Racism in Policing, Prisons and Justice

Huff Post: 18 Examples Of Racism In The Criminal Legal System

“Racism may well be the biggest crime in the criminal legal system. If present trends continue, 1 of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, despite the fact that the Census Bureau reports that the U.S. is 13 percent Black, 61 percent white and 17 percent Latino.

When Brown v Board of Education was decided in 1954, about 100,000 African Americans were in prison. Now there are about 800,000 African Americans in jails and prisons: 538,000 in prisons, and over 263,000 in local jails. Black men are nearly 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely, according to the Sentencing Project.

Why? Because our country has dramatically expanded our jails and prisons and there is deep racism built into every step of the criminal legal system. Some think the criminal legal system has big problems that need to be reformed. Others think the racism in the criminal legal system is helping it operate exactly as it has been designed to incarcerate as many black and brown people as possible.

Here are 18 examples of racism in parts of different stages of the system. Taken together, the racism in each of these steps accelerates the process of incarceration of African American and Latino males. Together, they demonstrate that racism may well be the biggest crime in the criminal legal system.

1. Police Stops

Who is stopped by the police, either in cars or on foot, continues to be highly racialized as proof of racial profiling continues to accumulate. University of Kansas professors found the police conducted investigatory stops of African American males at twice the rate of whites. A black man in Kansas City, 25 or younger, has a 28 percent chance of being stopped, while a similar white male has only a 12 percent chance.

In New York City, police continue to stop Black and Hispanics at rates far higher than whites even though they are stopping many less people due to a successful civil rights federal court challenge by the Center for Constitutional Rights. One of the most illuminating studies is in Connecticut which showed racial disparities in traffic stops during the daytime, when the race of the driver can be seen, but not at night.

2. Police Searches

Once stopped, during traffic stops, 3 times as many Black and Hispanic drivers were searched as white drivers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the same U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, white drivers were also given tickets at a slightly lower rate than Black and Hispanic drivers.

3. Police Use of Force During Arrest

A recent report by Center for Policing Equity found that police are more likely to use force like Tasers, dogs, pepper spray and physical force against Black people than White people in making arrests.

4. Juvenile Arrests

Black youth are twice as likely to be arrested for crimes in school as white kids, over 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for curfew violations as white kids, twice as likely as white kids to be arrested for all crimes, and much more likely to be held in detention than white kids, according to the Sentencing Project.

5. Arrests in the Transgender Community

Hundreds of thousands of gay and transgender youth are arrested or detained every year and more than 60 percent are Black or Latino, according to the Center for American Progress.

6. Arrests for Drugs

Start with the fact that whites and blacks use and abuse drugs at about the same rates. This is proven by the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This study found drug and alcohol abuse among whites and blacks nearly the same with blacks reporting one percent higher on drug use than whites while whites have three percent higher rates of binge alcohol and one percent higher rates of substance abuse or dependence.

But when it comes to drug arrests, Blacks are arrested at a rate more than twice their percentage in the population. Twenty nine percent of drug arrests, according to FBI statistics, are of African American people.

7. Police Arrests for Marijuana

While marijuana use is similar in black and white communities, blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana as whites.

8. Pre-Trial Release

The National Academy of Sciences found that blacks are more likely than whites to be incarcerated while awaiting trial.

9. Prosecution Charges

Federal prosecutors are almost twice as likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences for African Americans than whites accused of the same crimes, according to a study published by the University of Michigan Law School.

10. Prison vs. Community Service

The National Academy of Sciences stated that blacks are more likely than whites to received prison terms rather than community service. Black people are imprisoned at twice the rate of white people in the U.S., according to the US Department of Justice.

11. Length of Incarceration

The National Academy of Sciences stated that, after conviction, blacks are more likely than whites to receive longer sentences.

12. State Drug Incarceration

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports 208,000 people are in state prisons for drug offenses. Of this number, 32 percent are white and 68 percent are African American or Hispanic.

13. Federal Drug Convictions

More than half of all federal prisoners are there for drug offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported 25 percent of all federal drug convictions in 2014 were of African Americans and 47 percent were Hispanics versus 24 percent of whites. In federal prisons, 22 percent are white and 76 percent are African American or Hispanic.

14. Federal Court Sentencing

African American men were sentenced to 19 percent longer time periods in federal courts across the U.S. than white men convicted of similar crimes in a 4-year study conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

15. Incarceration of Women

Black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women.

16. Sentencing to Life Without Parole

Over 65 percent of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses are black.

