American citizens are facing thousands of dollars in fines and jail time for breaking state-ordered pandemic restrictions. PAR and The Masters Report discuss how profit can still be extracted by police during the coronavirus outbreak.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Just a reminder, I want you to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at email@example.com, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and that I appreciate them.
Now, our commitment to tell the truth about policing has never been more important. Think about it. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, isn’t it incumbent upon the media to question the assumptions that brought us here? Because we think, on this show, that we are at a pivotal moment in human history. What is happening now exposes not just how ill-prepared we are to confront the COVID-19 virus, but how much previous policies were flawed and dangerous and contributed to the existential threat we are dealing with now.
Let’s look at some data to put this idea in perspective. First of all, it’s worth noting that the coronavirus epidemic is, in part, a grand social experiment in the root causes of crime. Shortly after the lockdowns were rolled out across the country, police predicted a crime wave, but so far, and I emphasize that this is a preliminary assessment, the data does not bear out that prediction.
Look at this graph from the website The Marshall Plan. It shows crime trends in four major cities that had been affected by the pandemic: Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The graph reveals that crime has dropped anywhere from 19 to 42%. Now, I know this could change, and I understand it’s only preliminary data, but certainly the numbers demand we ask a fundamental question: How much policing is necessary, and how much is not?
It’s an important query that is made even more critical by this fact. As cities across the country have beefed up police departments with federal grants and civil asset forfeiture, they decrease spending on public health departments. That is spending dwindled on the true frontline, the first responders for the pandemic, which, again, prompts us to ask, “Was all the spending really necessary, and was the emphasis on law enforcement over public health a deadly mistake?”
To help me discuss both the past, present, and future of America’s law enforcement, I’m joined by two people who have covered American policing extensively. John Masters is the host of the Masters Report, a very popular YouTube channel that covers police brutality and abuse across the country. John, it is great to have you. Thank you so much for joining me.John Masters: Oh, no, no, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.Taya Graham: Stephen Janis is a reporter for the Real News Network and the cohost of the Police Accountability Report. Steven, thank you for joining me out in the field.Stephen Janis: Hey, Taya. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.Taya Graham: So, John, anyone who watches your channel knows that you have been calling cops to account for years. What’s your take on the drop in crime, given that police are being less aggressive than usual?John Masters: You need to create a problem before you can have a solution. I’m pretty clear, and I think it’s clear to everybody since the government keeps growing the police department, they never have enough people, because there’s always way too much crime. Okay? If all of these people don’t go behind bars, there’ll be chaos in the streets. Okay?
Well, what we’re having right now is people that are involved in nonviolent crimes. Okay? Which you shouldn’t be in jail anyways, unless you’re stealing somebody’s property or damaging their property or you actually hurt somebody, to where we have a victim. Okay? You shouldn’t be behind jail anyways. It’s just a form of debtor’s prison, and the government’s the only one that can do it. “Until you pay this corporate fine for a misdemeanor or an infraction, whatever, we’re going to put you in jail.” That’s debtor’s prison.
So there is no actual victim to it. So, essentially, we’ve got all these people being let out of jail. We’ve got less cops out on the streets. Again, we don’t have chaos.Taya Graham: So how much is this the result of stay-at-home orders, or do you think it’s something else?John Masters: We have less people out on the streets, which means that there’s less victims. Okay? For the police to take, and I hate to use the term victim, but it is extortion. I mean, if you do a rolling stop and there’s nobody around, you harm nobody, and yet you’re still going to get that ticket, because the city needs the revenue. They tell the police, “Ticket everybody. Ruin everybody’s name. We don’t care if it’s legal or not. If you run into a problem, then don’t ruin the name. Okay? But still, try to ruin the name. Do everything that you can to get their name and address and phone number.”
So when we have less people for them to … I’ve got to use the word prey upon, which is what they’re doing. I could be politically correct and say enforcing the law so everybody’s safe. I could say that, but it’s really not what’s occurring, because, in many cases, and probably most all of the cases, they’re really not protecting anybody.Taya Graham: What is the difference between policing in a country like Mexico, as opposed to the United States?
John Masters: In Mexico, for instance, and this is every other country besides the EU or any civilized country. Okay? Which includes the US and Canada. Most people don’t have insurance, even though you’re required to have it. Most people don’t even stop at the stop signs. It’s a suggestion to stop. Okay? Same thing with a yellow light. That’s a suggestion to think about, sometimes even a red light. Look both ways. Okay? That’s what that means.
There’s not accidents, and Tijuana’s a big city. Okay? Don’t get me wrong. I mean, it’s not New York, but it’s still a really busy city, and people don’t get in accidents. I’m going to tell you why: because it’s self-preservation. They can’t afford to fix the fricking car, just like us. Okay? We can’t afford to fix our cars. So if we don’t have insurance, we’re going to police ourselves so we don’t have to get the damn thing fixed.
Taya Graham: Now, when we talked before the show, you discussed an idea that perhaps we could disband police departments and shift to a sheriff system. Can you describe a little bit more of what the disbanding of police might look like?
