Killer Inequality and the Police State
By Matthew Barad, 2019
To question whether police shape society or society shapes the police is to wrongly assert that the two are distinct. As the evolution of policing in the United States has shown, policing is nothing more than a reflection of the material realities within American society. Though this makes them somewhat “reactive” to changes in society, it is more accurate to think of them as nothing more than the coercive arm of a constantly maturing societal corpus. As immigrants moved to eastern cities, police departments were formed with explicitly nativist inspirations. As riots became commonplace, policing evolved to suppress uprisings. And as the wealthy have returned to America’s cities, policing again changed to segregate poor communities and allow for gentrification. The most modern of these evolutions can be seen in the “Broken Windows” policing of the late 20th century. Much like those before it, this type of policing came into being to protect elite society, and solidify class distinctions. In combination with policing’s problematic history, Broken Windows Policing has made the United States stand out as the world leader in lethal policing.
As Alan Silver argues in The Demand for Order in Civil Society, policing in cities has long been spurred on by classist and xenophobic sentiments. As Silver states, “propertied people in eighteenth century London confronted a level of daily danger to which they and their spokesmen reacted indignantly” (7). A reaction to the rapid population growth and immigration of the industrial revolution, London’s bourgeois felt threatened by the proximity of the impoverished class they had created. And the threat of losing property to those they had exploited in order to gain it could not be tolerated, and so the London Met was founded. The story in the United States was very similar. In Silver’s discussion of “dangerous classes” in 19th century America, both the nativist fear of immigrants, and the bourgeois desire to maintain the socio-economic order are made clear. Like the London of the late 1700s, New York City’s elites were extremely uncomfortable by the influx of poor, foreign peoples into the city. Facing dangerous proximity to a “riotous” working class, these elites endured “an indignant sense of both pervasive insecurity; a mounting current of crime and violence both as a result of unnaccustomed prosperity and prolonged poverty” (8). Here, Silver ties the rise in crime, and subsequent demand for policing, to the rising tide of inequality tied to the industrial revolution. Just as the bourgois exploited workers to enrich themselves, they faced the reality that those now-impoverished workers often lived within walking distance from their city residences, and that the desperation they had induced meant those same workers had every incentive to reclaim that wealth. As Silver summarizes “it was much more than a question of annoyance, indignation, or personal insecurity; the social order itself was threatened by…the ‘dangerous classes’” (8). The resulting coercive shifts in policing were, as always, characterized by an elite consensus which demanded protection from these “dangerous classes.” Though, as Kelling and Moore note, American police acted as “adjuncts to local political machines” (The Evolving Strategy of Policing 3), even those political roles were tied to the preservation of class hierarchies, “the police [New York] police had a mission against the “dangerous classes” and political agitation in the form of mobs or riots” (Silver 10). Thus, it is clear that city policing has always been tied to the protection of the bourgois from the “agitation” of the poorer classes. This tendency to protect the elite, and the class structure beneath them, at all costs is still felt today. Perhaps it is for that reason that, “crime and violence in the life of city dwellers have long evoked complaints which have quite a contemporary tone” (8).
In their 1988 article The Evolving Strategy of Policing, Kelling and Moore introduced a strategy of policing which emphasized foot patrols, heavy policing of minor infractions, and so-called “community policing” as the best policy for reducing crime, especially in cities. The success of this strategy in stopping crime, however, can again be linked to successful classist segregation and bigotry. Claimed by Kelling and Moore as the “attempt to control crime directly through preventative patrol” (11), the theory of “broken windows” policing aims to achieve “order maintenance” first and foremost. It suggests that the success of policing in the late 1800s, or the “political era” (as measured by “political and citizen satisfaction with social order”) can be tied to the use of foot patrols which “maintained order” and “prevented crime” (4). Kelling and Moore also make the absurd claim that “police assisted immigrants in establishing themselves in communities” — a claim which Silver directly refutes with primary sources. The reality of this aggressive order keeping, defined by foot patrols and wide police discretion, was and remains that the poor were simply prevented from interacting with the city bourgois. Foot patrols, which targeted the “unattached and unemployed” (Silver 9) effectively segregated the classes, and prevented incursions by the poor into wealthier parts of the city. The extent to which this decreased crime rates can be attributed to the physical separation of those desperate enough to commit crimes from those wealthy enough to be worth stealing from. The only “political and citizen satisfaction with social order” was to be found with the rich, who no longer feared riots, revolutions, or petty theft.
As cities developed in the 1970, the availability of public transport, along with the expansion of a wealthy city dwelling population once again placed the desperate in proximity with the wealthy, thus necessarily increasing crime rates. The success of the aggressive order keeping in this era can be attributed to the same physical class segregation which had protected the wealthy urban elite during the industrial revolution. It should be no surprise, then, that William Bratton, a career police commissioner and early adopter of aggressive order keeping, began his police administrative duties by cracking down on subway turnstile jumping: “By cracking down on fare evasion, we have been able to stop serious criminals carrying weapons at the turnstiles before they get on the subways and wreak havoc,” Bratton told Newsday in 1991. While ostensibly a measure intended to “stop serious criminals,” the reality was that forcing riders to pay fares was simply a bar-to-entry which made it more difficult for those desperate enough to commit crimes from riding the subways. Further, by forcing riders to pay fairs, Bratton made it more difficult for the poor to travel to wealthier areas and interact with their residents. When placed on a larger scale than one city’s subways, Broken Windows Policing (I am using this term interchangeably with “aggressive order keeping”) was much more explicitly classist, with its limited success attributed to that classism. Kelling himself, in his 1988 article in The Atlantic, notes that the focus of foot patrolling officers was not on “ violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” This group of “disreputable people” is precisely what Silver would describe as a dangerous class, used to justify the expansion of police presence in these neighborhoods. Once again, we can see here how police are not acting independently of society, but are rather working to maintain the “social order,” in which there was persistent fear of these unattached, desperate people. Later in the same piece, Kelling describes these classist targets at length:
Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way.