17. Hiring People With Criminal Records

Having a criminal record hurts a person’s ability to get a job ― but it hurts black men worse. In fact, white men with a criminal record have a better chance of getting a positive response in a job search than black men without a criminal record. This has been confirmed by a study of 6,000 applications in Arizona and an earlier study in Milwaukee and New York City.

18. Eliminating the Right to Vote

The impact of this is devastating. For example, 1 out of every 13 African Americans has lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement versus 1 in every 56 non-black voters.

Taken together, these facts demonstrate the deep racism embedded in the criminal legal system. None dare call this justice.



Table of Contents

Racial Disparities
Racial History of US Police
Modern Policing Issues
Racial History of US Justice System
Racial History of Prisons
Prisons Today: Private Prisons and Profits
History of Bail Bonds
Felon Voter Disenfranchisement
War on Drugs
School-to-Prison Pipeline
Alternatives to Calling the Police
Police Reform
Restorative Justice

Racial Disparities

While reading through the disparities, keep these numbers from the Census in your head

  • 62: the percentage of this country that is White American (not Latinx)
  • 13: the percentage of this country that is Black American

The Root w/Splinter: Criminal Justice in Black and White

Police Interactions

Mapping Police Violence

  • 27% of U.S. police killings between January 2013 – June 2017 were committed by police departments of the 100 largest U.S. cities.
  • Black people were 39% of people killed by these 100 police departments despite being only 21% of the population in their jurisdictions.
  • Only 1 of the 100 largest city police departments did not kill anyone from Jan 2013 – Jun 2017 (Irvine, CA).
  • 48% of unarmed people killed by the 100 largest city police departments were black. These police departments killed unarmed black people at a rate 4 times higher than unarmed white people.
  • Rates of violent crime in cities did not make it any more or less likely for police departments to kill people. For example, Buffalo and Newark police departments had low rates of police violence despite high crime rates while Spokane and Bakersfield had relatively low crime rates and high rates of police violence.

Click on the Police Accountability Tool to learn the police violence statistics in your state

  • Young black boys/men, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white boys/men.
  • Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and yet they are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police even though they weren’t attacking.
  • A 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report on racial profiling found that blacks and Latinos were 3 times as likely to be stopped as whites, and that blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and 4 times as likely “to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.”
  • Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Blacks are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes.
  • 1 in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106.
  • Minorities are less than 28% of the U.S. population, but they are nearly 60% of the prison population. Blacks in specific are less than 13% of the U.S. population, but they are 38% of the American prison population.
  • Black boys are five times as likely to go to jail as white boys; Latino boys are 3 times as likely.

The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • Studies have found police are more likely to stop, search, and arrest black people Because police are the gateway to the court and prison systems, understanding how bias affects policing practices is critical to understanding larger racial disparities in American criminal justice. Studies have shown that police officers can hold implicit biases that affect their decisions toward black individuals For example, a 2004 study found that when police officers were asked “who looks criminal?” and shown a series of pictures, they more often chose black faces than white ones. Likewise, in another 2004 study, researchers primed police officers to think about crimes using words like “violent,” “stop,” and “arrest,” then showed them a series of photographs. The study found that once primed, the officers focused more quickly on black male faces and remembered those faces to have features that have been considered to be stereotypically black—such as a broad nose, thick lips, and dark skin.
  • The best available evidence suggests that police bias toward black Americans, coupled with strategic decisions to deploy certain law enforcement practices—like hot spots policing more heavily in black communities, increases the likelihood of encounters with police and negative outcomes like stops, searches, use of force, and arrest.
    • Studies on police use of force reveal that black people are more likely than white people to experience use of force by police. A study of police use of non-fatal force from 2002 to 2011 found that in street stops, 14 percent of black people experienced non-fatal force compared to 6.9 percent of white people stopped by the police.
    • Studies have found that police are more likely to pull over and search black drivers despite lower contraband hit rates.In a study of investigatory traffic stops in Kansas City among drivers under 25 years old, 28 percent of black men and 17 percent of black women were pulled over in 2011 for an investigatory stop, compared to 13 percent of white men and 7 percent of white women. In 2016, a Police Accountability Task Force in Chicago found that police searched black and Latino drivers four times as often as white drivers. However, police found contra-band on white drivers twice as often as black and Latino drivers. In a similar study in 2017 at Stanford University, researchers developed a “threshold test” to quantify how officers initiate searches. The study found that police in North Carolina employ a lower search threshold to black and Latino people than they do to white people and Asian people, searching 5.4 percent of black people pulled over compared to 3.1 percent of white people.
    • Studies have shown similar disparities in police pedestrian stops. A study of 125,000 pedestrian stops by police in New York City found black people were stopped more than 23 percent more often than white people—even when controlling for “race-specific estimates of crime”—representing over half of the stops and only 26 percent of the city’s population.Moreover, stops of black people were also less likely to lead to an arrest.
    • Studies have also shown that police are more likely to arrest black people. A meta-analysis of 23 research studies that focused on the relationship between race and the likelihood of an arrest between 1977 and 2004 found that black people were more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, even when controlling for factors like the seriousness of the offense and the suspect’s prior record. Similarly, a study of the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data found that after controlling for differences in drug offending, non-drug offending, and neighborhood context, racial disparities in drug-related arrests still persist. This finding suggests that just being black significantly raises one’s chances of arrest. Moreover, a 2010 ACLU study found that black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though both groups use the drug at similar rates.

