Since I first read Jill Leovy’s “Ghettoside,” I’ve been recommending it to anybody interested in urban issues, violence prevention, police-community relations and the like. And in those discussions, and in following the written reviews, one point keeps coming up. Leovy says high-crime black communities are underpoliced. Isn’t the problem in fact that they’re overpoliced? The community is up in arms over mass incarceration, zero tolerance, stop and frisk, and all the rest. How can it be sensible for anybody to ask for more of the same?
In fact, I believe that she’s exactly right – something that’s very easy to understand if you live in or are otherwise close to these communities. To see why, try the following thought experiment.
Imagine that you are – if you are not – a reasonably well-off white high school student in a reasonably quiet Midwestern town. It’s not a great place. The steel mill shut down a while back; there’s not much work anymore; there’s always been weed, and meth and pills have been creeping in; and it’s always been a tough town; you and your friends have had their share of fights, just like your father did, and his father. But it, and you, are pretty much OK. You run with your friends, do OK in school, party some but not as hard as some others, hunt in the fall with your dad.
Then imagine that the cops sat you and your family down and said that they weren’t going to do anything anymore except cause you trouble. We’re going to double down on the weed and the rest, they say; expect to get stopped when you walk down the street and pulled over every chance we get. You probably didn’t know that riding your bike on the sidewalk is illegal, but it is, and now we’re going to arrest you for it. If you’re not on your own block, in front of your own house, we’ll arrest you for trespassing, and if you don’t like it you can explain it to the judge a week later when you get out of holding and get arraigned. If we see more than three of you and your friends at a time, we’ll prone you out on the street in front of your girlfriends and cuff you while we run a warrant check. We think you’re all scum, they tell you, and you get no slack at all any more.
But that only goes for the small stuff, they say. We’re withdrawing completely from the big stuff. We don’t really care about violence any more. You want to really hurt somebody, be our guest, not our problem. Shoot them if you want, we won’t do anything.
Imagine, if you can, what you’d do if that big kid on the next block and his friends gang-raped your sister. And showed the cellphone videos to everybody at school. And when you tried to face him down, they put you in the hospital and did a drive-by on your house. While the cops just watched. Imagine what you’d do when your older brother got your dad’s deer rifle and said to you and your friends, we have to go take care of this. They killed our mom and they have to pay.
Imagine how the violence would spiral; there’d be bodies in the streets in no time. And then, if you can, imagine how you’d feel listening to the folks in the next town over watch the carnage and talk about how it’s all because you have a terrible family and weren’t raised right, and there’s dope so you’re all drug dealers and we all know drug dealers have to shoot each other, and shooting each other is just cultural for people like you, and you and all your friends are vicious, evil super-predators with no regard for human life.
And then imagine how you’d feel as the cops looked at you, and your family, and your friends, and your whole town, and said, we knew you were scum.
You’d be experiencing what families in stressed black neighborhoods have experienced forever – very high rates of arrest for minor offenses white folks routinely get away with, and shockingly low arrest rates for serious violent crime. The cause of the latter is not as simple as deliberate police withdrawal - it’s a toxic mix of a terrible history of exactly that, and a nearly as toxic present of mistrust, broken relationships and bad behavior on both sides - but the result is the same. Being overpoliced for the small stuff, and underpoliced for the important stuff, alienates the community, undercuts cooperation and fuels private violence: which itself often then drives even more intrusive policing, more alienation, lower clearance rates, and still more violence. The cops write off the community even more; the community writes off the cops even more.
Breaking that cycle is one of the most important things we can do for violence prevention and police-community relations. Getting serious about investigating and clearing homicide, as Leovy so passionately advocates, is one way. Another is policing violence in ways that deliberately curtail the collateral damage of rampant low-level arrests. This is demonstrably possible; in Leovy’s own back yard, the LAPD/Advancement Project Community Safety Initiative has put top officers in Watts’ most dangerous housing projects; charged them with enhancing safety while making as few arrests as possible; and cut violent crime by 70% and arrests by 50%. The major lesson, which “Ghettoside” drives home with crystal clarity, is that these neighborhoods desperately need policing – just not the kind they’ve been getting.
David Kennedy is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and director of the National Network for Safe Communities. His most recent book is “Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.”