In light of recent events involving law enforcement occuring from Ferguson, MO to New York City, professors, activists, and a law enforcement officer discussed the function of police, over-policing, and the disconnect between police and the neighborhoods they serve in a panel discussion at the Law School on Wednesday.
The panel, titled “Lessons from Ferguson,” featured a variety of perspectives on the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which prompted a national discussion about police brutality, transparency, and racial profiling. Other deaths of black men at the hands on the police, including Eric Garner of Staten Island, NY and Tamir Rice of Cleveland, OH, have furthered the discussion.
Cathy Cohen, chair of the University of Chicago’s Political Science department, introduced the panelists: Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and coordinator of law enforcement in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death; Charlene Carruthers (M.A. `09), a national coordinator of the Black Youth Project; Andrew Papachristos (Ph.D `07), an associate professor of sociology at Yale University; Jamie Kalven, co-founder of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based documentary production company; and moderator Steve Edwards, executive director of the Institute of Politics.
Cohen began the discussion by arguing that poor neighborhoods are underprotected and over-policed. “Under neoliberalism we have witnessed the disinvestment in poor and urban areas,” she said. “The neoliberal response has been to bracket, isolate, and police those dangerous and devastated areas.”
At the same time, the racial makeup of the police department is the opposite. “Recruiting minority officers is tough,” Johnson said. “In Ferguson, we’re talking about a department of 53 officers; [seven] of those [are] minorities, and [forty-six] are white. A lot of those don’t live in the community they’re working in for a variety of reasons.”
To address the community-police disconnect, Johnson proposed required community service for officers to assimilate them to their neighborhoods. “The law enforcement in Ferguson do not know their community,” he said. “When you don’t know someone, you have a fear of someone…. People said, ‘Were you afraid?’ I wasn’t afraid because Ferguson is who I am.”
Carruthers framed the issue of policing as a systemic rather than an individual problem, questioning whether police are necessary in society.
“The system itself is rotten at its core,” she said. “I’m less invested in talking about the character of the police, and more invested in talking about the character of the system.” She said that the system is set up to control people and serve capitalist interests, rather than solely to protect.
Papachristos argued that racial demography and culture are both at stake in policing. “Most police departments in this country look like Ferguson’s,” he said. “In New Haven, almost all of the police officers live outside of New Haven, and they’re actually socialized into understanding where the ghetto is and what life is like from everybody else on the force. So it’s not just structure. There’s also a cultural element.”
Accountability can also be important. According to Kalven, “Failure to hold those who are accountable has immense, immense unacknowledged costs.”
“Police efficacy should no longer be about crime rates, but satisfaction with police,” Papachristos said, likening it to customer satisfaction. “We know that crime rates and arrest rates don’t always correlate. In fact, we can drive down crime with fewer arrests.”
Panelists proposed a variety of measures to solve these policing issues.
Johnson corroborated Papachristos, arguing that police departments which exist on ticket revenue are incentivized improperly. Carruthers proposed a requirement for students to engage in critical conversations throughout the curriculum, focused on examining the police state in Chicago. Kalven pushed direct involvement of the University’s Crime Lab and proposed that the lab explore the practices of the University police.
“The conversation does not end tonight,” Cohen said.