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Criminologist Bill Black says policing needs to positively involve the community without the alienating and destructive ‘broken windows’ type of policy

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Washington. Police shootings of unarmed black men and women, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the recent killing spree of police officers in Dallas have put race relations and policing front and center in the public discourse. However, in this discourse, history and facts are often distorted and overlooked. With us to examine some of the details of policing and structural racism is our guest, Bill Black. Bill is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He’s also a white-collar criminologist and a former financial regulator, and author of the book The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. And of course, he’s a regular contributor to the Real News. So Bill, some folks would be like, isn’t this a little bit out of Bill’s wheelhouse? We usually have you on to discuss Wall Street and white-collar crime. But you are a criminologist, and you have your Ph.D. in that, we should say. You recently wrote on the website New Economic Perspectives a series of articles really examining the issues of racism in policing, and also some of the myths being perpetuated against the police. So let’s begin with the summary of U.S. history of policing, as quickly as you can do it, and sort of divide it into the four eras that you describe with a possibility of a fifth. Can you just briefly take those on? BILL BLACK: Sure. So police departments didn’t exist, public police departments, until 1830 for the first time they existed. And in the South they basically didn’t exist until Reconstruction and its destruction by the so-called redeemers, the white racist group. So we look at the period after the destruction of Reconstruction when police forces get created, and they get created first as a very willing apparatus of the system of terror, because that’s how Reconstruction was destroyed, through terror organized originally by the Ku Klux Klan. So when the police are first created in the South, and the border states, they are a clear aspect of that terror. The second era is there’s fewer cases of organized attacks until we get basically around the 1920s. But there is the day-to-day racial, systemic, we are going to suppress blacks and to some extent poor whites as well. And the police force is going to serve as our means, and that goes well beyond the South and the border states to very large numbers of police departments elsewhere. You get this flurry around the 1920s that again should be important to people thinking about things today, because it was aimed largely at fears of immigrants, and such. But when you fear immigrants you don’t just attack immigrants, you attack blacks. And you don’t just attack poor blacks, you attack often blacks that are doing well commercially, to destroy them as in Tulsa, for example, and places where you actually had thriving black business communities that posed commercial competition, and were utterly destroyed in riots that were mostly not police, but the police of course not stepping in to prevent the riots against black folks. And you get in those, that era, blacks fighting back, but of course they’re horrifically outgunned and they’re defeated in every case, as you expect, with large loss of civilian life. Next era is the era of malign neglect, right. This is truly black lives don’t matter. It’s not even so much hostility, it’s why would we go in and police these areas? They’re dangerous, we might get hurt doing so. We don’t much care. So if blacks kill blacks, you know, no big deal. And it’s this era that has the crime rates, particularly violent, the most serious violent crimes. Murder and really severe assaults and armed robberies and such just go to extremely high rates. So we finally, then, get an era where, roughly 25 years ago, where malign neglect gets rejected. Gets rejected partly for political reasons with the rise of, this goes back more than 25 years, but of the Southern Strategy by Ronald Reagan and such, where he’s going to make a big deal about black crime. And it’s the era also when you have the myth that there’s an epidemic of black superpredators, and they use the word ‘feral’. Feral, primary meaning is a once-tame animal that reverts to being wild. In other words, someone that had been enslaved, tamed, and then becomes free and violent, and such. So these were–these are not figuratively dehumanizing, they are literally dehumanizing, that these criminals were not really fully human, that they were subhuman, and that they lacked all empathy, they were cold, remorseless killers, and such. This wasn’t just a Republican Southern Strategy. Infamously, Hillary Clinton adopted the superpredator idea, and it led to this era of mass incarceration, the 100:1 sentencing severity for crack versus powdered cocaine. Tom Frank goes through how Bill Clinton and the Republicans worked together when the sentencing commission, that’s the professionals, say, look, this is terrible. It’s a complete racial disparity. It makes no sense. Chemically crack and powdered cocaine are the same. You have to end this division. And the Democrats, the Democratic leadership coalition under Bill Clinton and the Republicans worked together to block the sentencing commission that was going to get rid of this disparity. So it’s a paradox, right. Black lives now matter. They matter enormously. But the response is incredibly hostile to the black community, and the idea that black criminals are very different than other criminals, vastly more dangerous and such, it’s the equivalent, if people have ever watched it, of Reefer Madness, and such. It’s all this thing about crack babies and, you know, we’re destroying the whole generations of blacks and the whole place is off the charts. And you get broken windows. And broken windows, again, is not a case of black lives don’t matter. Quite the opposite. Black lives matter enormously. We must go in ultra-aggressively with the police into the black communities and we must start stopping people and arresting people and fining people for even the most minor things that aren’t actually crimes, right? DESVARIEUX: Yes. But Bill, can we explain to folks that, just really quickly, who might not understand the broken windows policy? BLACK: Okay. So ‘broken windows’ is a metaphor, and the metaphor is that if there’s a building that’s been abandoned, and you don’t repair the windows quickly when one of them is broken, the local kids, which is to say males, young males in every racial group everywhere in the world, have a lot of criminality, as any male can tell you, right, in this era. So