Racism and policing

Editor’s note:  This page contains a sample of my analysis and writing on issues of racism and law enforcement, police brutality, policing practices and strategies and tactics in the struggle for community control of police.

Who killed Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile?

A long list of people in high places

Don’t praise, charge Bratton with crimes against humanity

A long list of politicians and law enforcement officials should be charged as accomplices for the killing of unarmed black Americans. Political leaders, conservative academics and leading law enforcement officials established the policies and practices giving officers the license to harass and profile entire communities like those of Philando Castile, Ikai Gurley, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and their families.

Examining who is responsible for the policies behind these killings reveals a systematic racist application of laws and law enforcement practices that demonize African-American communities. Such bias, engendered by the ideology of white supremacy, is as old as slavery. Deep, pervasive prejudicial attitudes underlie the political motives for harsh law enforcement practices and allow harassment, brutality and murder to continue unchecked.

The media, law enforcement officials and political leaders portray these deaths as isolated incidents of policing gone wrong or errors of judgment under duress. Their aim is to dilute the charge that police brutality is a systemic problem fostered by racism that permeates our society and law enforcement agencies. It is time to be clear that those in high places should be held accountable as accessories to police brutality and murder, along with officers who commit the actual crime. It is necessary to know where the problem lies in order to create meaningful solutions.

In New York City, those considered for indictment should start with NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. He implemented NYPD’s stop and frisk program and the dragnet-like regime of arresting low-level offenders based on a dubious policing theory called “broken windows.” This program established a practice of targeting people committing minor offenses under the misguided idea it will deter these same persons from going on to commit more serious crimes. In any other country human rights groups would call these tactics state police repression.

A politically expedient theory built on racism

The “theory” maintains that tolerating anti-social behavior, for example, panhandling, vagrancy, public drunkenness, petty vandalism or proliferation of graffiti, is like neglecting to repair broken windows. A few broken windows leads to more broken windows as people accept it as the norm and vandals go undeterred. Thus the analogy is posed that a neighborhood that tolerates petty anti-social behavior engenders lawlessness, instills fear and deteriorates the social fabric.

The intellectual architects of these policing tactics were two academics who held positions at conservative think tanks.[i] In 1982 George L. Kelling and the late James Q. Wilson (1931-2012) introduced their “broken windows theory” in The Atlantic Monthly.[ii] Not coincidently perhaps their “theory” appeared just two years after the election of Ronald Reagan who ran on a law and order, anti-welfare platform coded with racist inferences.[iii]

This framework on policing was integrated into police practices and training across the nation to justify monitoring communities of color and systematic harassment. A poignant example illustrates a level of harassment no white community would tolerate. At a city council hearing in Minneapolis, Minn., where I live, an African-American man in his mid-30s, with no criminal record, testified he had been stopped by the police 48 times in a period of a few years without cause while walking or driving. This is the result of the Kelling and Wilson theory for just one individual. How many times would a white person be stopped under the same circumstances? Chances are, none.

For some years now rigorous studies show the broken windows theory to have weak or no correlation with reduced crime rates.[iv] Many other factors do correlate like a decline in unemployment and changing demographics. In New York and other cities, the sharp drop in crack cocaine usage about the same time broken windows was implemented, resulted in lower crime rates.[v] Rates that Kelling, Wilson, Bratton at al erroneously cite as proving their theory works.

In their initial study, Kelling and Wilson claimed to have proven that targeting low-level offenders and enforcing zero-tolerance policies against anti-social behavior reduces the likelihood such persons will commit more serious crimes. As they wrote in the Atlantic: “Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community.” Multiplied millions of times this spurious logic of policing results in a level of harassment that is oppressive.[vi]

Independent research shows the arguments of Kelling and Wilson are simplistic and lack supporting evidence. Their methodologies lack rigor and their follow up studies were flawed. Kelling refused to share his data to allow others to independently examine the validity of his methodology and credibility of his data, a common courtesy extended by researchers.[vii]

An intellectual mentor?

In a Los Angles Times obituary following Wilson’s death in 2012, Bratton called Wilson his “intellectual mentor.”[viii] As recently as late 2015, Bratton co-authored an article with Kelling attempting to rebut criticism of broken windows.[ix] They did not mention a single study critical of the theories and methodologies of Kelling and Wilson.

Kelling worked as a consultant for the NYPD to implement the broken windows policing practices used to justify the systemic harassment of Garner that led to his death.[x] Given their role in propagating such misguided theory and practice, it seems reasonable to hold those in academia and private think tanks accountable for human rights violations, not just the officers directly responsible.

Next in line to consider indicting should be Rudy Guillani, who hired Bratton in 1993 as police commissioner. Guillani, who is still enamored with the broken windows theory, gave Bratton full support. As mayor, and as a former prosecutor, Guillani was quick to defend officers accused of brutality and disparaged anyone who criticized the new aggressive police tactics.