Source: Vera: An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System

Open Carry: Black Man Vs White Man

Racial Police Brutality Captured on Tap

Since the rise of cellphone cameras and police body cameras there has been a rise of police brutality against black people captured on tape. *Trigger Warning*

Criminal Justice/Courts

  • Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Blacks are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • A black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a better chance of being arrested. Once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people. And for many years, laws assigned much harsher sentences for using or possessing crack, for example, compared to cocaine. Finally, when black people are convicted, they are more likely to be sent to jail. And their sentences tend to be both harsher and longer than those for whites who were convicted of similar crimes. And as we know, a felony conviction means, in many states, that you lose your right to vote. Right now in America, as many as 13% of black men are not allowed to vote.

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real

  • Biased decision making by prosecutors also negatively impacts people of color. Prosecutors hold a particularly outsized role in the criminal justice process, with discretionary decision-making power over charging and plea bargains. Their recommendations also can anchor courtroom discussions about pretrial detention, bail amounts, and sentencing. Research shows that bias can affect how prosecutors exercise their discretion in the cases of black people
    • A 2012 review by the Vera Institute of Justice of 34 studies looked at the effect of prosecutorial decision making on racial disparities in sentencing and at five other discretion points. A greater number of studies found that people of color are more likely to be prosecuted, held in pretrial detention, and to receive other harsh treatment
    • A 2013 study found that federal prosecutors are more likely to charge black people than similarly situated white people with offenses that carry higher mandatory minimum sentences. A 2006 study found that state prosecutors are more likely to charge black people under habitual offender statutes than similarly-situated white people.
    • Implicit bias can also impact the plea bargaining phase, by which the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved. A 2017 study of more than 48,000 misdemeanor and felony cases in Wisconsin between 2000 and 2006 found that white people were 25 percent more likely to have their top charge dropped or reduced by prosecutors than black people. Disparities were especially glaring when misdemeanor cases only were considered: white people were nearly 75 percent more likely than black people to see all misdemeanor charges carrying a potential sentence of incarceration dropped, dismissed, or amended to lesser charges. The result of these disparities is that black people originally charged with misdemeanors are not only more likely to be convicted, they are more likely to be sentenced to incarceration than white people
  • Judicial bias can lead to worse criminal justice outcomes for black people. Judges too have been found to hold implicit biases that can impact their treatment of the black people whose cases are before them. For example, a 2009 study of judges’ implicit biases found that white judges were more motivated to be fair when they were told that the accused was black. When not explicitly told the race of the defendant, but primed with cues that implied the defendant was black, judges imposed moderately harsher sentences.Because judges oversee every stage of the court process, their biases can lead to harsher outcomes at multiple discretion points in a case, from pretrial detention through sentencing.
    • A 2009 study of drug offense convictions in three U.S. district courts found that black people had higher odds of pretrial detention than white people. Moreover, those charged for offenses related to crack cocaine—a charge more common among black people than white people—were more likely to be held pretrial than those charged for offenses involving powder cocaine. Whether a defendant is held pretrial has downstream effects on sentencing: this study found that men who were in custody during their sentencing hearings received sentences about eight months longer on average than those who were released before their hearings.
    • A 2013 review of 50 years of studies on racial disparities in bail practices found that black people are subject to pretrial detention more frequently, and have bail set at higher amounts, than white people who have similar criminal histories and are facing similar charges. Studies documented this disparity in state and federal cases as well as juvenile justice proceedings, and in all regions of the country.
    • In a review of 40 studies into the linkage between race and ethnicity and sentencing severity, researchers found that at both the state and federal levels, black people were more likely to receive more severe sentences than their white counterparts. This finding holds true even when
