The Over/Under Problem of Policing

Consider the following scene:


Two things. Old law review articles are filled with gems like these. This scene is taken from the classic “Philadelphia Police Practice and the Law of Arrest” (U Penn L. Rev., 1951; p. 1203). PDF is available here. I love this passage because it gives me reliable information packaged with a powerful anecdote. Now I got a story, directly observed at the time, that I can use. The authors, Paula R. Markowitz and Walter I. Summerfield, Jr., reviewed arrest records, interviewed criminal justice officials, and observed police on patrol.

The latter is so important. Without that, I can’t trust what you’re saying. This goes for journalists and activists today. Go on patrol. Watch police officers work. Then report what you see. You can, and should, enrich direct observation with context and data, but first tell the story of policing as it happens on the street.

Since I can’t travel back and watch police work in the 1950s and 1960s, I cherish articles like these. Plus, at that time, police said all sorts of crazy things to academics and journalists. Racism simply wasn’t a problem yet for police officers; it didn’t get them into much trouble with their superiors, the only trouble that mattered. That would change by the mid-1960s. Police started to realize they could get in trouble for using a racial slur in front of a reporter.

Second, I chose this passage because it speaks to a problem I am trying to understand better. The above anecdote reads to me as very tragic. For the obvious reason, the officer is clearly racist. There’s something else going on, however, that is less explicit. Here’s a man, a black man who lives in a tough neighborhood, who just witnessed a terrifying crime. He saw a man pull out a gun and shoot up a bar. The cop could not care less. He showed up because that’s his job. When he saw it was a black man–even one “well-dressed”–complaining about violent crime, he decided to harass the man instead of using his valuable intelligence to track down a dangerous individual.

Clearly, this witness did not abide by the “no snitch” rule. Clearly, we can see the roots of “no snitching” in interactions like these. Of course, it’s just one story. But I’ve seen dozens of cases like this. Fearful residents call cops to handle a dangerous individual. Cops arrive and then proceed to harass, brutalize, and even arrest the complainants. They do nothing about the violent criminal.

This, in a nutshell, is the historic problem of over- and under-policing in poor, urban, and predominantly minority neighborhoods. It continues today. It is perhaps less brazen, but it continues all the same.

The over/under problem of policing cries out for more policing. If only the cops would just do their jobs, the reasoning goes. I agree with this up to a point. Cops should try to solve more crimes. That would bring justice to the victims and their families and communities. But I worry about the impulse to have police do more. Do more of what is key here. Proactive patrol? I’m not so keen on that. When black residents in the 1950s and 1960s complained about over-policing, they sometimes complained about incidents like the one above. More often they had in mind the top-down, quota-driven stop-and-frisk campaigns, which got going in the late 1950s; the illegal home raids; and the trigger-happy cop.

Perhaps, the over/under problem presents a case of two ships passing each other at night. Community members want “more” police protection. Police respond with arrests, frisks, and so on. Is that justice? Does that offer residents greater protection? I haven’t seen any evidence that unequivocally supports zero-tolerance or Broken Windows policing as a crime deterrent. Yet we can’t seem to shake our faith in it. It certainly “seems” responsive to community needs. It’s a better service than what that Philly cop provided in 1951 (though that is an example of reactive policing).

Tragically, after all these years, we haven’t changed our approach to the men on the corner. Some residents want them gone. Perhaps these residents are “respectable” folk. Perhaps not. Either way they want safe streets. Plus, some may know the men are involved in the drug trade. Surrounding them are abandoned buildings, derelict streets. The last thing these residents want to encounter on their way to the store is a small crowd of young men who are up to no good. So they phone police. The cops arrive and “handle” the situation. They clear the corner. So it goes on.


3 thoughts on “The Over/Under Problem of Policing

  1. Nice post, Alex. Would you call for a complete end to proactive patrolling? Should uniformed cops ever drive around when they aren’t answering calls for service? Should they ever walk the beat? If so, should they be looking for crime? Surely you think a cop should spring into action if she sees a violent crime, like a robbery, unfolding before her very eyes, right? What if it’s something that looks like a soon-to-be robbery, like the facts of Terry v. Ohio? Or what if a veteran cop who really knows the people on his post happens to see someone he doesn’t recognize–a guy just walking around with no apparent purpose? Should the officer walk up to the guy and ask what brings him to the neighborhood? I share your sense that we invite problems by telling police to be “proactive” and to root out criminals before they strike. But the opposite approach–having police who are 100% reactionary–seems obviously wrong to me. Where do you draw the line?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Adam. (You’re the first at the blog!) You’ve hit upon the nub of the problem. No, I don’t think it is possible or desirable to end proactive patrol entirely. Officers will always have discretion and should be allowed to exercise that discretion. Otherwise, as your common-sense examples suggest, what is the point of a police officer? I think serious problems do arise when police departments organize their crime-fighting strategy in such a manner that practically compels police officers to make proactive street stops–even in circumstances where reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is lacking. I think quotas lead toward this outcome. I also think more resources should be devoted to criminal investigation as opposed to patrol. More generally–and ultimately desirable–I think we should devote more non-police resources (e.g., healthcare, education, employment, housing, and so on) to the problems of poor urban communities. I tend to see the concentration of violent crime in these communities as the product of structural inequality. We should address that cause.
      But, admittedly, these are relatively idle thoughts, based not at all on actual experience on the beat but from academic study. They struck me as I was reading the accounts of police-citizen interactions from the postwar period. Many of these interactions were shot through with the racial animus and unprofessional hostility that prevailed among many officers at the time. That certainly was a factor in why those patrol practices were a disastrous failure. But I also think that the stop-and-frisk campaigns that began in that era contributed to the distrust and resentment that black communities generally felt toward police departments. Which is to say, their formal elements, which persist today, continue to undermine police-community relations.
      Perhaps what I’m getting at is that proactive patrol is better when not performed systematically but left (for the most part) to the discretion of patrol officers. It can be ruinous as top-down policy, but obviously has merit in the hands of a skilled beat officer, such as John Terry.
      I’m curious what you think of all this, though I got some sense from your prodding (and good) questions.


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