The Quiet Death of Community Policing

Much of the consternation about the current administration’s executive orders is over how to decode the intent from the bluster. While there is much focus on the rhetoric of the Administration’s immigration executive orders, other issues are being overlooked. Larson’s excellent piece notwithstanding, the Trump Administration’s criminal justice manifesto, “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community,” has not gotten its due as a troubling document. There are three major points that bear some unpacking, all of which point to an intensification of militarized and aggressive campaigns against communities of color and political opposition.


“The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”

As Larson’s piece makes clear, this is not simply a conventional well-wishing for public servants (“I wish our IRS agents the best in enforcing the tax code…”), but a declaration of intent against BlackLivesMatter (BLM). The necessity for a movement to take a stand and articulating and emphasizing the humanity of Black people is clear—Black lives have been taken for granted, forgotten, and crushed in ways that are not simply neglectful, but gratuitously violent. The immediate corollary, AllLivesMatter, was a poorly camouflaged negation of BLM’s intent—obviously all lives should matter, but they have not and do not, historically and contemporarily.

BlueLivesMatter, also arising after BLM, is even more insidious than the kneejerk anti-Blackness of AllLivesMatter. Policing is a job, not a racial or ethnic group (#IRSAgentsLivesMatter hasn’t really taken off), and BlueLives is a direct and aggressive statement of intent, casting police as the victims of a social conspiracy orchestrated by Black activists. This is patently false—2015 was one of the safest years to be a cop in recorded history and the platform for BLM contains no violence. And it’s working; at least one state has passed legislation protecting police as a special class, a designation usually reserved for legally protected categories like race/ethnicity, class, gender, religion, or disability, and more are on the way. To embrace BlueLives rhetoric is not expressing respect for the profession, but a declaration of intent against Black activists and communities.

If it’s not clear by now that law enforcement has a serious problem with race, there’s probably little convincing that can be done—the research on institutional racism in the criminal legal system at every level, particularly policing, is overwhelming. To paraphrase a recent piece, policing as a process is directed disproportionately toward Blacks and other people of color throughout its continuum including police deployments, stop-and-frisk policies, arrest decisions, and shooting decisions, both actual and simulated. The meaningful scholarly debate at this point is whether racism in the legal system is a feature or a bug. In other words, is racism is a product of biased actors in a fundamentally sound system or is it a product of the institution itself? Through the legal doctrine of “reasonable suspicion” established in Terry v. Ohio (1968), police essentially have no meaningful checks on their power to question and detain, and by routinely fearing for their life in shootings they can kill with near impunity. If the Trump Administration is entertaining BlueLivesMatter as serious policy strategy, police power is about to become even more totalizing than it already is.

Community Policing

Our country needs more law enforcement, more community engagement, and more effective policing.

This statement is simply bizarre. One can wince at the law enforcement buildup follow-through hinted at in the first section, but, despite his rhetorical support, Trump is poised to cut the funding for the very office that funds community policing, Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. What’s going on?

Community policing, the friendly, fuzzy side of law enforcement, has never been particularly well defined. The research of many scholars, including my own, has questioned the extent to which community policing is more or less propaganda to maintain police hegemony and offload political responsibility—that is, whatever changes are made under such a regime, regular police activity tends to continue apace. So friendly and fuzzy are these strategies that Kristian Williams reports that US military counterinsurgency efforts overseas rely directly on the organizational and informational tactics of community policing. That they are literally working from the same RAND playbook means that, under community policing, US citizens are analogous to Iraqi insurgents and subject to the same repressive techniques.

Further, as Radley Balko reminds us, most of the funding that the COPS office administered after the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill likely went to police militarization, not “community” efforts. Community policing is pro-active, but so are violent and coercive neighborhood gang suppression activities. For example, as LAPD’s website states, community policing in LA is bolstered by a healthy dose of militarized Metro Unit “suppression”—the same mass arrest, racial profiling tactics that were renounced in ’92 in favor of the gentler community approach. Community policing may have been political propaganda, it may have funneled money to SWAT units, and it may have been used to pacify righteous post-King unrest. And now it may be gone. Why get rid of clearly effective propaganda?

Violent Crime

The Trump Administration is committed to reducing violent crime. In 2015, homicides increased by 17 percent in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings rose by 50 percent over the past four years. There were thousands of shootings in Chicago last year alone….Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.

Most people who have been paying attention are aware that crime is not rising. We are in the middle of the longest sustained crime decline in recorded history. This, of course, is irrelevant; these statements aren’t meant to be factual, but to justify reprisal. Crime is a safe bet—despite record shattering declines in the crime rate, crime—lazy code for Black and Latino youth of color—will always exist and some is always too much.

The reprisals will be manifold. Chicago, long time stronghold of his political opponents, is already on the hit list, a threat Trump reiterated in late January. It has already begun. LA, Detroit, Baltimore, Ferguson, and many other cities (particularly their impoverished Black and Latino neighborhoods) have undergone federal occupation under more conventional administrations, letting us imagine those occupations as a baseline for what may occur. If the Administration can act as though Chicago is truly in “carnage,” the result may be little better than the Blackwater private defense contractors mobilized in New Orleans after Katrina where the number of post-flood kills was simply not recorded.

The other target is enhanced repression against so-called violent social movements. The legal tools are in place to charge nonviolent protesters—and journalists—with a decades of prison time. Republican lawmakers have responded to protesters—violent or not—with violent rhetoric, accusing them of “economic terrorism” and encouraging assaults with deadly weapons against protesters and bringing felony convictions with decades of prison time against journalists. And the danger is not just in governmental action, but in the failure of government to protect from private action. In South Dakota, the dogs were literally unleashed against Dakota Access Pipeline Water Protectors by private contractors affiliated with Trump’s economic and political interests.

The discussion over the past few weeks has been all about immigration and that’s entirely appropriate. But we cannot ignore the arsenal of legal and ideological tools being mobilized to crush dissent, institute martial law, and privatize the dirtier business of the administration. Doing so risks normalizing not only the rhetoric, but the actions that are sure to follow.