      controlling for differences in criminal histories and the effects of policies that have a disparate impact on people of color, like the drug laws and hot spots policing practices discussed above. Moreover, a 2005 analysis of 40 studies on racial disparities in sentencing at the state and federal levels found that 43 percent of studies at the state level and 68 percent at the federal level reported direct racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes, impacting both the initial decision to incarcerate and the length of any ultimate sentence to incarceration.
    • A study of capital cases in Philadelphia found that when the victim was white and the accused black, defendants who were perceived to have a more “stereotypically Black appearance” were more than twice as likely to receive a death sentence as black people on trial who were perceived as less so. The accused person’s appearance made a difference, however, when both the victim and the accused were black.
    • Multiple studies demonstrate the impact of skin color on sentencing, with lighter-skinned black people often receiving more lenient treatment and darker-skinned black people receiving more punitive sentences. For instance, when controlling for the type of offense, socioeconomic status, and demographic indicators among a subset of incarcerated men in Georgia from 1995 to 2002, dark-skinned black men received prison sentences a year-and-a-half longer—and the lightest-skinned black men about three-and-a-half months longer—than their white counterparts. A 2015 study of men facing first-time felony charges found that darker-skinned black men received sentences that were, on average, 400 days longer than their white counterparts, while medium-skinned black men received sentences about 200 days longer than their white counterparts. On average, black men received a sentence 270 days longer than white men.
    • A study of cases in which men were charged with felony crimes in urban U.S. counties in 2000 found that black defendants were more likely to be detained pretrial; that pretrial detention impacted the likelihood of a guilty plea for black, white, and Latino defendants; and that both detention and guilty pleas affected sentence outcomes. Taken together, the effects of cumulative bias increased the probability that the average black person charged with a felony would go to prison by 26 percent.
  • Studies have found evidence of racial bias against black people in jury verdicts and sentencing. The potential racial bias of jurors in criminal cases has been examined in studies using archival analysis of case verdicts, post-trial juror interviews, and mock jury experiments in which researchers can randomly assign subjects to “juries” and control for and isolate variables of interest. Such studies have examined both the impact of the racial composition of juries on sentences, as well as the effect of the defendant’s race on jurors’ decision making. The results are complex and the scholarship is incomplete, and while some research attributes racial discrimination by jurors to a bias against defendants who belong to a race different than their own, studies do show evidence that implicit bias may influence white jurors in some cases where the accused is black.
    • In a 2003 review of empirical research on race and juries, the authors found complex relationships between implicit juror bias and a defendant’s race depending on the type of case at issue. In studies that used summaries of trials that were more “racially charged,” like a summary of the O.J. Simpson case, white mock jurors appeared less likely to exhibit bias. When studies used trials that were not racially charged, racial biases were found, suggesting that the white mock jurors were motivated to appear less racist the more racially salient the case before them.
    • A 2005 meta-analysis of 34 studies on mock jury verdict decisions and 16 studies on mock juror sentencing decisions found a notable effect of racial bias on mock jurors’ decision making. The study shows that mock jurors are more likely to render both guilty verdicts and longer sentences to defendants whose race differsd from their own, suggesting that jurors are more lenient toward members of their own racial groups.
    • A 2010 study found that mock jurors showed racial bias toward darker-skinned individuals, evaluating ambiguous evidence as a greater indication of guilt than they did for lighter-skinned people. Moreover, when asked to rate the defendant’s level of guilt on a scale of 1 to 100, mock jurors perceived the darker-skinned individuals to be more guilty than lighter-skinned individuals. Perhaps most notably, the study found that many mock jurors could not recall whether the defendant was a lighter- or darker-skinned individual, implying that the defendant’s skin tone was not consciously, but rather implicitly, considered in their evaluation of guilt. These findings held true regardless of the race of the mock juror (though none of the jurors were black).

 Source: Vera: An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real


Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality

Prison (Mass Incarceration)

  • 1 in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106.
  • Minorities are less than 28% of the U.S. population, but they are nearly 60% of the prison population. Blacks in specific are less than 13% of the U.S. population, but they are 38% of the American prison population.
  • Black boys are five times as likely to go to jail as white boys; Latino boys are 3 times as likely.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • Blacks make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.