John Masters: Now, remember what I was talking about, setting up? The closer you get government to the people, okay, the more responsive the government has to be. It has to. Also, the more difficult it is for lobbyists and special interest groups, which is what the police union is, is to get sway. It’s much easier to sway the Senate and the state representatives, if we’re talking on a state level, than it is to go to each individual district within a city and try to sway them towards agreeing with you or making it a law or whatever.
So a few cities and a few counties are actually setting up bills to where we can vote on whether or not to disband our city police department. I really like that, because it begins to make them accountable. But instead of going with the sheriff’s office, because, again, it’s too big. The sheriff covers the whole county. He can screw over one little city and still get reelected. Correct? I mean, he can still garner enough votes, and especially if he has enough money to be able to advertise his way back into office.
So if you had an overshare, which is our typical one that covers the county, and then each individual district had … You could call them sub-sheriffs, call them constables, come up with a name. You can even call him chiefs. Okay> the chief of this district. I don’t care about the name. The point of the matter is he’s voted in office. If this cop starts screwing up and he doesn’t keep his cops in line, then he’s going to get voted out of office. We can go around with a petition and make sure it’s done anytime.
So, I mean, you would have elections every what, four years or five? Whatever you want to make it. Okay? But there needs to be a clause in there, because, if you ever notice, politicians tend to be angels their last year of service, but right after they get elected, they’re like, “All right, let’s get this bill passed. Hey, lobbyists. Got your back. You’re going to be ready for me next elections, right? Okay, let’s pass this bill, too. Yeah. Boo-yah.” Okay?
Now, their last year, all of a sudden, they’re all for the people. Okay? I mean, “I’m not going to waste that money. This is the people’s money, and I think it’s going to cut into your rights.” So we need to be able to make it to where … and this is kind of similar in our government now, although it’s very difficult to do, but we need to be able to get a petition of everybody that’s within that district. Okay? Say 60% disapproval, signing the petition, of the populace, well, he’s out of office, and you vote somebody else in.
Taya Graham: John, I just want to get your impression of American policing in general. Why is it so powerful, and why has it been prioritized over social programs, like public health?
John Masters: Okay. Okay, social health programs cost money. Okay? All right. So the more police that I have on the streets, the more tickets I can give out. I’ve done a couple of videos now to where I’ve been warning the middle class, “They’re coming after you next.” Okay? They are.
Right now, they’re now pushing bike laws. There’s bike speed limits in a lot of these middle class areas. No, I’m serious. There’s bike speed limits, and that’s kind of the whole design behind the bike path. Everybody thought, “Oh, man, that was such a great thing. The government’s looking out for us.” Well, no, not exactly, because if you have a bike path, now we have laws about how to operate on that path, don’t we? Specifically for bicycles, because it’s a bike path.
So that and jaywalking, and you probably know about all the different governments that are putting out … I mean, I can understand texting and driving okay. But they’re now doing walking and talking, walking and texting. There’s a lot of different cities that now have that as being against the law.
So who is that targeting? So they’re moving out of the cars, because they pretty much got that wiped out. Okay? Now they’re really going after pedestrians, which now let’s take a look at coronavirus. Most people are what? Becoming pedestrian-orientated, which means that there’s less cars on the street, which means, “Where is our next income? We’ve got these huge police departments. We want them bigger. We want to control the government. I mean, we want to control the people, okay, in case, let’s say, we do have a riot, or let’s say we push it too far, and the people want to revolt.” Okay?
Again, if you do the petition system, you don’t need to revolt. But anyways, so let’s say they want to. I want to make sure that we have a feared police. Why? Because I’m a politician. I know I’m screwing people over. I know I’m breaking the law. I know I’m taking a whole bunch of money in my pocket and getting rich on 100,000 a year with my $5 million mansion. I’m just really good with money.
Taya Graham: So, Stephen, you’re standing outside a symbolic building that speaks to the question we’re asking today. Can you talk to us about it?
Stephen Janis: Yeah, I’m sitting right outside the Baltimore City Police Department, which is the largest agency in Baltimore City. Contrast that to where I was yesterday, or last week, which was the Baltimore City Health Department. Funding for police departments in this country have risen exponentially, at least in Baltimore City, and if you look across the country in terms of grants and money available through asset forfeiture have risen dramatically.
But there was a 2013 study that found that investment in public health systems, like the one we have here, Baltimore Public Health Agency, have dropped dramatically both at the federal, state, and local level. So, basically, while we have been funding, to a tremendous degree, policing, we have been de-investing in public health, and I think right now, we’re paying the consequences for that decision.
Taya Graham: So Stephen, one community actually experimented with disbanding a police department. Can you describe what happened?
Stephen Janis: Right. Well, Camden, New Jersey, about three or four years ago, could no longer afford to pay their police officers. The police officers were costing about $118,000 per officer. So what they did is they did something very radical. They said, “We are disbanding the police department. We will no longer have cops, and we will contract out to an outside agency a sheriff’s department.” Actually, it was a state police agency outside the city.
