Police Investments

I think we invest too much in police. I don’t mean in terms of dollars and cents but in that we expect police to provide “justice” when that is not what they are designed to do.

When police rough up a prisoner, shoot an unarmed suspect, or make pedestrian or traffic stops, critics in the public are quick to point to these acts as unjust. Sometimes they are. Often they are not – at least not strictly, that is, legalistically or procedurally. Police are given wide leeway by the courts, politicians, prosecutors, and their commanders to use force to protect themselves and the public. A cop can use the voluminous traffic code to justify virtually any traffic stop. Police can easily point to the times that unarmed suspects have hurt or even killed an officer to justify killing a man not carrying a gun.

Beyond the specifics of each encounter, critics in the public tend to invest too much significance in the police as agents of justice. Police rarely mete out clean justice. Not only is due process messy but our criminal courts are poor vehicles for preserving the spirit of due process. Plea bargains are the norm. People with little means choose the least bad option given them. Municipal courts run on fines. Police belong to a system where their commanders expect them to be productive, i.e., make arrests or stops, and produce revenue, i.e., defendants, for the city. When those defendants fail to pay, the court can issue the warrant and police must execute it, i.e, make an arrest.

Taking yet another step back, the death of Laquan McDonald — a black 17-year-old shot sixteen times by white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke — and the countless others like him — young black men and women in the inner-city who are either shot by police or their peers — is inevitable in a system that degrades the lives of the poor. The police have the most direct power over the lives of the poor. But they are not directly responsible for the grinding poverty that churns out troubled kids like Laquan McDonald. After his death, it was natural and just to blame the police.

But, remember, police are not agents of justice — at least not in the sense that many seem to mean, where fixing the police will eliminate the problem. You can make procedural fixes to police without ever arriving at the destination of “justice.” You can create nicer cops, you can ban quotas, you can restrict use of force — but so long as there exists dire poverty, so long as social services remain inadequate, so long as the welfare state is gutted, so long as the public turns to the police to mete out justice on poor urban street corners, we will continue to produce Laquan McDonalds. And we will never achieve a broader, more equitable, more substantive justice deserving of the name.


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