Community Policing Is Not The Solution To Racist Police Violence
How liberal reform created racist police terror in New York City
In the summer of 2014 an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death in an altercation that began because the officer suspected that Garner was selling loose cigarettes. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” were caught on a video that captured the attention of the country and, along with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of the nation’s attention.
The policies that legitimized the possibility of a deadly police response to the suspicion of such a minor offense have a history that goes back decades. Since the 1960s, philanthropies and nonprofits have collaborated with the New York City government and the NYPD to implement “order maintenance policing,” a practice predicated on the idea that strict responses to minor infractions (for example, selling loose cigarettes) increase social order and prevents more serious crime. Order maintenance and broken-windows policing were developed and implemented in New York City via community policing, which was proposed as a progressive, technocratic reform that was promised to create a trusting relationship between police and poor communities of color. Far from achieving its goal, community policing failed to create a trusting relationship with its target communities because it effectively criminalized poverty by targeting activities that poor people engage in. Worse, New York’s liberal community policing project opened the door for subsequent conservative city governments to further weaponize the resources and theoretical underpinnings of community policing to implement the infamous stop-and-frisk tactic, widely recognized as a policy and practice of racial terror that poor communities of color suffered at the hands of the NYPD.
In 2020, Black Lives Matter was at the forefront of the largest protest movement in US history. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others sparked and sustained a popular mobilization against racist police violence, demanding that police be defunded or abolished altogether. The protests elicited a range of responses from politicians; conservatives dismissed and vilified calls to defund the police while progressives promised to disband or substantially reduce the size of some police departments.
More centrist liberals, caught in the middle and beholden to both angry protesters and threatened police, called for reforms to reduce racist police violence. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was no exception, promising to address systemic racism in policing via more federal oversight and carceral reforms, including a huge investment in community policing. In “The Biden Plan For Black America,” he offers community-oriented policing as a way to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice.” In the plan, Biden promises 300 million dollars in funding to hire more police officers because “policing works best when officers are out of their cruisers and walking the streets, engaging with and getting to know members of their communities.”1 At a town hall in February 2021, he reiterated his commitment to invest heavily in community policing.
Biden’s community policing approach isn’t a new idea (in fact, the “out of their cruisers” rhetoric is very similar to language used to sell community policing programs in the 1960s, after police had become increasingly car-bound because of suburbanization). Community policing was conceived as a progressive police reform, one response to a rising urban economic crisis and the widespread unrest during the anti-police violence protest movement of the late 1960s, built around the idea that getting cops on the ground in urban communities would increase social order. Far from reducing systemic issues with policing in New York City, community policing programs perpetuated and expanded racist notions of criminality, subjected poor communities to increased surveillance and displacement, and were eventually co-opted by more conservative politicians to implement a program of racial terror. Now, in the face of a rising economic crisis and widespread anti-police protests, Biden is proposing the same failed solution.
To see why community policing does not serve Black America in the way Biden claims, and instead why increasing the number of police on the streets in the name of progressive reform would lead to further harm for poor communities of color, we should take a close look at an early implementation of a community policing program in New York City, and its aftermath.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s demanded economic opportunity and social justice for Black Americans. Initially, the government and elite responded to what some powerful liberals still called the “Negro problem” with programs designed to change the material conditions of poor urban Black people. The Johnson administration declared war on poverty in 1964, and the Ford Foundation, then the world’s largest philanthropy, funded some programs designed to support self-determination and economic stability for Black communities. However as the decade progressed, high-profile programmatic failures2 and growing fear of urban unrest led elites to abandon programs of empowerment and to shift their political and economic focus from ending poverty to imposing order.3
As the federal government shifted focus from eliminating poverty to managing it, other ruling-class elites used their money in the form of philanthropic activity to divert energy away from systemic change using a multi-front approach. The elements of managing urban Black poverty included programs to integrate a small number of Black elites into the ruling class4 and simultaneously developing policing tactics that would be more effective at maintaining order in the poor communities of color left behind. The Ford Foundation played a central role in developing both tactics, actively funding art and education programs to sift Black elites for inclusion in the ruling class as well as creating the Policing Foundation in 1970 to develop more effective methods for social control in poor Black neighborhoods.