if you see the windows broken, guys like to break windows, and they will break all the windows. So if you don’t fix it quickly, the idea was you get endemic destruction. And the further theory was actually that it was critical to bring into policing. Which is not a bad idea, right? And the theory was that responsible black adults were afraid to take on the thugs, is the word the would have used, and that only if the police could make it safe for the adults to come out and provide the normal function of adults, which is keeping the kids, especially the young males, from doing crazy things, could the community get together and have the social resources, the social networks, to dramatically reduce crime. So it was actually a good thing for the black community if the police, who in that era were overwhelmingly white, still–and diversity’s increasing through this time period among police ranks, but it’s still predominantly white. It’s a good thing for the white cops to come in very aggressively, can take care of the–famous if you were in New York would be the squeegee men. You’d stop your car at the stop sign. They would pop out. And they would, quote-unquote, clean your windshield, but of course they were actually making your windshield yucky, unless you paid them $2 not to make it yucky. And so this, of course, affected not just the black community but the white community driving through areas. They got furious, as you would expect, because it happened all the time, all over the place, made you very upset and such. And the squeegee men became the symbol in New York city of day-to-day tiny little extortion and the need to take back the community from the criminal element. This is the phrases that they would have used, and such. And then the supposed miracle that would occur out of all this is that the black community adults would rise, take back the streets, and black communities would thrive. But of course, this produces enormous alienation. DESVARIEUX: Yes. Because Bill, what you kind of described, it sounded like you see that there is some, some level of justice or you, like you said, the community getting involved more directly with policing. That there’s an aspect of good there. But it goes terribly awry, we have mass incarceration, more racial profiling, [inaud.], all of that kind of starts being bred out of these policies of, that you mention, in that last era. But how could one possibly avoid this sort of malign aspect of these, of the way that Democrats and Republicans approach the high crime rate in black communities? BLACK: Okay. So not all, in fact not most, cities that went to community policing went to broken windows. New York City did, famously, and New York City is far more famous than anyone else. And here’s the first paradox and key. As soon as you get rid of malign neglect, and the police come into the communities, crime rates for really serious violent crimes go down. They go down quickly, they go down dramatically, and they keep going down for 25 years. Right? So that–good thing. Now, if you’re in New York, and New York is the Big Apple and the famous thing, and Rudy Giuliani is taking credit for it. They say, see, broken windows. Except the same thing is happening in 50 other major cities who aren’t using broken windows. So you’re right. What my series explores is there is a possibility of a win-win-win where you get the advantages of going away from malign neglect, but you involve the community positively instead of having this inherently alienating broken windows response, and that we were actually moving in many places, including New York City, towards closer to some of these win-win-wins, and now the whole thing has been hijacked again into highly racialized, highly politicized, deliberate return to the Southern Strategy by Trump. DESVARIEUX: Give us some specific examples of these win-win-win policies that you mention. BLACK: Right. So in many communities, and this comes from criminologists, but it comes from community itself and it comes from law enforcement officers, who we all LEOs, right, they’re not hostile to these things. So you work with the community, and you do prioritize violent crimes as one of the things you do. But you also, for example, there’s a movement called [Ceasefire] that some of the viewers may be familiar with. A lot of the violence does, indeed–extreme violence–associated with gangs and the terrible things about gangs, again, they’re shooting each other, but when you shoot with automatic weapons and you’re not very competent to begin with with these weapons, you don’t much care, you kill other people on top of that, and you create cycles of reprisal. And so the Ceasefire movement, again, cooperative among the community, particularly black and Latino communities, working with law enforcement officers, working with government officials and such, tries to intervene, to stop this cycle of retribution and such. And in a number of cities, as long as the people, the effort stays very active, they’ve been proven quite successful. That’s an example. There’s not a single cookie-cutter thing that works everywhere. And as we’ll, I hope, discuss at future points, it isn’t all policing. In other words, guns. Reducing people who are addicted to drugs, that want to get off drugs. Mental health centers. Economics, that once we stop this mass criminalization it gets vastly easier for people to get jobs. It’s really hard to get jobs with that kind of criminal record. It gets a lot harder for families, right. Not that many women want to get married to somebody that has an extensive criminal record and isn’t going to be able to get a job. DESVARIEUX: Or if you’re in affordable housing, you can have someone that, let’s say you’re interested in even living with you, because they have a criminal record. BLACK: That’s correct. So all of this gets in the way of marriage formation for people who want to be married as well. And you know, it is true that if you have more parents, and you know, that’s the first step to creating the village is you get more people in the household who are actively pitching in helping raise kids, and such. And you know, anybody who’s had kids, we have three, knows how overwhelming it is to have kids. So it isn’t just the system. It isn’t just policing. It should be much broader. And indeed, a number of the things my colleagues do in UMKC economics on federal job guarantee programs would be among the best possible stuff we could do in terms of crime reduction, as well. So we need to think much more broadly than is conventionally done. DESVARIEUX: All right. Bill Black, always a pleasure having you on the program. Thank you so much for being with us. BLACK: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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