Here again we can see distinct classism in the kinds of activities being targeted and prohibited — activities which are obviously tied to employment and social standing. However, what’s more clear here than elsewhere is how impossible this targeted policing made being poor in the city. The impoverished could not risk standing in public spaces, nor even sleeping on the streets. If the propertied class was ever even slightly peeved by the propertyless, they had complete discretion to remove them. Even if this “dangerous class” was not arrested, the fines and general harassment by the police forced them to abandon those areas where their existence frightened the bourgois. At best, this meant that the lower class was made to remain in close proximity to their neighborhoods, and at worst, the fines and lost wages of jail time forced the poor to move away from the city entirely. When looked at in the larger context of gentrification, the causes and effects of this policing strategy are clear: Growing attraction to cities causes wealthier people to move in to poorer areas. These wealthy new comers are uncomfortable with the very real dangers of having their wealth in such proximity to poverty. That danger inspires them to demand a great police presence. The police begin patrolling and practicing “aggressive order keeping.” The fines, jail time, and even simple harassment of that policing makes it impossible for the poor to remain in these communities, and they eventually emigrate. This opens up more room for wealthy tenants, who increase property prices, themselves demand greater police presence, and guarantee that the cycle continues. Looking at graphs of New York City over time, we can see that, just as the prices of property have increased by roughly 30% over the last twenty years, the average income of New Yorkers has nearly tripled. It is obviously not the case that lifelong New Yorkers have suddenly began earning triple the wages and building better apartments, rather poorer populations have simply been forced out of the city by a number of societal forces — not least of which is broken windows policing. Mirroring the policing of the “political era,” modern strategies are explicitly and implicitly directed toward the enforcement of class hierarchies, and the protection of the wealthy elite.
This explicit classism, in combination with the grossly racist origins of policing in the United States, as well as wide police discretion and gun prevalence, may help explain why the United States has a much higher rate of murders by police than any other developed democracy. In his 2017 book When Police Kill, Franklin Zimring dispassionately analyzes police killings in the United States. Though he makes no real assertions as to why the United States stands out, his analysis points to the same societally mandated classism and racism as was already discussed.
His exploration of the drastic difference in the number of state executions versus police killings exemplifies this. As Zimring notes, there are likely more than a thousand police killings each year, “more than twenty times the number of executions” (6). This disparity is a result of how opposite the regulations behind police killings and state executions are. As Kelling’s texts show, police in the United States are given incredibly wide discretion to use force and harass civilians at will. Executions, on the other hand, require the judgements of often dozens of judges over the course of many, many appeals. The necessity of providing police with wide enough discretion to practice aggressive order keeping (and satiate the ruling class) has had the unfortunate side effect of providing them with wide enough discretion to kill, often without consequence: “In the rare circumstance that there is an indictment, the police officer is, more often than not, cleared of wrongdoing” (4). Further, the refusal of society to connect local police killings with larger societal trends has prevented any real crackdowns on lethal policing. As Zimring notes dozens of times, “there may be a perception in government, media, and public opinion that each violent episode involving police use of deadly force is an individual drama rather than a larger expression of governmental policy” (11). This suggestion that the discretion given to police officers by aggressive order keeping contributes to higher rates of lethal policing is somewhat supported by one of Zimring’s conclusions: “the obvious indication is that departmental policy has a major influence on killing rates in major cities” (71). Though Zimring makes no attempt to investigate these specific policies, is seems likely that those departments which still endorse broken windows policing are also the most likely to kill. Lethal policing, then, is nothing more than an expression of the same classist discretion which was used to segregate the classes.
But the question of why the United States specifically stands out among all western democracies requires more than a public acceptance of police coercion to answer. Looking to the rate of inequality in the United States, as well as the prevalence of guns helps to answer that question. Zimring shows in the 6th chapter of his book that the number of police killings has remained constant over time, in spite of the fact that the number of attacks on police in the line of duty has decreased drastically with other types of crime: “in short, the substantial decline in killing of police was not matched by any parallel drop in killings by police” (117). What this suggests is that police are not killing in response to direct personal threats, but rather there is something else about America which makes her police more likely to kill. An examination of “American exceptionalism” may provide an answer. As Zimring examines in his chapter “Only in America?” the United States no only stands out in rates of lethal policing, but in general crime rates as well, “as reported by the UN, the homicide rates in the United States are about four or five times those of Germany’s” (79). But as mentioned before, crime rates have not correlated substantially with rates of lethal policing, “the difference in killings of police..are almost an order of magnitude higher than the…difference in homicide rate” (79). It seems more likely, then, that both crime rates in the United States and police killings are causally related to some outside variable: inequality. The United States stands out as the single most unequal nation on the planet. In combination with the prevalence of guns and the relative discretion given to American police, income inequality may account not only for the higher crime rates, but the higher rates of police killings as well. In a nation where police have always had the explicit role of classist “societal order keeping,” it should be no surprise that they are more likely to kill civilians with fewer consequences.
Policing reflects society — and American society is built on deadly, classist oppression.