During the 1970s, the Police Foundation sponsored experiments in community policing in cities across the nation, the most important of which are catalogued in a recent article5 on Ford’s involvement in developing broken-windows policing. The major players in shaping the Police Foundation’s community policing approach were board members James Q. Wilson and Herbert Sturz, as well as Foundation researcher George L. Kelling. From 1977 to ’79, Kelling led a community policing experiment in Newark, New Jersey that tested whether police foot patrols could reduce crime and increase community trust in the police by targeting low-level disorder. Although reported crime did not go down in Newark during the study, Kelling found that fear of crime did go down, and he and Wilson took the results as a success. Based on the results of the Newark foot patrol experiment, Kelling and Wilson authored a seminal article in The Atlantic titled “Broken Windows” (1982), an ode to social order and using the police to impose it, which conveniently ignores the systematic abandonment of urban communities that creates the disorder they argue the police should manage. In the article they imply that similar community policing programs can do for other cities what they did for Newark: increase community trust in the police.
Two years later, the Vera Institute of Justice (co-founded by Herbert Sterz) built on the work of the Ford Foundation and Police Foundation and partnered with the NYPD to develop and implement a community policing pilot program in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. As called for by Kelling and Wilson, Vera’s pilot used an approach where police aggressively targeted minor “quality of life” offenses such as loitering and drinking in public with the goal of creating safer neighborhoods by reducing disorder. Despite the obviously disparate racial and class implications of this progressive-sounding police reform, and despite reports from residents that “the [community policing] officer is bringing more disorder than order,”6 then-mayor Ed Koch (a centrist, establishment Democrat like Biden) declared the pilot a success. The next year, the program was expanded city wide under Benjamin Ward, the city’s first Black police commissioner, and included funding for hiring new officers to be deployed throughout the city’s poor neighborhoods of color. New York’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, who took over from Koch in 1990, further increased the community policing program, hiring 3,500 additional officers as part of his “Safe Streets, Safe City” initiative.7
Had community policing in New York maintained the course charted by liberal politicians, philanthropy, and nonprofits in the 1980s it would not have eliminated racist policing. Community policing could have only had negative impacts on low income communities of color, due to the racialized nature of violations targeted. According to legal scholar Dorothy E. Roberts, quality of life-based policing practices are inherently racist, because “the identity of ‘visibly lawless’ people at the heart of vague loitering laws incorporates racist notions of criminality and legitimates police harassment of Black citizens.”8 Further, concentrating enforcement on low-level offenses that represent the activities engaged by the poorest and most vulnerable while cutting social services during government-imposed austerity leads directly to increased involvement of the police in the lives of poor people of color. No matter the progressive intent of its creators, community policing perpetuates the conditions under which marginalized communities suffer at the hands of the state.9
However, community policing did not maintain the course on which it was launched. In 1994, conservative Rudy Giuliani defeated Dinkins for the mayor’s office, hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner, and promptly declared war on poor people of color in New York City, using the expanded police force secured by Vera and Dinkins as its army. Bratton ended the community policing program and focused on a different aspect of the broken-windows theory, so-called zero-tolerance policing. Bratton instituted a policy of targeting all “suspicious people”—not just those obviously flouting quality-of-life offenses—in entire neighborhoods, using a new, statistics-based tactic called COMPSTAT. This new focus on statistics led to arrest quotas, which led directly to the policy of stop-and-frisk, under which millions of Black and brown people were intentionally stopped, cited, harassed, and arrested by the NYPD as part of an official policy.
