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Criminal Injustice Systems at Home and Abroad

I finally got around to reading Samantha Power’s article on Gary Haugen in the January 19th New Yorker. Haugen is a Christian human rights lawyer whose organization represents impoverished and abused people in Cambodia, Kenya, and other countries.  Like most of Power’s work, the whole article is worth reading, but one set of statistics snared my attention:

Countries emerging from conflict often command headlines, congressional interest, and rule-of-law funding: Bosnia and Sierra Leone in the nineties, Iraq and Afghanistan today. Chronically flawed justice systems, like the one in Kenya, tend to get far less support. Haugen is incredulous: “Without investing in the rule of law for the poor, none of the other investments we make will be sustainable.”

In 2007, Transparency International published a report underscoring the extent of the problem. Seventy-nine per cent of people surveyed in Cameroon, and seventy-two per cent of Cambodians, reported paying a bribe to obtain basic services in the previous year. The study also confirmed Haugen’s view that the poor are more likely to pay bribes than the wealthy, often to avoid harassment. According to a report published by Afrobarometer, a public-opinion research group, only fifty-three per cent of people surveyed in subSaharan Africa expressed confidence that senior government officials would be brought to justice if they committed a serious crime. In Kenya, sixty-four per cent deemed most or all of the police corrupt. A World Bank study of twenty-three countries found that the poor saw police “not as a source of help and security, but rather of harm, risk, and impoverishment.”

Those numbers, 53 percent and 64 percent, are presumably supposed to sound startlingly high. Perhaps because community-police relations have been on my mind lately due to the fallout from the shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a BART police officer at the beginning of this month, I was curious about whether the statistics would in fact be much different in some communities in the United States. Might we see similarly high distrust of the criminal justice system and the police in North Philly or the South Bronx, in East Oakland or West Baltimore?

I did some googling to see if I would find any comparable studies from communities in the United States. The main thing I learned is that I’m not very good at finding statistics like these online (maybe I should have listened to the people who advised me to get a degree in library and information science, because I could obviously use some help in this area). I found a lot of studies, but either I couldn’t access them online, or they were decades old, or I just didn’t have the patience to dig through them to find out if they had relevant numbers to compare to the ones in Power’s article.

I did come across one 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center survey that was helpful. While the numbers obviously can’t be mapped exactly to the studies cited in the New Yorker, because they were measuring different things with different methodologies, the numbers from Pew might surprise some complacent Americans. If you look at certain demographic groups in the United States, you find mistrust of the police that is also over fifty percent. Here are a few findings (summarized in my words):

  • Among black Americans, only 55 percent of those surveyed expressed “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in local police to enforce the law; only 38 percent expressed confidence that the local police would not use excessive force; and only 37 percent expressed confidence that local police would treat all races equally.
  • Among Americans who earned less than $30,000 per year, 46 percent of whites and 18 percent of blacks expressed confidence that local police would enforce the law, not use excessive force, and treat all races equally. Among Americans who earned over $100,000 per year, those numbers were 72 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

There were similar differences, albeit less pronounced, between various age groups and levels of educational achievement. (Pew says that the numbers for Latinos were close to those for blacks, although the sample size was too small to break down meaningfully into subgroups.)

The results of the Pew survey probably aren’t surprising to a lot of people, and I don’t want to overinterpret them or overstate the parallels with studies in Kenya or Cameroon or anywhere else. I also won’t attempt to do justice to the historical and sociological explanations for why a 55 year old white guy who makes $200,000 a year is likely to perceive the police very differently from a 21 year old black guy making $20,000 a year, but the legacy of slavery and segregation, along with the effects of the “war on crime” and “war on drugs,” are obvious places to start.

I don’t condone rioting in the streets of Oakland or the “stop snitching” ethic that is widespread in American cities, but it’s amazing to me how many people want to discuss these things in a historical and political vacuum. I don’t want to naively say that if we all just understood each other, we would get along and everything would be peachy, but if people want to make any headway in ending the cycle of mistrust that causes many disaffected youth to see all police as the enemy, and causes many police to see all disaffected youths as nothing but a bunch of violent criminals that must be kept down by force, the least we can do is face the history that has gotten us where we are today and try to understand where other people are coming from. This failure of imagination goes both ways.

To my mind, this is the best argument in favor of having the same officers covering the same beats day after day and doing it outside of their intimidating, distancing cars. One face-to-face interaction between two people outside of a confrontational context (by which I mean an officer responding to a report of a crime) is probably worth hours of investigative work after a crime has been committed. One near-universal attribute of human beings is a desire for respect and dignity; while it’s unrealistic to think that having a cop walk a beat and treat people like human beings will cause an officer and neighborhood residents to start going bowling together, it’s very realistic to think that it will decrease the likelihood that any particular situation will escalate into a tragedy like the shooting of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle. And it’s also realistic to think that it will help officers solve — or better yet, prevent — some of the other thousands of homicides that occur in our cities every year.

Recently disclosed additional cell phone video shows that another one of the BART police officers punched Oscar Grant hard in the face shortly before he was shot in the back, and there is still no indication that Grant was physically resisting (in fact, after he gets punched, Grant and the other detained men quickly sit down on the platform, appearing to sense that these officers are not people you want to provoke). We haven’t heard any explanation from BART police about what Grant was saying to the officers, but it is hard to imagine how the punch (never mind the shooting) could be justifiable.

When I watch those videos of the events on the train platform, I feel as if I am watching a social history of America’s inner cities distilled into a single incident. Young black men getting arrested, white police officers trying to control a situation but ending up making it worse, and a crowd of onlookers seeing their worst suspicions about the police be confirmed right in front of their eyes. Our police and our criminal justice system are probably far less corrupt and arbitrary than those of Kenya or Cambodia, but it’s not hard to see why Oscar Grant, the other people on that BART train on New Year’s eve, or the protesters who vandalized downtown Oakland might not be so convinced.