Mass Incarceration, Visualized

School-to-Prison Pipeline


  • The US Department of Education recently found that Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than White preschoolers. Preschoolers. Representing 19% of preschoolers, Black children make up half of all preschool suspensions.
  • Given these disparities that begin so early, it’s no surprise that large gaps in achievement and representation in advanced classes for Black and White students persist.
  • And the predominately White teaching force plays a role. The Washington Post reports that “Black students are half as likely as white students to be assigned to gifted programs, even when they have comparably high test scores.” That disparity disappears when the teacher is Black.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of all bachelor degrees are held by White Americans. While Black enrollment in universities has “skyrocketed” in the past twenty years – despite the bleak disparities of public education – Black Americans make up only 6% of enrollment at “top-tier” universities.

    • Census reminder #1: It should be 62% and 13% – not 69% and 6%.

Source: Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

War of Drugs Stats

  • Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and they make up only 14% of regular drug users, but they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • Black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white kids —even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs
  • What the War on Drugs has done is trap millions of people, especially black men, in poverty, and push them toward a life of crime. With black boys arrested 10 times more frequently than white boys, for a non-violent crime that they commit less frequently than white boys, black men are funneled into the criminal justice system from a young age. With felonies on their records, it is incredibly difficult for black men to get work. As a result, they are trapped in low-paying jobs, or worse, turning to crime. Finally, once they have a felony on their record, most states prohibit them from voting.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • In our federal prisons, 46% are incarcerated because of drug offenses. Yet a 2013 government survey of 67,500 people revealed that White and Black Americans use drugs at similar rates (9.5% and 10.5%, respectively).
    • Isolate heroin use, and the picture shifts dramatically. The New York Times reports that “nearly 90% of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were White.”

Source: Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

Opioid Vs. Crack Addiction: A Racial Double Standard?

NY Times: The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments

“In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments. Minorities make up a quarter of police forces, according to the 2007 survey, the most recent comprehensive data available. Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University. Listed below are local police departments from 17 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.”

Newsweek: The New Racial Makeup of U.S. Police Departments

“First, the good news: The percentage of minority police officers in U.S. local law enforcement agencies almost doubled between 1987 and 2013, according to new U.S. government data.

The not-so-good news? Research unrelated to this study indicates that diverse departments don’t equate to improved relations between cops and communities of color, an issue that hit a breaking point in recent months due to a series of police killings of unarmed black men.

But back to the demographics: In 2013, racial or ethnic minorities comprised 27 percent of local police officers, the Bureau of Justice Statistics(BJS) reported Thursday morning. That’s up from 15 percent in 1987, the first year the periodic study was conducted, and 25 percent in 2007, the last year it was conducted. In terms of raw numbers, there were 130,000 minority local police officers in 2013. That’s an increase of 78,000 officers from 1987 and 13,000 from 2007.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics said in the report there are more than 12,000 local police departments in the U.S. These agencies employ some 605,000 full-time staffers, approximately 477,000 of which are sworn officers (“those with general arrest powers,” per the BJS). The non-sworn staffers comprise some 128,000 of these employees.

What groups account for the increase in minority police officers? Sixty percent of the increase between 2007 and 2013 stems from Hispanics and Latinos, and the estimated 12 percent of officers who were Hispanic or Latino in 2013 is more than twice the some 5 percent in 1987. Twelve percent of local police officers were black in 2013, up from 9 percent  in 1987. Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native persons comprised 3 percent of local police officers in 2013 and 2007, but that’s “about four times higher than in 1987,” according to the BJS. As far as trends go, “in general, departments in larger jurisdictions were more diverse than those in smaller ones,” a summary of the study states.

There are also more females on the force across the U.S. In 2013, approximately 58,000 females worked as local police officers, whereas only 27,000 did so in 1987.

Several experts interviewed by Newsweek said the increased diversity doesn’t necessarily mean relations between police and communities of color are more amicable.

Alex S. Vitale, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, told Newsweek that black and white officers “aren’t really different” in terms of reports of excessive use of force and arrests. Some research even suggests “black officers are more likely to make arrests of black suspects than their white counterparts are in the same circumstances.”

“The overarching reality is that these officers are part of an institution that has very clear expectations and demands and they respond to the demands in the way that white officers do,” he says. “Black communities often express a desire to have police officers that match the demographics of the community, but when communities are surveyed about their satisfaction with the police, communities with more diverse police forces don’t report higher satisfaction.”

“This is, in my opinion, a total canard,” he adds. “It’s maybe important from an employment standpoint, but it’s not going to make any difference in terms of the profound problems of over-policing and excessive use of force.”

