mental illness and drug use, was also partially deaf and battled the effects of obesity and high blood pressure. Police were called to a local convenience store when he and his longtime girlfriend were overheard in an argument. By the time law enforcement arrived, the argument had long since been over.
Ervin Edwards, though, was sagging his pants, and police had a problem with it. In Port Allen, La. sagging pants are illegal. Edwards was arrested. A few hours later, after being brutally Tasered, restrained, and manhandled by police at the local jail, Edwards died in police custody and was left face first on the jail floor without any compassion or care until his condition was beyond medical assistance. Police denied all wrongdoing and were given the pass they pretty much always get.
Sagging pants are now a criminal offense all over the country. In fact, the chances are that if you are not neatly dressed, perfectly quiet, and walking in a straight line, you are probably breaking some type of law in America. Spitting, dancing, sleeping, and playing music are all crimes in certain parts of the country.
Those laws and many others consistently punish African-Americans at a disproportionate rate. Chris Matt, a black man in St. Petersburg, Fla., had the government come to his house and complain about the smell of his summer BBQ going beyond his property line. No, I’m not joking. When a black barbecues, he needs to worry about the aroma of the brisket and ribs bothering his neighbors — or else.
A young black girl attending Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.was brutally assaulted by a weightlifting cop in the classroom when she refused to give her cellphone over to her teacher. She had put the phone away, was quiet and peaceful, and simply did not want to give over the phone. The school called the police. She wasn’t just breaking a school policy, South Carolina has made being disruptive in class illegal. Had that been illegal when I was in school in the ‘90s, no telling how many arrests I would have.
We’ve long since passed the point of ridiculousness. The sheer volume of laws in America is not just absurd, it’s a huge part of why we have become the incarceration nation. According to one report, police spend nearly 90% of their time citing and arresting people for these low level offenses. The United States not only has the most people in jails and prisons of any country in the world, we far and away have the highest incarceration rate of any nation as well. From 1925 to 1972, the average rate of incarceration per 100,000 people in the United States was very stable and hovered around 110 incarcerated individuals per 100,000 residents. Today, that rate of 110 people per 100,000 would still be higher than Germany or France, but would put us at a reasonably comparable rate to the rest of the developed world.
Since 1972, while the world’s incarceration rate has remained constant, ours has ballooned to over 700 incarcerated people per 100,000 residents. No other country in the world is even close to this. Many wonder how in the world this happened.
If you read anything I write or ever come out and hear me speak, here is where I say my most popular refrain.
This system is not an accident. This system is not broken. It is operating exactly how it was designed and intended to operate and is punishing the very people it was designed and intended to punish. A nation does not go from where we were to where we are, building jails and prisons at a breakneck pace, hiring hundreds of thousands of police officers and prison guards, on accident. We got here on purpose.
In fact, the switch in 1972, during the Nixon administration, according to one of his closest aides, marked a deliberate turning point where the administration decided to target African-Americans and “leftist hippies.” It set in motion, after the period of Jim Crow, what Michelle Alexander has aptly named “The New Jim Crow” in which blackness itself became consistently targeted and criminalized.
People are shocked to find out that whites are actually more likely to both sell and do drugs than African-Americans because African-Americans are arrested and prosecuted at much higher rates. In some counties, African-Americans are arrested 1,000% more than whites for marijuana possession even though study after study shows they use and possess the drugs at very comparable rates.
In Ferguson, Miss., which has become America’s ground zero for bad policing practices, so many people were cited and ticketed and arrested that the city issued 32,975 arrest warrants in 2013, but only has 21,135 residents. It was so ridiculous in Ferguson that cops arrested people that were not visibly moving during a protest. If you were standing still or sitting down while protesting in Ferguson, you were breaking the law.
All of this gets to the root causes of police brutality and over-policing, particularly in communities of color, is one of those root causes.
Sandra Bland was initially cited for failure to use a turn signal. She should’ve been let go without a ticket since she was actually getting over in her vehicle to make room for the speeding police car. Instead, she was harassed and arrested. The officer first asked her to put out her cigarette, then threatened to “light her up” with a Taser, then forced her to get out of the vehicle where he manhandled her and took her to jail.
This is over-policing.
Philando Castile, a beloved cafeteria supervisor in St. Paul, Minn., was actually pulled over because he had a “wide-set nose” that an officer thought resembled the nose of a robbery suspect. Within minutes, Castile was shot and killed.
This is over-policing.
Rekia Boyd and her friends were out walking in Chicago when an overzealous police officer stopped them for making too much noise. While in his car he shot and killed Rekia Boyd because he thought one of them had a gun. Everybody was unarmed.
This is over-policing.
Natasha McKenna was basically arrested for being mentally ill. She had been hospitalized for the weeks prior to her arrest because of the deterioration of her mental health. Her own doctors begged local officials to not place her in a jail. The town ignored these requests. She was brutally restrained, assaulted and Tasered to death in the jail days later.
This is over-policing.
Jamycheal Mitchell, who also struggled with mental illness, was caught stealing a Snickers. He languished in jail for over four months due to the petty offense. He may have starved to death in the jail.When his family retrieved the body, they hardly recognized him.
This is over-policing.
Such examples are painfully plentiful. While police unions and prison lobbyists may love the practice of over-policing because it ensures they have jobs for decades to come, it’s not actually making communities any safer.
The brutal arrest of Eric Garner that ended in him being choked to death by police — for selling single cigarettes on the corner — didn’t help that community one bit — in fact, it inflamed it. The arrests and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black mothers and fathers for non-violent offenses isn’t making their families or communities more stable — it’s doing the exact opposite.
Step by step, we must decriminalize marijuana, we must decriminalize drug addiction, we must decriminalize mental illness, we must decriminalize homelessness and poverty, we must decriminalize petty offenses which send poor and working class people down an endless spiral of court and jail time. If we could, it’d be best to blow up the entire criminal justice system and start over. Since that’s not an option, we must chip away at the current system with the mindset that it may take just as long to fix it as it did to build it.