Dr. Valerio Baćak pens opinion piece on crime and U.S. policing in Croatian news outlet JutarnjiList
While the crime rate has been falling for years, police budgets continue to rise!
June 21, 2020 6:11 pm
Since late May, protests against police violence and racism are ongoing in the U.S. sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd after he was arrested on suspicion of trying to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. However, the protests not only responded to his killing, but are a response to a century of systematic racial discrimination and state violence. Therefore, the police killings of innocent civilians are not accidental nor news and need to be understood in the context of the connection between the criminal justice system and racism.
African Americans are not only the primary targets of police violence — from Rodney King to Breonne Taylor — but also the targets of draconian laws. As Michelle Alexander explained in her influential book, The New Jim Crow, the function of today’s mass penal system, which holds more than two million Americans behind bars, is similar to the function of segregation laws. These laws, known as “Jim Crow,” sprang up across the southern United States to allow the white majority to continue to politically, culturally, and economically oppress their black-skinned fellow citizens who had only recently been liberated from slavery.
After the civil rights movement, led by people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., managed to get the segregation laws repealed in the 1960s, American politicians activated alternative mechanisms of segregation. In the early 1970s, then-President Richard Nixon launched the so-called “war on drugs” aimed at the epidemic of addiction in urban America — the term “urban America” is a euphemism for African Americans in poor American city centers — and thus laid the foundations for the US punitive system. Addiction was punished with a truncheon and long prison sentences, instead of investing in prevention and public health.
Police violence is part of a phenomenon that social scientists define as American penal exceptionalism, or the fact that the United States has the strictest penal system of all liberal democracies. As a globally leading country in terms of incarceration rate, the United States sends far more of its population to prisons than, say, Russia or China. With about five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has about 25 percent of the world’s total number of prisoners. Not only do many serve long prison sentences for offenses that would carry only a smaller fine in other countries, but prison sentences are much longer and more brutal, such as the death penalty and life imprisonment for juveniles without the possibility of parole.
In addition to being targeted by police on the streets, African Americans are also disproportionately represented in prisons, which can serve as a key to understanding systemic racism and racial inequality. One example is drug possession. While there are no significant differences between white and black-skinned Americans when it comes to drug use, there are many more of the latter incarcerated due to drug use. In other words, it is common that for the same crime for which a white person in America will almost certainly not end up in prison, an African-American almost certainly will.
But draconian prison sentences and racial inequalities in their application are only part of the punishment. America is also unusual in that it continues to drastically sanction its citizens even after they have served their sentences. Additional punishment comes in the form of literally thousands of so-called collateral consequences for people who have been in prison, from permanent disenfranchisement to restrictions on the type of jobs they are allowed to perform, such as truck drivers. Given that most former prisoners come from poverty, and often can only be employed doing manual jobs to which they are suddenly no longer entitled, it becomes clear that the penal system is a generator of racial and economic inequality. At the same time, this system of perpetuated punishment, both inside and outside prison, has criminal effects — if you deprive someone of the opportunity to work legally, they will be forced to work outside or on the edge of the law.
It is important to emphasize here that most people in American prisons are not hardened criminals — or criminals at all. Moreover, a large number of those arrested will never be convicted of a crime. Hundreds of thousands of people in local prisons across America are there because they are waiting for their day in court, often because they could not afford bail.
The story of Kalief Browder, a sixteen-year-old from the Bronx, is a tragic example of that system. On suspicion — and without any evidence — of stealing a backpack, he was arrested and placed in the infamous Rikers Island prison where he spent nearly three years, about two of them in solitary confinement, awaiting trial. The physical, sexual and psychological violence to which he was exposed in a notoriously dangerous prison were too much for him. After the charges were dropped and he was released, Kalief committed suicide.
Police violence and racial injustice
It is common knowledge in criminology that the amount of trust and legitimacy that the police enjoy in the eyes of society is based on the way the police treat citizens. Without trust, many studies show, citizens will not consider police decisions and behavior legitimate. Lack of trust will ultimately jeopardize the social status of the police and complicate its fundamental task — maintaining public order and safety. Confidence in the police system, however, can only be created through transparent, ethical and fair conduct by police officers, i.e. only by those police actions that are based on compliance with the law and refraining from violence. The African American community has always been the target of behavior that was just the opposite of these principles.
The police practice known as “stop and frisk” in New York during the first two decades of this century is a significant example of problematic police behavior. The idea is simple, but democratically unjust and ineffective in crime prevention — proactively stopping and searching citizens who “look suspicious” will prevent crime. The targets are mostly racially profiled young African-Americans, often from disadvantaged neighborhoods. The vast majority of such interventions did not result in arrest because there was no evidence of a crime, but police brutality and insulting residents on racial and ethnic grounds were a common part of this practice.
The “stop and frisk” practice has been declared unconstitutional, although the police continue to behave similarly due to the power provided by police unions and the huge share in the city budgets. In New York alone, nearly six billion dollars a year goes to the police. By comparison, these amounts are significantly higher than the amount for public health and housing. At the same time, as the crime rate has been falling for years, police budgets continue to rise. For this reason, appeals by protesters across the U.S. to reduce police funding have resonated and are gaining increasing support within city councils and even the U.S. Congress. A blow to the budget is perhaps the only way to limit police power and make police officers accountable for violence that is unnecessary and excessive.
Where is Croatia in all this? More than a week ago, a solidarity protest was held in Zagreb with the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA. The purpose of the protests was also to point out the violence against ethnic and racial minorities that is present in Croatia as well. According to well-documented reports, Croatian police officers are robbing, injuring and persecuting migrants and refugees, all without any consequences – similar to the streets of the United States – for which the Center for Peace Studies has filed criminal charges against 33 unknown police officers. However, police violence is not just a matter of breaking the law, but a matter of violating the basic principles of a democratic society. The lack of response from the responsible ministry to appeals from survivors and NGOs normalizes police brutality.
The protests we are witnessing in the US may be geographically far away, but the problems they are warning of are also on our doorstep. When it becomes clear that there are no consequences for unlawful police violence, any of us can be next in line.