Civil Rights Chief: Biased Enforcement Feeds Distrust

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The chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, speaking this week at an Atlanta symposium, said she and her colleagues “see a very clear link” between the criminalization of poverty by law enforcement authorities and the growing distrust of police and the government by the public, reports “Unconstitutional policing undermines community trust,” said Vanita Gupta said.

“Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities can lead residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as corrupt. Those perceptions can drive resentment. And resentment can prevent the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.” She said African-American residents of Baltimore concentrated in two small districts that accounted for just 11 percent of the city’s population represented an estimated 44 percent of police stops.

Gupta said cited Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., as places where policing is used to generate revenue. That strategy, Gupta said, “resulted in a system where the police department and municipal court advanced policies that broke the law.” Gupta said that more than 60 percent of all inmates in county jails across the nation are defendants awaiting trial. Many of them, she said, “have committed nonviolent offenses and are there because they cannot pay bail.” For people living on the financial edge, an arrest or a fine can cost a defendant his or her job, family, children, home and health care, trapping “the most vulnerable among us in perpetual cycles of poverty, debt and incarceration,” Gupta said. That, in turn, “undermines the legitimacy of our justice system,” she added. “It threatens the integrity of our democracy.” She spoke at an event sponsored by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

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