Crime actually went down, and the cost of policing went down. So the city really had a tremendously positive experience, in terms of getting rid of policing altogether, not only from a cost-benefit, but also a crime benefit. I think it speaks to the idea of the same thing that Baltimore has, where we are spending tons of money in other cities like Baltimore for policing, for pensions, for health benefits, which could be going into other things, like public health. So that’s why we’re talking about this, and Camden is a perfect example of where that worked.
Taya Graham: So it’s clear, as this crisis escalates, that we are in a moment of national reckoning, an existential threat to humanity that is also a wake-up call to truly examine the underlying imperative of American capitalism, which is to seek profit at all cost. That analysis must include the role policing plays in enforcing its predatory values, and there’s a reason for this, why it’s so important.
Remember, on the show, we have pointed out the crucial role policing plays in bolstering capitalism, partly by diminishing political dissent, how it allows income inequality to flourish by using petty arrests and minor crimes to disempower large swaths of Americans.
I mean, think about it. What was the point of the War on Drugs? A massive epidemic of the mind and spirit treated with arrests and punishment, targeted almost exclusively at poor communities and communities of color, millions of people with an illness caged behind bars, a veritable invasion of poor communities by militarized police to take assets, civil liberties, and basic political efficacy.
What did all this police activity accomplish? Well, consider the latest book by noted economist Thomas Piketty. The French thinker’s first book, Capitalism in the 21st Century, argued that massive income inequality was an inevitable byproduct of capitalism. In it, he concluded that concentrated, inherited wealth was created by conditions similar to past feudal societies.
But his second book had a different take. In it, he says the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us is not the result of capitalism alone, but ideology, an imbalance that is not inevitable, but justified, and I’m quoting, in the realm of ideas.
Now, that sounds familiar. Anyone who’s watched this show knows that we have talked about how this idea of inequality is perpetrated on the American people through policing. In fact, in our show titled How Aggressive Policing Fuels America’s Income Inequality Machine, Stephen talks just about that. Let’s watch.
Stephen Janis: This illustrates, more than anything, how insincere the idea or how impossible the idea of reforming American policing is, for just the reasons we discussed before, about its role in creating the sort of environment for injustice.
Taya Graham: The point is that Piketty is right, and so were we. Think about it. The War on Drugs, mass incarceration, what did it accomplish? The opioid epidemic has claimed more lives year over year than the Vietnam War. Drugs are more widely available and cheaper than ever. Meanwhile, criminologists have trouble reaching a consensus on whether our historic national addiction to incarceration has truly impacted crime rates.
But we do know that the arc of inequality and aggressive policing have risen in tandem. We understand that unchecked asset forfeiture and usury fines have extracted wealth from poor communities across the country, and we accept the premise that the idea of blanket criminality has reduced the political agency of people who cannot afford to fight back.
I think about recent developments in Florida. Their residents voted overwhelmingly to restore a felon’s right to vote. Once you did your time, voters decided, your basic right to participate in our democracy should be restored. But not so fast, said a Republican-controlled legislature. It unilaterally decided to alter the wishes of the voters and change the law to require that the formerly incarcerated pay fines and fees before they cast ballots.
It’s a perfect example, however granular, of Piketty’s point. First, create a system of strict inequality that consigns millions of people to poverty. Then incarcerate them for petty crimes and deny them the most basic of rights: voting. Finally, charge people who already can’t find jobs and force them to buy back their voting rights.
Some critics have called this a poll tax, a reference to this country’s troubled history of denying African Americans the right to vote by charging them to cast a ballot. But I also think it’s the perfect final piece of the puzzle of how American policing has heightened income inequality. It actually represents the final link in the chain of causality that manufactures misery and nullifies dissent. It’s a relationship between capitalism and poverty, policing and punishment that is best summarized by noted scholar Dr. Cornell West. Let’s take a listen to him.
Dr. Cornell Wes…: Because we live now under a Neo-liberal regime that reinforces denial, they see a problem, they financialize, they privatize, the militarize. All three of those processes are forms of denial.
Taya Graham: That is a perfect place to end. I want to thank my guest, John Masters, for joining us and for his years of work in holding police accountable. Thank you so much for your time, John.
John Masters: Again, guys, really excited to do this show with you. Looking forward to doing another one.
Taya Graham: I want to thank my cohost, Stephen Janis, for his amazing reporting and editing and writing. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you for your time.
Stephen Janis: Thanks, Taya, for having me. I want to continue this discussion.
Taya Graham: I would be remiss if I did not say thank you to friend of the show Noli Dee for her help. Thank you, Noli Dee.
I want you watching to note that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us, and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes on Police on Twitter. Of course, you can message me directly at Taya’s Baltimore on Twitter or Facebook.
Please like and share and comment. You know I do read your comments and that I appreciate them, and I try to answer questions whenever I can.
I’m your host, Taya Graham, and I want to thank you so much for choosing to spend your time here with me. Please be safe out there.