Black America is over-policed and under-protected

Why is this so hard for white Americans to understand? Maybe they’re not trying.

December 7, 2020 6:00 am

The ruins of what used to stand at an intersection near the Minneapolis Police Department Fifth Precinct. Macklin Caruso/Minnesota Reformer.

The University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs recently released a report detailing the “over-policed and under-protected” experience of residents of north Minneapolis. The report gives extensive evidence — including data and interviews with residents — on the history and dubious future potential of the Minneapolis Police Department to supply safety for all the residents. 

When asked to rate their perceptions of “neighborhood safety,” one-third of the respondents said “poor” and nearly half said “fair”; just 20% of respondents rated their neighborhood safety as “good” or “very good.” 

Yet even when participants described feeling safe, it was often because they saw their own block as relatively safe or because they took great lengths to ensure their own safety, rather than a positive evaluation of overall neighborhood conditions or policing. 

Residents described how they reduced their risk of victimization, including staying at home — especially at night — and avoiding “hot spots” and dangerous people in the community. 

Most people interviewed described some level of concern about neighborhood crime, including gun violence, open-air drug markets, prostitution, teenage loitering and public fights, domestic disputes, high-speed traffic and intimate partner violence. 

Faced with this concern, however, residents are dissatisfied with police: “On average, less than a third of respondents reported that police ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ tried to do what was best, explained their decisions, gave residents voice, and made fair and neutral decisions.”

Deep in the psyche of the American public is the idea that government is inefficient and ineffective, while also being overweening and oppressive. Think of the Tea Party. So it’s curious that this idea — so central to huge swaths of American public attitudes — somehow escapes us when it comes to urban police departments. 

But there’s probably no greater example of the tyrannical government so many Americans claim to hate and fear, than the urban police department.

On the one hand, urban police departments do not protect Black Americans from crime. They solve a pitiful number of rapes, robberies, shootings and even homicides. Use this Washington Post tool to look at all the murders that did not result in an arrest — half of them. The clearance rate on lower level violent crime is usually even worse. (And when they don’t solve crimes, guess who are often the victims?) 

Imagine a job in which you were paid handsomely and given applause and political influence even if you succeeded half the time or less. 

And on the other hand, Black people and Black men especially are frequently faced with harassment and, as in the case of George Floyd … far worse. We’ve granted police the power to stop, detain, beat and arrest. We’ve incarcerated millions, broken up families, destroyed lives. The supposed checks on their vast power — like prosecutors, politicians and press — just as often cozy up to police influence, always giving the benefit of the doubt no matter the record of egregious malfeasance.

Just consider Mayor Jacob Frey, whose own city burned after the killing of George Floyd. The Police Department then turned on its own citizens with impunity, while at the same time making little effort to stop the destruction. 

And where is the mayor on the current budget debate? Defending a massive police overtime pile of cash. 

Let’s consider how we got here:   

As American cities became so large, the constable/night watch system became useless in law enforcement. (Not to mention the night watch was not a lofty position, often a punishment in itself.) Economics drove the creation of modern American police primarily to protect shipping in the north and slavery in the South and all the intermingling in-between.

Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University, has noted that police forces in the South developed as slave patrols whose purpose was to hunt runaway enslaved people and prevent enslaved rebellions. The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. 

After the Civil war and during Reconstruction, local sheriffs in the South adopted the learned behavior and tactics of the earlier slave patrols. This was institutional knowledge. They enforced “vagrancy laws” — written to legally re-enslave under the 13th Amendment of constitution — which amounted to harassment, intimidation, and plundering of freed, formerly enslaved people and ultimately went on to enforce segregation. 

Meanwhile, in the north, bureaucratic police organizations were influenced by commercial interests because, as Potter notes, “ensuring a safe and tranquil community for the conduct of commerce required an organized system of social control.” 

Over-policed and under-protected derives its state from the fundamental design of American policing. American policing was designed to capture Black people and not to protect them, to imprison and lock down Black bodies with the “organized system of social control” Potter describes.

The protection was not in the design, therefore is only incidental to the existence.

That is the birth of American police.

What comes next? Police in the Jim Crow South took on the task of enforcing a racial caste system. (They were doing the same in the north, just without explicit force of law.) 

Then many — think Bull Connor or the State Patrol on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — fought on the wrong side of the Civil Rights battle. 

And then they became soldiers in the Drug War in which — shocker — the bad guys were seemingly mostly Black.  

When we examine that history, we realize much of the American identity about civic valor and honor is tied to an old diseased tree whose seed was planted long before you. And that tree borne of a poisoned seed is the only thing between you and the danger, and the danger is quite naturally everything not like you.

“It’s a valorous tree, it’s a good tree” as we stood around the tree, knowing the disease is so pervasive that it must come down. In fact, the tree didn’t have any human characteristics at all, it was simply an old tree, the only tree we’ve ever known in this spot, older than all of us. An old tree showing us all the proof and signs of disease beyond repair and needing to come down. 

And, luckily because of the nature of things, we could plant another and in 150 years it would be taller and stronger than that so-called valorous tree. In the meantime, we knew we could make shade and comfort as good or better than that old tree could even provide. But instead we just love our old tree beyond any kind of common sense. You love your tree for all it represents and none for what it actually is.

I have a mouse trap and I decided to poorly retrofit it so it could become a fun cheese catapult for my kids. No matter what I say it has evolved into, it is still by design a mouse trap with all the inherent dangers to my kid’s little fingers. You get it — I know you do. Now if I try to retrofit a slave catcher, despite its design, what do you think the result might be if I tried to reform it, over the years and years, if I try to ignore its design? 

I know you get the construction. I know you get the analog. 

I know white folks are capable of the cognitive work to understand this. They can receive, select, store, transform, develop and recover information from external stimuli provided by the Minneapolis Police Department’s activity since May 25. White folks have knowledge of the existence of over-policed and under-protected.

So, something must be at work in the psychology, where beliefs are born.

Look: I don’t blame you that you devoured baby food as a baby; I blame you for ambling up to the highchair, squeezing yourself in, popping open that tiny jar and devouring it as a grown-ass analytical adult.

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D.A. Bullock
D.A. Bullock

D.A. Bullock, a 2017 Bush fellow, is a filmmaker and media artist who lives in north Minneapolis.