Police Violence As a Failure of Representative Democracy

Unfortunately, given the number of police-related killings, it’s always a good time to discuss police violence. A while ago, in the context of a jaywalking crackdown in Los Angeles, I noted:

What I do not understand is who exactly decided this would be policy. Essentially, the LAPD is making a policy decision: they are attempting to retard the shift towards walking. It does have an effect–if Boston, D.C., or New York police officers ever decided to enforce a similar policy, that would probably be the one thing that could get every single elected official voted out of office. Cities require walking.

Yet the LAPD has decided that Los Angeles doesn’t. Is this a Ferguson-style attempt to raise revenue? Is this an attempt to fill monthly quotas (if they truly exist)? Probably not. Instead, it seems like the Police Department has decided, unilaterally, to try to limit pedestrian fatalities–a good thing to do. However, they clearly didn’t ask any elected officials, as shown by Councilmen Bonin’s and Huizar’s reactions.

While jaywalking obviously isn’t an issue of life and death, this is one example of how a police department, when there is no oversight, can de facto enact urban planning policy; this is all the more disturbing when most police officers and officials are not residents of the communities in which they are making these policies.

While some of the police violence is due to prejudice or bigotry and in that sense isn’t amenable to a clear policy solution (other than firing known bigots), another, often neglected, factor is that law enforcement officials can, with little or no citizen and civilian official input, make serious policy decisions. Give someone a badge and a gun, throw in a lack of oversight, and you have an unelected policy maker.

Police routinely make decisions about whom to stop or arrest. Even when those decisions are based on some sort of policy (e.g., don’t waste time hassling quiet, non-violent homeless people, or don’t ticket ‘moderate speeders’ who appear to have control of their cars), this often isn’t a policy that has been approved directly by citizens or indirectly by elected officials.

Consider this article about public urination in New York City (boldface mine):

The offense — and others subject to possible changes, like biking on sidewalks and staying in parks after hours — cuts to the core of the debate over policing in New York City: Are minor crimes the harbingers of neighborhood decline, or are they largely victimless acts that needlessly entangle residents, particularly young black and Hispanic men, in the justice system?

Public urination has emerged as an especially thorny test case, scrambling traditional political allegiances among even left-leaning lawmakers who generally favor less aggressive policing….

The force has already stepped back from blanket enforcement of minor offenses. Summonses have fallen. Arrests are down. Street stops barely register compared with record heights in 2011. Mr. Bratton heralded the ebbing numbers as a “peace dividend,” even as he called for a larger army…

Councilman Corey Johnson said that though penalties for some nonviolent offenses should be reduced, public urination was a separate matter.

“There is already a significant problem every single weekend with widespread, out-of-control peeing,” Mr. Johnson, who represents much of Manhattan’s West Side, said…

Officers use two laws to enforce the prohibition against public urination: a misdemeanor-level provision in the city’s health code and a section of the city’s administrative code that classifies the offense as a violation. Mr. Bratton said in his letter that he was considering directing officers to enforce only the administrative code violation, which can be paid by mail, reducing the number of people who get warrants issued for failing to appear in court.

There are actual costs to treating this as a violation–as the article notes, this can make it difficult for people to get jobs. While I think people should be discouraged from public urination, giving someone a criminal record for this ‘crime’ is absurd.

Importantly, this should be decided by the citizens of New York City and their elected officials, not the Police Chief.

I think this ‘police governance creep’ is one reason why marijuana legalization efforts in cities are so popular: people are tired of seeing young men turned into ‘pre-criminals‘ for simply having some weed.

I don’t mean to minimize the role of racism in our policing problems, but it also reflects a lack of elected accountability. That needs to be fixed.

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2 Responses to Police Violence As a Failure of Representative Democracy

  1. Tiercelet says:

    I think it’s also important to highlight that when police become policymakers, it reduces the scope of policy levers to one: the decision of how punitive citizens’ interaction with governmental authority should be. This reinforces the false belief that government cannot create solutions–since police departments really don’t have the brief or the structure to create positive solutions to problems.

    The public urination case is a prime example. To solve this problem, the Upper West Side needs to do something New York has historically been aggressively opposed to doing: *give people a place to pee.* Absent a psychological issue or being completely hammered, nobody’s going to use a bush when there’s a well-maintained public restroom available–but even the de facto citytoilet (they also sometimes sell coffee) is now shuttered for this purpose. The police aren’t going to be installing a comfort station in every park; all they can do is choose to let you pee on the sidewalk.

    And now that the framing’s been set, the policy discussion will never get to actual solutions, but only focus on what kinds of punishments to give violators and how much the tickets should be.

  2. jrkrideau says:

    *give people a place to pee.*? With the example of the political horrors of trying to do this so clearly summarized by Gabriel Chevalier in the classic “Clochemerle”? I doubt NYC could survive.

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