The Washington Post has written on several studies detailing the link between police diversity and community relations. Lydia DePillis noted that a 2004 analysis of data from St. Petersburg, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana concluded “black officers are more likely to conduct coercive actions” than their white colleagues when resolving conflicts. DePillis also references a 2006 analysis of Cincinnati Police Department records; in her words, the study found “white officers were more likely to arrest suspects than black officers overall—but it also found that black officers were significantly more likely to make an arrest when the suspect was black.”

Moreover, she writes that a 2011 Washington Post poll found that black residents rated the police department at a “relatively low 60 percent” even though “the force is highly integrated.” She also notes: “The New York Police Department’s demographics are close to those of the rest of the city, but a Quinnipiac poll from 2014 found that only 54 percent of black residents approved of its performance. The Detroit police department is so dominated by African Americans that it’s been sued for discrimination against whites, and yet only 18 percent of black Wayne County residents approved of its work in 2009.”

Delores Jones-Brown, professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and founder of the school’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice, says the effects of more diversity on police rosters are unclear.

“The research is divided on the issue of whether or not diversifying police departments has any specific impacts,” she explains. “There’s one set of research that says that regardless of the identity of the police officer, they become part of a police culture and in that police culture there is an ‘us-versus-them’ personality.”

“The police put themselves and their own safety ahead of that of the general public and they believe they have a right to go home at the end of the shift,” regardless of what that means for other people, Jones-Brown says.

This doesn’t mean that diversifying police departments can’t improve relations with communities of color. Institutional culture–and officer education–could make diversity more meaningful in a policing context.

“The idea is that the diversity can be a good thing but it should not be looked at as a panacea,” Jones-Brown says. “A combination of diversity and better training should lead to better results.””

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Racial History of US Policing

EKU: A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing

“The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.

Policing was not the only social institution enmeshed in slavery. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order with laws being enacted at both the state and national divisions of government. Virginia, for example, enacted more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of people of color, however, was not merely a southern affair as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress also passed fugitive Slave Laws, laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”

The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War. In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction. Because vigilantes, by definition, have no external restraints, lynch mobs had a justified reputation for hanging minorities first and asking questions later. Because of its tradition of slavery, which rested on the racist rationalization that Blacks were sub-human, America had a long and shameful history of mistreating people of color, long after the end of the Civil War. Perhaps the most infamous American vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan started in the 1860s, was notorious for assaulting and lynching Black men for transgressions that would not be considered crimes at all, had a White man committed them. Lynching occurred across the entire county not just in the South. Finally, in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibited state actors from violating the Civil Rights of all citizens in part because of law enforcements’ involvement with the infamous group. This legislation, however, did not stem the tide of racial or ethnic abuse that persisted well into the 1960s.

Though having white skin did not prevent discrimination in America, being White undoubtedly made it easier for ethnic minorities to assimilate into the mainstream of America. The additional burden of racism has made that transition much more difficult for those whose skin is black, brown, red, or yellow. In no small part because of the tradition of slavery, Blacks have long been targets of abuse. The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cases, police harassment simply meant people of African descent were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, while at the other extreme, they have suffered beatings, and even murder, at the hands of White police. Questions still arise today about the disproportionately high numbers of people of African descent killed, beaten, and arrested by police in major urban cities of America.”

Time: How the U.S. Got Its Police Force

“Policing in Colonial America had been very informal, based on a for-profit, privately funded system that employed people part-time. Towns also commonly relied on a “night watch” in which volunteers signed up for a certain day and time, mostly to look out for fellow colonists engaging in prostitution or gambling. (Boston started one in 1636, New York followed in 1658 and Philadelphia created one in 1700.) But that system wasn’t very efficient because the watchmen often slept and drank while on duty, and there were people who were put on watch duty as a form of punishment.

Night-watch officers were supervised by constables, but that wasn’t exactly a highly sought-after job, either. Early policemen “didn’t want to wear badges because these guys had bad reputations to begin with, and they didn’t want to be identified as people that other people didn’t like,” says Potter. When localities tried compulsory service, “if you were rich enough, you paid someone to do it for you — ironically, a criminal or a community thug.”

As the nation grew, however, different regions made use of different policing systems.

In cities, increasing urbanization rendered the night-watch system completely useless as communities got too big. The first publicly funded, organized police force with officers on duty full-time was created in Boston in 1838. Boston was a large shipping commercial center, and businesses had been hiring people to protect their property and safeguard the transport of goods from the port of Boston to other places, says Potter. These merchants came up with a way to save money by transferring to the cost of maintaining a police force to citizens by arguing that it was for the “collective good.”

