I don't need to revisit the hundreds of police killings around this country over the past few years (not to mention the dozens of recorded encounters) to know that we have to start talking about cops; and I think, with respect to the readers of Rooflines and many workers in progressive community and economic development institutions around the country, that we understand that Black lives do indeed matter, yet the country has for far too long insisted on the opposite. But I must admit that I remain incredibly underwhelmed by the responses I've seen from many community and economic development organizations around this issue, considering it is actually quite central to our work.
It's clear that many of the most downtrodden communities in the country—from declining mid-size cities in the Rust Belt to the inner cities and now the poor inner-ring suburbs of our largest cities, to poor small cities around the country—suffer from acute governmental indifference, EXCEPT in the case of the deployment of police. Politicians of all stripes decry community violence, but the popular response from cities and states is to double down on police funding. The predictable result is the growing of our already obscenely large population of imprisoned people, and further abusing communities already suffering from intense violence. Ultimately, already poor communities are made poorer—not only due to the indignities of dealing with an occupying force in the police, who manage to be both indifferent to local suffering and feckless in investigating actual crimes—but by the removal of youth and adults from their communites and marking people with an arrest or incarceration record for life. In some of the most policed areas of the country it is hard to find an adult without a record of some sort and, of course, this has severe repercussions for folks' ability to find work and get further education if they choose.
Even in states with “Ban the Box” regulations, there is some evidence that employers will simply not hire Blacks or Hispanics rather than “risking” hiring an ex-offender. Of course, the economists call this a mere case of “statistical discrimination” when we should call it what it is—racism. Thus we find that in many areas we can no longer just insist on trying to destigmatize those folks who have been caught up in the system, but we must attack the very core of the criminalization of whole communities.
The first step in this is to seriously question the value of the use of police as the uber-response to all of our social ills in contemporary America. Such an approach literally steals people from the very communities, robs them of their lives and the ability to build wealth and education in mainstream institutions because we literally lock out those who have been locked up. This is a vital, and entirely under considered issue in the larger field of community and economic development, but it is one we must fully embrace.
We must look toward joining explicitly with prison reform and prison abolition groups in demanding not only the reform of prisons but also the reform of policing as we know it. We need to demand policies that limit the exposure people have to the police in marginalized communities, as well as funding for alternative institutional responses to police. This means restoring funding for mental health services, funding emergency responses that are independent of police, adequately funding and desegregating our schools, passing Ban the Box legislation, and demanding the de-militarization of police forces along with thoroughly vetting applicants and supporting their ongoing training. If we really desire the creation of healthy communities where everyone has the opportunity to truly pursue their best lives, then we can no longer sit by and watch the potential of whole communities be stolen in the night and locked away. We have to start talking about our cops.
(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)