During the next two decades, stop-and-frisk ramped up under two different mayors and four different police commissioners, and Vera continued to publicly support the offspring of its community policing program. In 2007, Vera’s director was quoted in the New York Times supporting exorbitant arrest rates, saying “there are tons more people coming in, but they stay for far shorter periods of time, which drives down the need for jailbeds.”10 This narrow, technocratic view of success ignores the substantial impact on vulnerable individuals and their communities that can result from even a short stay in jail. By 2012, stop-and-frisk was under fire from community groups who witnessed the racism and brutality behind the practice, and even though then-mayor Bloomberg admitted that people of color were targeted by stop-and-frisk he refused to stop it, insisting that racial profiling was justified by the higher crime rates in communities of color.11 Between 2003 and 2013, about 85 percent of the people stopped were Black or Latinx. But stop-and-frisk was above all a practice of ineffectual, capricious harassment—in that same decade, almost 90 percent of all reported NYPD stops resulted in no conviction.12 But even those who are not convicted suffer; study after study finds lasting negative effects on people caught up in the stop-and-frisk dragnet.13
In 2011, a federal class action lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenged stop-and-frisk on grounds that stops were racially motivated. The case was not decided until October of 2014, a few months after Eric Garner was killed, when a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of stops reported by the NYPD dropped by 98 percent, but there are good reasons to suspect that the decline in the reported number of stops was artificial. In transitioning from a policy featuring stop quotas to a system with incentives to report fewer stops, the difference in the number of stops might have been vastly narrower than official reports indicate. In any case, zero-tolerance order maintenance policing did not disappear, and while the number of reported stops motivated by the practice were in decline Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer for selling loose cigarettes, sparking protests against racist police violence and highlighting the failure of order maintenance policing to eliminate urban poverty or racist police violence.
In the 1960s, the government abandoned the project of eliminating poverty in favor of suppressing disorder and unrest through more police. Now, following the largest unrest since the ’60s and with income and wealth inequality substantially higher than they were then, the coming years promise even more unrest and stunning levels of precarity. From a cynical point of view, it is not surprising that elite politicians want more police, because by nature the police protect the lives and property of the rich from incursions by the poor. Even if we accept Biden’s intentions as good, it’s clear that investing more money in policing of any kind would be an unwise allocation of resources when many are trying to recover from the devastating economic and health effects of a major pandemic. Poor people of color need access to housing, food, education, and health care, and police do not provide any of those things.
Increasing the capacity of the state to enact violence in the name of progressive reform does not address the problem of racialized terror, as we’ve seen recently with the Obama administration's expansion of immigration enforcement and drone strikes, which were increasingly weaponized by the subsequent Trump administration’s practices. At best, under community policing marginalized people will be subject to more surveillance, violence, and incarceration at the hands of these new cops. At worst, another Trump or Giuliani will repurpose the new police to even more brutal ends. Now is the time for us to use all the levers available to us to try to block an investment in community policing over an investment in the people who would be policed.
- Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan For Black America. https://joebiden.com/blackamerica/.
- Ferguson, K. The Ford Foundation’s Reform From Above in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Jacobin (2018).
- Hinton, E. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. (Harvard University Press, 2016).
- Ferguson, K. Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
- Collings-Wells, S. From Black Power to Broken Windows: Liberal Philanthropy and the Carceral State. Journal of Urban History (2020).
- The Vera Institute of Justice. The Community Patrol Officer Program, A Pilot Program In Community Oriented Policing in the 72nd Precinct. https://www.vera.org/downloads/Publications/the-community-patrol-officer-program-a-pilot-program-in-community-oriented-policing-in-the-72nd-precinct-progress-report/legacy_downloads/1203.pdf (1984).
- Sack, K. “Dinkins Crime Plan Wins The Backing Of Top Lawmakers,” The New York Times (1991).
- Roberts, D. E. “Foreword: Race, Vagueness, and the Social Meaning of Order-Maintenance Policing,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 89: 775 (1999).
- A World Without Police. The Problem With Community Policing. http://aworldwithoutpolice.org/2017/10/08/the-problem-with-community-policing/ (2017).
- Chan, S. “Why Did Crime Fall in New York City?” The New York Times (2007).
- Michael Bloomberg, “‘Stop and frisk’ keeps New York safe,” The Washington Post (2013).
- NYCLU. Stop-and-Frisk Data. https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data (2012).
- Badger, E. “The Lasting Effects of Stop-and-Frisk in Bloomberg’s New York,” The New York Times (2020).