The ‘Criminal Justice Tax’ on America’s Troubled Neighborhoods

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South Bronx street scene. Photo by Mathias Rothkopf via Flickr

Does aggressive policing of high-crime, mostly minority, neighborhoods reinforce patterns of racial segregation in America?

Four of the nation’s top criminologists argue that municipal and police authorities should acknowledge the economic and social impact of strategies such as “stop, question and frisk” on African Americans and Latinos—and make sure that their efforts to make communities safer don’t at the same time widen racial inequalities.

The criminologists made their arguments in separate papers published simultaneously by New York University’s Furman Center as part of its “Dream Revisited” series examining issues related to racial and economic segregation in the U.S.

Although the papers differed slightly in emphasis, three of the authors—Jeffrey A. Fagan of Columbia Law School; Monica Bell of Yale Law School; and Anthony A. Braga of Northeastern University—presented a scathing analysis of what has generally been called “New Policing,” which has combined frequent police stops in high-crime neighborhoods with aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life violations on the theory that such methods will deter violent offenders and prevent more serious crime.

More: Want to Reform Policing in Your City? Here’s How

The fourth author, Philip J. Cook of Duke University, suggested that the public safety benefits of aggressive policing should be weighed against the costs, and might even make some neighborhoods more attractive for investors and employers.

Fagan, in his introductory essay to the debate, argued that such policing has effectively created a hidden “criminal justice tax” on the law-abiding residents of troubled minority neighborhoods, and further adds to the already daunting economic burdens they face.

“(It) reinforces segregation by imposing a criminal justice tax on everyday movements and activities,” he wrote. “In places as disparate as Ferguson and the South Bronx, the threat of police contacts or criminal sanctions, with both monetary costs and the threat of jailing, raises the transactions costs for Black and Latino persons to move freely within their neighborhoods, and as well as when they cross racial boundaries.”

Monica Bell

Bell takes the point one step further by noting that the expectation of harsher policing prevents many middle-class and higher-income African Americans and Latinos from moving to neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

“While policing does not singlehandedly cause segregation, the presence and reputation of police in certain neighborhoods sends a message to would-be residents who have choices: Stay away,” she wrote.

In his contribution, Braga argues that these models of policing also contained “desirable” elements that encouraged law enforcement agencies to engage community residents and develop greater confidence and trust. But many of these elements—known as “community policing”—were at best partially implemented, and at worst ignored.

Anthony Braga

“It is perhaps not surprising that even though community policing has been widely adopted, at least in principle, substantial conflict between police and the communities they serve continues to occur,” he wrote.

Efforts to strike the correct balance between public safety and community engagement have been muddied by tough-on-crime political rhetoric, observed Cook, but he added that should not deter police and communities from building on crime reductions that have already occurred in many cities.

“While campaigning for president, Donald Trump touted SQF (stop, question and frisk strategies) as an effective crime control tactic, citing the extraordinary crime drop in New York City under Mayor Giuliani (1994-2001),” he wrote.

“But in fact there is no obvious correlation between the ramp-up of SQF and the drop in murder and other violence in New York.”

Philip J. Cook

Nevertheless, he noted, studies in cities such as Philadelphia and St. Louis found “substantial reductions in crime” using versions of this strategy.

He conceded that the frequent police stops in certain neighborhoods experienced by “young minority men,” even if they were not carrying weapons, gave them “every reason to feel abused.”

But he added: “If high-volume stops can make a high-crime neighborhood safer, as appears to be the case, then that benefits the residents both by making them safer and quite possibly by making the neighborhood more attractive for employers and other investors.”

All the same, Fagan, whose study of the impact of SQF on minority populations in New York City was instrumental in the federal judicial ruling that curtailed the practice on the ground that it violated Constitutional guarantees, argued the drop in crime did not absolve police of their role in perpetuating racial segregation.

“The good news is that in many places, crime rates remain relatively low compared to earlier decades,” he wrote. “The bad news…is that policing has become further disconnected from crime, or from judging guilt and innocence, and more closely tied to the racial composition and economic position of neighborhoods.

“That is indeed bad news.”

The papers in the NYU discussion brief are available here.

This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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