Crime was already going down in NYC when Guillani took office in 1994.[xi] With the generous assistance of right wing media outlets, think tanks and law enforcement experts he convinced New Yorkers that it was due to the theories of Kelling and Wilson. White New Yorkers fearing a return to high crime rates reelected him. But studies then and now show the reason crime dropped was the simultaneous rise in employment and a sharp decline in the use of crack cocaine.

Following Guillani, Mayor Bloomberg refused to moderate or end these tactics during his three terms.[xii] Numerous appeals, organizing efforts and protests to pressure him to act were rejected again and again. Does such indifference, in the face of overwhelming evidence, rise to an indictable threshold?

Adding to this long-running crime, Mayor Bill deBlasio, elected on a program to end police violence and misconduct, insulted communities of color by rehiring Bratton, one day after he was sworn in on January 1, 2014. Clearly it was a deal agreed to during his run for mayor. De Blasio depended on black and Latino votes to win and then betrayed them by hiring Bratton. Outrage and protests changed nothing, Bratton stayed on. Whites were assured the city would remain safe.

De Blasio further insulted communities of color when he approved the hiring of 1,300 new officers. This means more harassment as each new officer tries to reach a monthly arrest quota. A crude management practice that insults well-meaning officers’ judgment and gives officers who are racist, homophobic and otherwise prejudice a license to harass.

In condemning De Blasio’s action, the NYPD watch dog group Police Reform Organizing Project, said: “If the Mayor were true to his guiding principles, he would direct the NYPD to abandon ‘broken windows,’ not enhance its already potent capacity….”[xiii]

Marching behind the law and order wagon

Further up the political ladder are Democratic and Republican party leaders who supported or looked the other way as federal and state legislation militarized local police forces, funded SWAT teams and gang units, and enacted discriminatory laws like that on crack cocaine. These and numerous other legal and administrative policies were directed almost entirely at communities of color by the nation’s police departments.

Conservative and moderate Democrats were not shy about riding Ronald Reagan’s law and order wagon to retain their appeal to white voters. The laws and policing practices resulting in mass incarceration could not have been legislated without support from the Democratic Party. The party of civil rights legislation reneged on their commitment to their most loyal voters.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed legislation extending the 1986 law mandating disproportionate sentencing for use and possession of crack cocaine compared with regular powdered cocaine. In doing so he ignored the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to make them equal. In signing the legislation, passed with overwhelming support by the GOP and most white democratic lawmakers, Clinton said: “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.”[xiv]

This came as no surprise given President Clinton promoted the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that led to increasing the prison population by reclassifying lessor crimes as felonies and extending mandatory sentences. The 1994 act, also fulfilled Clinton’s campaign pledge to provide funding to add 100,000 officers to the nation’s police departments, when it was arguably unnecessary and wasteful.

This political choice reassured white voters Clinton would be as tough on crime as any GOP contender. Clinton could have proposed hiring 50,000 new teachers, 25,000 social workers and the same number of community organizers. But he chose to play the racist law and order card. Might his actions be considered as an accomplice to the human rights violations of communities of color? Is not every congressional representative who voted for these repressive laws also culpable?

As a result of these and other steps taken by lawmakers billions were allocated to build prisons to house the victims of the new drug laws and sentencing guidelines. The tyranny of broken windows tactics spread to police departments across the country, filling jails and prisons and expanding arrest records. Broken windows and stop and frisk tactics created high crime data even where crime was not increasing. The data was self-serving and used to justify expanding police departments and harsher penalties.

Foot soldiers carrying out orders

Of course, officers like Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown should be indicted and tried and judged in court. Until officers go to prison for murder there is little chance the killing will end. But these officers are like foot soldiers carrying out orders. Those in high places – their accomplices – must also be held accountable. It is their policing policies, hiring practices, laws and rules that create a climate in which officers routinely violate citizens’ human rights.

Today we are witnessing the largest movement against police brutality since the early 1970s. That movement was not powerful enough to make far-reaching change. Largely because white civil rights activists failed to fulfill their mission to reach enough white Americans to break the transfer of racist attitudes to upcoming generations. Reagan, Guillani, broken windows and bulging prisons were the result. We all paid for it in taxes, but some paid with long prison terms and a long list of innocent people, like Eric Garner, paid with their lives.

Demographics and attitudes have changed since the last major fight against police brutality. The past two generations of white youth more so than any previous generation have grown up, worked and studied alongside people of color, American and foreign born. They come to protest in defense of those they know. Long standing white indifference to police violence still dominates public opinion, but these generations are much less likely to tolerate acts of brutality against their fellow citizens.

They speak as if a friend, a colleague, a roommate or a neighbor could be the next Garner, Brown, Rice or one of hundreds of unarmed, uncounted and unnamed people of color killed by law enforcement officers following the policies and practices their superiors created.

