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Responses to Violence Must Move Beyond Policing

The solution to problems like unsolved homicides, especially in communities of color, cannot be reinvestment in institutions that wage violence against them.

Demonstrators confront police during a protest over the death of Laquan McDonald on November 25, 2015 in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty

Responses to failure often take the form of reinvestment in what is failing. When Wall Street fails, the banks receive support in the form of bailouts; when the healthcare system fails us, the insurance companies get to shape the system’s “reform.” So when police fail to solve crime, they get usually get even more support, more funding, more “manpower.” Name a crisis in policing—from police killings of civilians to corruption to high rates of homicides—and policing itself is always held up as the answer. After the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, amid skyrocketing homicide rates, officers robbing residents, planting drugs, and even selling them, the police union said that the cause of the city’s grave “tipping point” was too few cops.

Language also has everything to do with how we understand this predicament. What we describe as failing is often working just as it has been intended to. Unfortunately, policing provides us with countless examples of this, among them low clearance rates for unsolved crime. “Clearance” refers to a crime cleared by arrest or cleared by “exceptional means” such as when an the perpetrator of the offense is identified but “elements beyond law enforcement’s control prevent the agency from arresting and formally charging the offender.”

The Washington Post  recently “identified the places in dozens of American cities where murder is common but arrests are rare.” The Post further noted that:

Police blame the failure to solve homicides in these places on insufficient resources and poor relationships with residents, especially in areas that grapple with drug and gang activity where potential witnesses fear retaliation. But families of those killed, and even some officers, say the fault rests with apathetic police departments. All agree that the unsolved killings perpetuate cycles of violence in low-arrest areas.

Detectives said they cannot solve homicides without community cooperation, which makes it almost impossible to close cases in areas where residents already distrust police. As a result, distrust deepens and killers remain on the street with no deterrent.”

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the low-arrest zones are primarily low-income Black areas. This is inseparable from the legacy of intentionally withholding resources from Black communities and constricting their growth. Discriminatory practices like redlining and Jim Crow laws may not look like they did decades ago, but their effects are still being felt to this day. Thus, we can see the intention to let crime go unsolved not as just a faulty aspect of policing, but as an inherent characteristic of policing in a society predicated on racial capitalism. It’s not the work of policing to solve crime as much as it’s the work of policing to solve crime according to the racial guidelines by which this society criminalizes and otherizes. This takes shape in oppressiveness like the conflation of Black people with gangs, Islam with terrorism, or Latinx people with cartels. Crime is something that has always been associated with blackness and therefore being Black has become a crime. And when blackness is a crime, “solutions” for the Black community are focused on criminal justice, like clearance rates.

“Chicago’s education advocates use a phrase suitable for this [policing] context: ‘broke on purpose,’” Stephanie Kollmann of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told me. “It means the government misdirects its resources in order to achieve and justify its policy objectives—cutting some programs, demanding resources for others. Austerity rhetoric is very favorable to policing: Programming, youth recreation, and community services will always be able to be cut back as luxuries, while enforcement is increasingly viewed as a necessary investment as conditions continue to deteriorate. Here in Chicago, scarcity logic was also used in order to simultaneously starve police misconduct investigations and invest in suppression squads and surveillance activities. Pouring more money into a structure like that only makes those problems bigger: more reliance on abusive tactics and less oversight, resulting in more mistrust and fewer closed cases. Then you’re right back to saying you need more.”

Measuring the health of a community on metrics like crime rates and criminal convictions is problematic. In 1975, there were nearly 2,000 murders in New York City but the city’s poverty rate was 15 percent which, as Harper‘s notes is “a figure lower than it has ever been since then.” It is also problematic because such metrics function under the same racist framework in which policing is grounded. This is part of the reason we need to delegitimize the police. It doesn’t make any sense to argue that the same police who are failing by not arresting enough are arresting too much in the communities that they treat like occupied territories. It’s contradictory to say that we have a problem with racism in policing and then say that the solution to low clearance rates is more policing. We cannot fix what was made to be broken or reform what is purposefully violent against us. If we do so, we increase the legitimacy of the institution of policing.

The mythology of the criminal justice system misleads us to believe it is driven by a desire for justice. But discussions around safety that pull us away from the crime of policing under racial capitalism are not true to actual progress. By moving beyond thinking about issues like clearance rates, we can start thinking about providing resources for communities. That would be a world where crime decreases because people have what they need instead of one in which police are something people think are so necessary. Furthermore, we should ask ourselves why such conversations about crime don’t include the police themselves, who absolutely murder with impunity. We shouldn’t have conversations about murder going unpunished that do not include the police because they provide a model of unaccountable violence in our society.

More policing and more surveillance are not solutions to violence. Carceral logic does not address the problems our communities face. Responses operating outside the institution of policing and in the interest of the material well-being of the people are needed. This means not relying on police to solve conflict or social problems but instead pushing to divest funding from them and putting those funds into education, mental health, and other resources for the places we live. Abolition is necessary, but for it to happen we must be willing to do the work of ensuring our communities have what’s needed. Without that, the possibility of achieving something better than what we know now is compromised by what we lack. The answer lies in destroying inequality through resource reallocation, not reinvestment in the violence waged against us that we’ve long been told is necessary for our well-being. What’s truly necessary is attaining the resources that our suffering communities need to thrive, and since we know policing has not brought us that, we should forgo what’s not working and create a world anew.