How Police Protect ‘White Spaces’ and Foster Segregated Housing

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Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Housing Project was long considered a symbol of the inequities of public housing in America. This was one of the last structures still standing in 2010. Photo by Mark R. Danielson via Flickr

American policing plays a large role in perpetuating and maintaining residential segregation, yet this function of law enforcement is often ignored in legal scholarship and in discussions surrounding police reform, argues a forthcoming article in the New York University Law Review.

For this reason, politicians and police chiefs should adopt an “anti-segregation approach to policing,” writes Monica C. Bell, a professor of law and sociology at Yale Law School.

According to Bell, the “relationship between very high Black-White residential segregation and unconstitutional and unjust policing is not coincidental or spurious.”

Instead, she added, “various practices of urban policing…are both consequences of and contributors to residential segregation” along racial lines.

Bell argued that police departments in Baltimore, M.D., Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, I.L., Ferguson, M.O., Newark, N.J., and Yonkers, N.Y., among others, “have aggressively used residential segregation as a tool to create and reinforce racial caste.”

Quoting novelist Richard Ford, Bell asserted that residential segregation “continues to play the same role it always has in American race relations: to isolate, disempower, and oppress.”

The article breaks down residential segregation into four “frames”:

      • Separation: the uneven geographic distribution of ethnic groups across a given area;
      • Concentration: the presence of marginalized ethnic groups into distinct and stigmatized enclaves;
      • Subordination: the former two frames’ creation and reproduction of harmful racial hierarchies and dynamics; and
      • Domination: the control and economic exploitation of marginalized groups and the disproportionate share of social and political opportunities given to advantaged groups.

Bell discussed six mechanisms by which urban policing fosters or creates racial residential segregation.

One mechanism is mass criminalization, which involves police surveillance of individuals and communities of color.

“At a macro-level, heavy police surveillance in race-class subjugated neighborhoods makes poor people of color even poorer, thereby locking them into poor and segregated neighborhoods,” she wrote.

Referencing the findings of a 2017 report by Jeffrey Fagan and Elliot Ash, Bell argued:

Surveillance-style policing in low-income communities of color…channels people of color into the expansive criminal punishment system, which directly and indirectly contributes to the problem of housing dispossession and neighborhood-level structural inequality.

Exacerbating the effects of criminal punishment, public housing policy prevents individuals with drug-related felony convictions from living there.

Public housing authorities are also well within their rights to evict residents who reside with individuals or who host guests who are drug-related felons.

Patrolling borders of neighborhoods is another mechanism by which policing leads to residential segregation, Bell wrote.

While some police officers surveil low income areas and communities of color, others are tasked with “watching and warding off people who seem out of place in white areas.”

That is, in the eyes of police officers in “white space,” people of color may seem out of place.

For this reason, police are more likely to deem these individuals suspect and intervene, according to Bell.

This exclusion is illustrated by the many instances in which white individuals have called police to report the “suspicious” behavior of individuals of color.

One such incident that turned fatal involved Antwon Rose in Pittsburgh, P.A. The 17-year-old Black teenager was shot three times as he ran away from officers during a police stop. The officer responsible for the fatal shooting was acquitted.

Still another mechanism linking policing and residential segregation is constructing neighborhood reputations as high-crime.

Bell interviewed Sylvia, a 30-year-old Black mother of two, living in Dallas. Sylvia explained that when looking for a new house, she sought advice from a few police officers who frequented the store at which she worked.

The officers told Sylvia that her previous house was in an unsafe area and recalled some crimes they dealt with there. Instead, the officers pointed Sylvia to an affordable housing complex just south of Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood.

That’s where Sylvia lives now.

Although this seems like a success story, one that demonstrates the effectiveness of community policing, it also shows that police officers play a large role in shaping homeowners’ decisions.

monica bell

Prof. Monica C. Bell, Photo courtesy Yale Law School

Unfortunately, such guidance from police officers may not always result in positive outcomes like Sylvia’s, Bell wrote.

And, police officers’ advice may be based on a few of their experiences in a given area, rather than that area’s crime rates and statistics.

Three other mechanisms by which policing leads to residential segregation include coordinating with other bureaucracies, constructing jurisdiction, and distributing racialized economic value.

Bell also offered several recommendations for police departments to implement an anti-segregation agenda, including:

      • Using fair housing law to create a duty for police departments to adopt policing policies that counteract residential segregation;
      • Police redistricting;
      • Strategic nonresponse to certain 9-1-1 calls; and
      • Structural reform litigation.

Bell concluded with a cautiously optimistic note on the possibility of an anti-segregation agenda coming to pass.

“I am not certain that the full promise of anti-segregation policing is realizable in the status quo,” she wrote. “But I am certain that police reformers and racial justice advocates would be wise to pursue it.”

Editor’s Note: For additional coverage of Monica C. Bell, her work, and her viewpoints, please see “The Argument for Prison Abolition” by Michael Gelb, The Crime Report, June 25, 2020. 

 Bell’s full article can be accessed here.

 Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.

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