This movement, led by Black Lives Matter, may ebb with events, but it will not go away. It has raised the ante. The guilty are in high places. It is time to raise a demand that policy makers, politicians and so-called policing experts like Kelling and police chiefs like Bratton be held accountable for their culpability. They should be considered for indictment as the leaders, the generals, if you will, of the crimes against humanity being committed by those they employ and advise. This is what justice should look like.


[i] The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (Kelling) and the American Enterprise Institute (Wilson).

[ii] Wilson, James Q., and George L. Kelling. “Broken windows.” Atlantic monthly 249.3 (1982): 29-38.

[iii] An article praising Wilson’s work, quoted Bratton, as crediting Wilson with the “biggest change in policing in this country.” According to the authors Bratton handed out copies of the Atlantic article from his briefcase. In: “The Political Science of James Q. Wilson,” by Jeremy Rozansky and Josh Lerner. Spring 2012, page 91. New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.

[iv] Harcourt, Bernard E., and Jens Ludwig. “Broken Windows: New Evidence From New York City And A Five-City Social Experiment.” University Of Chicago Law Review 73.1 (2006): 271-320. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Jan. 2015. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4495553. In a 2007 interview Harcourt, a professor of law at the University of Chicago said: “I am pretty confident even without Broken Windows policing in New York City, crime would have come down to the extent that it did.” In: “How much credit does Giuliani deserve for fighting crime?,” Wes Allison, Politicfact, September 1, 2007. URL: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2007/sep/01/how-much-credit-giuliani-due-fighting-crime/.

[v] abid.

[vi] “City Council Power Over Broken Windows Policing,” Nick Malinowski, Jan 06, 2015

http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5497-city-council-power-over-broken-windows-policing. Accessed January 8, 2015.

[vii] Abid. Harcourt, Bernard E., and Jens Ludwig.

[viii] “James Q. Wilson dies at 80; pioneer in ‘broken windows’ approach to improve policing,” Elaine Woo, March 3, 2012, Los Angeles Times.

URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/03/local/la-me-james-q-wilson-20120303. Accessed April 28, 2016. Bratton went on to say in this L.A.Times obituary: “Jim understood that the style of policing in the ’70s and ’80s, which had retreated from controlling disorder in our streets, was like neglecting a cancer. Broken windows says get the melanoma on the surface before it gets in and kills you.” It is this attitude that contributed to the get-tough, zero tolerance climate of occupation and harassment of communities of color around the country. Instead of treating individuals’ anti-social behaviors such as drunkenness, small-scale drug offenses or disorderly conduct from a social work or health care perspective, police officers carrying out the broken windows regime, arrested people and enforced a public order that led in some cities, such as Baltimore, to prohibiting residents from congregating on the front steps of their own apartments.

[ix] Bratton, William J. and George L. Kelling, “Why We Need Broken Windows Policing.” City Journal, Winter 2015. URL: http://www.city-journal.org/2015/25_1_broken-windows-policing.html, Accessed January 7, 2015.

[x] “Broken Windows Policing Doesn’t Work: It also may have killed Eric Garner,” Justin Peters, December 3, 2014. Slate.com.

[xi] Several studies show that crime peaked in late 1980s and by 1990 was on decline across most categories. This occurred under the administration of Mayor David Dinkins. This is the same period that crack cocaine use dropped sharply and employment increased as a result of the .com boom. In light of this, the claim by Gulliani and Bratton that broken windows or policing data tracking, (both of which were introduced after Gulliani was elected), caused a drop in crime is disingenuous. Any claim that does not take into account these and other factors misrepresents basic logic of cause and effect.

“Why Did Crime Fall in New York City?,” Sewell Chan, City Room Blogs, New York Times, August 13, 2007. URL: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/why-did-crime-fall-in-new-york-city/?_r=0.

“The Remarkable Drop in Crime in New York City,” Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D. and Matthew R. Durose, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U. S. Department of Justice, October 21, 2004. “Zero Tolerance: A Case Study of Police Policies and Practices in New York City. Judith A. Greene, Crime & Delinquency, April 1999, Vol. 45 Issue 2, page171, 17 pages.

[xii] “Yes, Mayor Bloomberg, Stop-and-Frisk Is Really, Really Racist,” Justin Peters, July 1, 2013. Slate.com.

[xiii] “PROP response to the addition of 1,300 officers to the NYPD,” Robert Gangi, Executive Director, PROP, Police Reform Organizing Project. URL: http://www.policereformorganizingproject.org/prop-response-to-the-addition-of-1300-officers-to-the-nypd/

[xiv] “New law puts heat on crack dealers Clinton signs measure to fight cocaine use blacks decry disparity.” October 31, 1995, Lyle Denniston, Baltimore Sun. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-10-31/news/1995304052_1_crack-cocaine-powder-cocaine-cocaine-crimes