The Economics of The New Brutality

After years of police reform, why does police brutality still seem to be getting worse in communities of color? Organizer Daniel HoSang reports.

By Daniel HoSang Dec 10, 1999

Four years ago, an army of at least twenty federal and local cops descended on Melinda Cosby’s house along a quiet residential street in working class East Oakland. They arrived at sunrise fully armed, a battering ram in hand and automatic weapons drawn, as if about to raid a hostile village. Their mission? To investigate what turned out to be false allegations of credit card fraud by Ms. Cosby. She was not home at the time, but her husband, Nathan, awoke to the sound of his front door crashing in. An instant later, he lay dead on his bedroom floor, shot in the back of the head through a window by an officer stationed in the backyard of the home.

Neither the officer who murdered Nathan Cosby nor the supervisors in charge of the mission were dismissed as a result of their conduct. The City of Oakland has yet to compensate Melinda Cosby for her loss. Church leaders, the school employees union that counted Nathan Cosby as a member, family members, and neighbors confronted the police chief at a community meeting a few weeks later. They demanded to know how paramilitary forces could be deployed in a residential neighborhood with no repercussions. Who were the police accountable to?

An Occupying ArmyTo be sure, renegade police departments seem to have been the rule rather than the exception in the past few decades. In Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when police chief and then mayor Frank Rizzo reigned, the lines between civilian and military leadership were blurry at best. Likewise, in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chief Darryl Gates’ LAPD seemed to many to be an army that existed to perpetuate its own power. And in 1996, the New Orleans police department was rocked by scandals in which four officers were charged with murder. Between 1993 and 1996, fifty New Orleans cops were arrested for felonies including bank robbery and rape.
James Baldwin captured the sense of subjugation and domination wrought by this type of police conduct nearly forty years ago when he wrote that a police officer moves through Harlem "like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what and where he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes."

But while headline-grabbing incidents of police violence seem as common now as they were back then, the law enforcement strategies and priorities that underlie those incidents and the regulation of police officers themselves are changing. Over the last thirty years, many departments have increased training, education, and accreditation requirements for officers and enhanced police salary and benefits. Nationally, there has been nearly a ten-fold increase in the number of citizen police review agencies during the same period.

In the last three years, the Department of Justice has launched probes into police practices in at least ten agencies, including the police departments of New York City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. In response, some of the dirtiest police precincts in Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans cleaned house. An increasing number of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have agreed to collect data to determine whether their departments use racial profiling to enforce traffic laws, resulting in the harassment of black and brown motorists. In New York City, shooting deaths of civilians by police have fallen from about 60 per year in the early 1970s to about 25 per year in the mid-1990s.

Yet on the streets of Harlem, East Los Angeles, or Indianapolis, people of color fear the police more than ever. A recent New York Times survey revealed that nine out of ten black New York residents said they thought police often engaged in brutality against blacks, and nearly two-thirds said people of color in general experience police violence. Lawsuit settlements and judgments resulting from police misconduct are at an all-time high in New York City, reaching $27.3 million in 1996 alone. Ninety-eight percent of complainants to the Oakland Citizen Police Review Board are people of color, though whites comprise nearly forty percent of the city’s population.

Which way, then, are the winds really blowing? Police are subject to more scrutiny and regulation than ever before, but police misconduct seems to grow unchecked. A new style of policing has emerged from changes in the political economy and shifts in the racial landscape.

Policing As Economic DevelopmentPolice strategies and roles are increasingly intertwined with economic development and private investment objectives. In the last thirty years, according to urban theorist David Harvey, the expansion of global capitalism and the mobility of capital has increased economic competition between different regions within the U.S. As cities and regions vie with one another to establish identities as safe, investment-friendly consumer centers, containment of all the "troublesome" poor folks and people of color become priority number one. Local police agencies regulate low-income communities with high unemployment and limit their access to public and private space.

Eric Tang of the grassroots organization Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence observes that in New York City, police harassment of Asian Americans has taken a different bent in recent years. "Police have shifted away from focusing on gangs and more towards regulating and controlling working and unemployed Asians, and containing them within Chinatown." Tang says police harass vendors who are moving to the northern borders of Chinatown, as well as the working poor that hang out in the parks and on the street corners throughout the neighborhood. Whether targeting workers in Chinatown or Southeast Asian youth in the Bronx, Tang says the enforcement priorities of the police illustrates a larger concern with the regulation and containment of immigrant communities of color in general.

New York City, in its effort to forge an identity as a safe cosmopolitan community welcoming to the professional and managerial class, has led the way in the last five years in criminalizing a broad swath of public activities that has led to unprecedented harassment and detention of poor, working class, and homeless people by the police. Civilian complaints for excess use of force have risen 41 percent since the New York City police began widespread arrests for minor violations. Mayor Giuliani has been explicit in his intention to physically remove and contain any of the visible affects of poverty (i.e. homelessness) that dare to share space with gentrification and development initiatives. In 1997 and 1998, officers with the NYPD’s street crimes unit frisked more than 45,000 people thought to be carrying guns, but they arrested fewer than 10,000. This policing strategy allows the police to detain, question, and thus regulate tens of thousands of mostly low-income people of color. Indianapolis, Baltimore, New Orleans, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle have followed suit with similar "zero tolerance" policing strategies lifted directly from Giuliani’s book.

Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, observes that this strategy means that law enforcement is permeating the everyday life of many communities. "We see police involvement in the provision and regulation of social services, neighborhood development initiatives, and schools more than ever before." As circumstances within acutely poor neighborhoods worsen or remain the same while middle and upper class communities frolic in growing prosperity, police are charged with regulating the unrest these inequalities engender. To be sure, this is a highly racialized mandate.

Reclaiming the CityUrban scholar Neil Smith describes many Western cities at the dawn of the millennium as "revanchist," importing a term used to describe the reactionary movement in late 19th century France bent on retaliating against the French people following a working class uprising. Smith argues that the rightwing French movement, "built on popular nationalism and devoted to a vengeful and reactionary taking of the country," offers an appropriate framework to understand the U.S. today. In this context, the "taking back" of urban spaces for gentrification and development purposes, cloaked in the smug language of civic morality, seeks to exact revenge for the "theft" of the city by the poor, immigrants, and people of color during the last thirty years.

The frontier-like language of conquest and subjugation that underlies these strategies rationalizes a host of abusive police practices (the frontier is, after all, a violent and bloody space) meted out in the spirit of urban renewal. Mayor Jerry Brown’s recent, highly racialized pledge to drive the "unemployed criminals" out of Oakland, coupled with his thesis that the surest path to economic development is through a dramatic reduction of crime, create a context that virtually necessitates a certain level of police brutality. Thus, last year, when a freelance videographer captured police kicking an African American robbery suspect in the groin as he lay on the ground with seven police-inflicted bullet wounds, neither Brown nor any members of the City Council openly condemned the cops’ behavior. These and other daily acts of violence are a central part of the police’s role in the reclamation of the city.
Community policing and the neighborhood-cop partnerships they create allow a deeper penetration of vengeful philosophy into communities of color themselves. Nearly thirty percent of Latinos and 26 percent of African Americans report that they "very frequently" worry about getting beaten up, knifed, or shot. Only nine percent of whites report this same concern. U.C. Berkeley professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes that "crime is used to organize people’s fears brought about by the vertigo of economic insecurity by identifying an enemy whose vanquishment will restore security." Communities of color and low-income communities are not exempt from this anxiety.

In this context, the "occupying army" metaphor invoked by James Baldwin forty years ago has shifted. Neighborhood watch programs, vehicle forfeiture measures aimed at regulating drug sales and prostitution, and anti-loitering measures that target young people are frequently cloaked in the notion that "good citizens" must "take back" and "reclaim" their communities from the lawless elements that have been permitted to run amok. Increasing schisms of generation and class within communities of color demarcate the boundaries between the "good guys" and the "bad guys."

The Miami Metro-Dade Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) typifies many of these partnerships. Police confer with some community residents to identify the targets of the program and conduct intense, block-by-block sweeps, converging on neighborhoods with militaristic force and zealously prosecuting arrestees. The basis of the approach, according to Major Dan Flynn, is that "people want heavy-handed law enforcement that is aggressive, not abusive." Miami University professor Roger Dunham, who studied the TNT program, reveals the intent of the initiative: "Police are able to go into these neighborhoods, do intensive enforcement, and keep the people on their side."

From this perspective, the investigations of the Department of Justice, the expansion of police review boards, and the larger professionalization of policing are not insignificant. They are linked to an effort to win support for training the focus and attention of policing away from the unchecked and seemingly random racist thuggery of the past and towards a brutality specifically aimed at the poorest, most exploited sections of working class communities of color.

Security Without BrutalityGiven the tacit support among many sectors of the middle and even working class for Giuliani’s policing strategies (76 percent of whites and 52 percent of blacks recently polled support his crime policy), fundamental limits to police power and authority seem unlikely. But how can progressive forces present the most formidable challenge to the expanding police state? Two challenges are central.

First, the fear of crime has led some elements within working class communities of color (particularly older residents and property owners) to embrace the presence of police in their neighborhoods. Will Gonzalez of Philadelphia’s Police-Barrio Relations Project argues that these communities must be presented with alternatives. "One of the challenges is to help people understand that you can have security without brutality," he says. "You can have public security with integrity." Jones and Gonzalez both point out that there exists no hardened consensus for police brutality and that this debate should not be conceded to reactionary forces.

Second, organizers must link their efforts to secure reform strategies (such as civilian police review boards and other accountability mechanisms) with broader efforts to confront gentrification and development strategies. Activists in New York City have successfully linked the police slaying of 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo directly to the city’s zero tolerance police strategy. For the time being, Giuliani has retreated to a more defensive posture in explaining his public safety policies.

In San Francisco, organizers have framed police harassment of the homeless, who are regularly cited or jailed during certain enforcement periods, in the context of the city’s broader agenda to turn the entire city into a yuppie playground. These strategies require police accountability organizers to link with groups that have traditionally sat out confrontations over the role of the police—progressive labor unions, housing activists, and community development folks. To the extent that police conduct directly emanates from broad racial and economic imperatives, organizing to regulate that conduct must rally broader forces to its cause.