Police Brutality: What Local Governments are Doing to Put Out the Fire
It’s uncomfortable to turn on the news and not see reports of police brutality, racial unrest, and the long judicial processes of determining what use of force is justified and what isn’t. One of the biggest problems that communities are facing is the lack of uniformity across the nation as to what constitutes an excessive use of force. However, this doesn’t mean that it is the federal government’s problem. Every community is different and faces unique challenges, making uniform national policy difficult to apply. From the presidency to state legislatures, police brutality has become more of a campaign issue than a real social justice problem. The quickest path to dealing with these issues statistically is on a local government level. The following are measures local governments throughout the United States are taking to lower the number of incidents of excessive force used by police officers.
Police all across the United States are stretched entirely too thin and the statistics prove it. For years, one of the most popular campaign platforms has been for a candidate to proclaim that he or she is “tough on crime” and that their opponent is a “softie.” Citizens rush to the polls and vote for the candidate that seems the toughest without realizing the number of things that are defined as crimes and the lack of differentiation between violent and nonviolent crimes. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. While state legislatures are responsible for the passage of many of these laws, local governments have much of the control over their enforcement.
California has passed over 1,000 new crime bills in the past 25 years. Michigan enforces 3,102 crimes and New York City has over 10,000 potential ways you can commit a crime. Among these crimes are spitting in the subway, wearing saggy pants, loitering, being in a park after hours, panhandling, and drinking alcohol in public. Two weeks ago, in Southwest Houston, a high speed chase ensued over a tail light being out. Granted, the best course of action is typically to stop when police try to pull someone over, one has to ask; Is a broken tail light worth endangering innocent lives with high speed chases on crowded roadways? Is the person fleeing the scene just because they can’t afford a hike in their insurance, or because they have drugs in the vehicle? These are the tough choices public safety officials make in a matter of a few seconds.
The War on Drugs
With few exceptions, most people agree that drug use is a detriment to society. Much of the border violence that is so heavily cited when politicians speak about immigration is a result of drug cartels that get so extremely rich from bringing drugs into the U.S. that they are willing to do so by means of force. Grassroots efforts from citizens in cooperation with city governments are starting conversations on new ways to tackle the issue. The Denver City Council in cooperation with the District Attorney’s office started by loosening enforcement of marijuana possession laws and saw a drop in the local crime rate better than the national average. The Colorado legislature took notice and with one stroke of a pen put illegal marijuana dealers out of business by decriminalizing it.
Due to pressure by city government, District Attorneys, and advocate groups, voters in California passed Proposition 47 in November 2014, reducing some drug possession and property crime felonies to misdemeanors. In turn the estimated $150 million per year savings was reinvested to support mental health and drug abuse treatment, school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, and other programs serving as alternatives to incarceration.
Former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Howling said, “Nixon announced the war on drugs when I was put in charge of the narcotic enforcement effort for the Los Angeles Police Department. We have imprisoned 43 million people for nonviolent drug offenses. We fractured communities. We divided families. Each year I failed. I didn’t stop the flow of drugs. I didn’t do anything to reduce addiction. The answer is to treat drug addiction as a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. In the last 40 years we’ve spent 1.3 trillion dollars on this drug war and we’ve accomplished nothing.”
From 1980 to 2008 the number of incarcerated Americans ballooned from 500,000 to 2.3 million, with nearly half that number consisting of nonviolent offenders. The average stoner can’t put down the bag of Cheetos and turn off the cartoons long enough to commit violent acts.
Voters and city governments across America are taking up legislation and refocusing efforts on violent crimes like gang violence, rape, and murder rather than non-violent addicts, many of whom can be better served in hospitals and treatment facilities. Law enforcement themselves are pointing out the fact that branding nonviolent addicts as felons only serves to take away any job prospects due to employment background checks and turns them into ‘real’ criminals when they suddenly have no means to support themselves. Taking a new approach to drug issues has led to less chances for conflict between police and citizens.
Redirecting Police and District Attorneys
In 2011, New York City prioritized police to enforce low-level offenses resulting in more marijuana arrests in one year than the total arrests from 1981 to 1995. In 2013, a coalition of grassroots organizations held a public forum for the Brooklyn District Attorney candidates to discuss the connections between the war on drugs and jail overcrowding. Citizens encouraged candidates to consider re-prioritizing their enforcement of low-level offenses. A similar mayoral forum was held, and citizens changed the public mindset so that both Republican and Democratic candidates publicly supported decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and other low-level crimes. Brooklyn’s District Attorney said that his office would not prosecute low-level marijuana possessions. In response to the financial and human costs of the incarceration of low level offenses, city council members in New York City are working to change some of the City’s most common offenses from criminal to civil issues.
Cities across America are rethinking low-level offences and to what degree that enforcement improves public safety. While littering is pretty annoying, isn’t it much easier to just pick up the trash yourself rather than ask a policeman to arrest the man who threw it out?