In the South, however, the economics that drove the creation of police forces were centered not on the protection of shipping interests but on the preservation of the slavery system. Some of the primary policing institutions there were the slave patrols tasked with chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts, Potter says; the first formal slave patrol had been created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. During the Civil War, the military became the primary form of law enforcement in the South, but during Reconstruction, many local sheriffs functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves.

In general, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the definition of public order — that which the police officer was charged with maintaining — depended whom was asked.

For example, businessmen in the late 19th century had both connections to politicians and an image of the kinds of people most likely to go on strike and disrupt their workforce. So it’s no coincidence that by the late 1880s, all major U.S. cities had police forces. Fears of labor-union organizers and of large waves of Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants, who looked and acted differently from the people who had dominated cities before, drove the call for the preservation of law and order, or at least the version of it promoted by dominant interests. For example, people who drank at taverns rather than at home were seen as “dangerous” people by others, but they might have pointed out other factors such as how living in a smaller home makes drinking in a tavern more appealing. (The irony of this logic, Potter points out, is that the businessmen who maintained this belief were often the ones who profited off of the commercial sale of alcohol in public places.)

At the same time, the late 19th century was the era of political machines, so police captains and sergeants for each precinct were often picked by the local political party ward leader, who often owned taverns or ran street gangs that intimidated voters. They then were able to use police to harass opponents of that particular political party, or provide payoffs for officers to turn a blind eye to allow illegal drinking, gambling and prostitution.

This situation was exacerbated during Prohibition, leading President Hoover to appoint the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to investigate the ineffectiveness of law enforcement nationwide. To make police independent from political party ward leaders, the map of police precincts was changed so that they would not correspond with political wards.

The drive to professionalize the police followed, which means that the concept of a career cop as we’d recognize it today is less than a century old.

Further campaigns for police professionalism were promoted as the 20th century progressed, but crime historian Samuel Walker’s The Police in America: An Introduction argues that the move toward professionalism wasn’t all good: that movement, he argues, promoted the creation of police departments that were “inward-looking” and “isolated from the public,” and crime-control tactics that ended up exacerbating tensions between police and the communities they watch over. And so, more than a half-century after Kennedy’s 1963 proclamation, the improvement and modernization of America’s surprisingly young police force continues to this day.”

Snopes: The Origins of Policing in the United States

“Law enforcement has always existed in one form or another.  The first constables (from the Roman comes stabuli, or “head of the stables”) with duties very similar to today’s sheriffs, were around at least since the 9th century, and traveled to the Americas from Europe to supplant the systems that existed there at the time in the 1600s. The Encyclopedia of Police Science delves into the history of constables in the colonies:

In the American colonies the constable was the first law enforcement officer. His duties varied from place to place according to the needs of the people he served. Usually, the constable sealed weights and measures, surveyed land, announced marriages, and executed all warrants.  Additionally, he meted out physical punishments and kept the peace.

The informal and communal system known as “the Watch” worked (more or less efficiently) on a volunteer basis in the early colonies; there were also private policing systems for hire that functioned on a for-profit basis.  As populations grew, so did demands for more functional system of policing towns and cities. Volunteers would often show up to their posts drunk or not at all, and the systems were disorganized or hopelessly corrupt.

According to Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University, a centralized, bureaucratic police system did not emerge until well into the 1800s, but was quickly adopted by cities around the country:

It was not until the 1830s that the idea of a centralized municipal police department first emerged in the United States. In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857 (Harring 1983, Lundman 1980; Lynch 1984). By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.

These “modern police” organizations shared similar characteristics: (1) they were publicly supported and bureaucratic in form; (2) police officers were full-time employees, not community volunteers or case-by-case fee retainers; (3) departments had permanent and fixed rules and procedures, and employment as a police officers was continuous; (4) police departments were accountable to a central governmental authority (Lundman 1980).

More than a hundred years earlier, in 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the fledgling United States’ first slave patrol.  The patrol consisted of roving bands of armed white citizens who would stop, question, and punish slaves caught without a permit to travel.  They were civil organizations, controlled and maintained by county courts.  The way the patrols were organized and maintained provided a later framework for preventive (rather than reactive) community policing, particularly in the South:

Policing had always been a reactive enterprise, occurring only in response to a specific criminal act. Centralized and bureaucratic police departments, focusing on the alleged crime-producing qualities of the “dangerous classes” began to emphasize preventative crime control. The presence of police, authorized to use force, could stop crime before it started by subjecting everyone to surveillance and observation. The concept of the police patrol as a preventative control mechanism routinized the insertion of police into the normal daily events of everyone’s life, a previously unknown and highly feared concept in both England and the United States (Parks 1976).

