January 3, 2015
Why the current crisis in policing? Part of the answer is that social media has brought long-standing abuses to everyone’s attention. But it is also true that there has been a change in policing strategy since 9/11 that has accelerated the militarization of police and intensified policing’s disconnect from the community.
During the last decades of the twentieth century there was a strong emphasis on “community policing.” This model stressed a partnership between community and police. Officers were encouraged to reach out to community leaders to understand local issues and solve them. Oftentimes this meant using tools other than arrest and incarceration, focusing on underlying problems and finding social solutions that prevented crime rather than just reacting to it.
After 9/11, “intelligence-led policing” came to the fore. In its most benign form, this is simply data-driven crime fighting—learning where crime is and what crimes are being committed, and putting police there with specific strategies to stop it. This came to be known as “hot-spot policing.”
Even this seemingly benign strategy is fraught with problems for people of color. Here’s how that works: blacks are targeted for arrests in disparate numbers (see St. Louis’ 18 to 1 disparity in marijuana possession arrests despite similar usage rates when compared to whites). Thus data erroneously shows higher crime in black neighborhoods. Therefore, black areas are targeted as hot spots, more arrests are made there, and a vicious cycle is created.
But intelligence-led policing causes even more deep-seated problems. It has been relied upon to justify the use of surveillance, such as street cameras and St. Louis’ proposed Real-Time Intelligence Center, which is based on the old arrest-and-incarcerate model rather than community policing.
“Intelligence-led policing” has also perverted the “community oriented policing” model. Policing has become about data collection rather than solving community problems. When police now talk about “community oriented policing” in this new era, they too often talk about it as a way to better evaluate community networks and gain information on community leaders.
Finally, there has always been a strain of American policing that is based on counter-intelligence strategies developed overseas by the military. It has shown itself in waves of domestic repression from the Palmer Raids, to the McCarthy era, to Cointelpro.
This tendency has been renewed and strengthened by “intelligence-led policing” since 9/11. It is manifested in the New York City Intelligence Unit that spied on Muslim communities for years. The parallels between rooting out insurgents in Iraq and dealing with urban gangs at home are being explicitly made. The phrase “real-time intelligence” comes from drone data-gathering and dissemination techniques developed in Iraq.
Police no longer see themselves as community partners. Instead they are engaged in military-style surges and neighborhood incursions to root out crime. And this reliance on military strategy has only reinforced the increasing desire for heavy military equipment in our towns and cities.
These trends, in combination with the on-going long-term repression of black communities, created the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown and the military response that followed. It will take a fundamental shift in police culture, and a radical shift in the power relationships of police and the community, to set things on a better path.