Patrols in the northern U.S. also became useful for breaking up labor strikes before they became too destructive (Marxist political historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to the mechanisms of violence and destruction of property to agitate for better working conditions as “collective bargaining by riot”) and these services became increasingly utilized as the country became more populated and conditions simultaneously grew more difficult for the United States’ restive economic underclasses.

In fact, police duties since the 1800s can be easily traced along the ebb and flow of political pressures as well as social issues:

In 1822, for example, Charleston, South Carolina, experienced a slave insurrection panic, caused by a supposed plot of slaves and free blacks to seize the city. In response, the State legislature passed the Negro Seamen’s Act, requiring free black seamen to remain on board their vessels while in Carolina harbors. If they dared to leave their ships, the police were instructed to arrest them and sell them into slavery unless they were redeemed by the ship’s master.

Similarly, patrols such as the Mounted Guards (forerunners to what eventually became the Border Patrol) were put in place to maintain minority quotas, among other things:

Mounted watchmen of the U.S. Immigration Service patrolled the border in an effort to prevent illegal crossings as early as 1904, but their efforts were irregular and undertaken only when resources permitted. The inspectors, usually called Mounted Guards, operated out of El Paso, Texas. Though they never totaled more than seventy-five, they patrolled as far west as California trying to restrict the flow of illegal Chinese immigration.

In March 1915, Congress authorized a separate group of Mounted Guards, often referred to as Mounted Inspectors. Most rode on horseback, but a few operated cars and even boats. Although these inspectors had broader arrest authority, they still largely pursued Chinese immigrants trying to avoid the Chinese exclusion laws.

Modern law enforcement evolved out of complex brew of a larger population, shifting sociopolitical class boundaries, and other external issues (such as the labor pressures that created an unhappy underclass) and a shift in the way policing was regarded by business owners and the population at large: proactive rather than reactive.

However, it is important to note that “the police” do not consist of a homogenous block of the American population, and while the early days of modern-day police forces are undeniable and under-covered facets of its history, the focus and perspective of policing is a complicated and fraught subject.  It would be a mistake to assume that police in 2016 are the same as police in the 1870s, and to conclude that the profile of law enforcement in the United States — and around the world — has not changed throughout its existence.  It would also be a mistake to assume that law enforcement cannot or will not be changed again in response to popular pressure, given that its focus has varied dramatically since its inception.”

Sage Pub: The History of the Police

Slave Patrols: The Birth of the Modern Police

Smithsonian: The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.

“Last month, hours after a jury acquitted former police officer Jeronimo Yanez of manslaughter in the shooting death of 32-year-old Philando Castile, protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, shutdown Interstate 94. With signs that read: “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” the chant of “Philando, Philando” rang out as they marched down the highway in the dark of night.

The scene was familiar. A year earlier, massive protests had erupted when Yanez killed Castile, after pulling him over for a broken taillight. Dashcam footage shows Yanez firing through the open window of Castile’s car, seconds after Castile disclosed that he owned and was licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

A respected school nutritionist, Castile was one of 233 African-Americans shot and killed by police in 2016, a startling number when demographics are considered. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 24 percent of people fatally shot by police. According to the Washington Post, blacks are “2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”

Today’s stories are anything but a recent phenomenon. A cardboard placard in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and on view in the new exhibition “More Than a Picture,” underscores that reality.

We Demand

“The message after 50 years is still unresolved,” remarks Samuel Egerton, who donated the poster to the Smithsonian after carrying it in protest during the 1963 March on Washington. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Samuel Y. Edgerton)

The yellowing sign is a reminder of the continuous oppression and violence that has disproportionately shaken black communities for generations—“We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” is painted in red and white letters.

“The message after 50 years is still unresolved,” remarks Samuel Egerton, a college professor, who donated the poster to the museum. He carried it in protest during the 1963 March on Washington. Five decades later, the poster’s message rings alarmingly timely. Were it not for the yellowed edges, the placard could almost be mistaken for a sign from any of the Black Lives Matter marches of the past three years.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ’When will you be satisfied?” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march. His words continue to resonate today after a long history of violent confrontations between African-American citizens and the police. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

“This idea of police brutality was very much on people’s minds in 1963, following on the years, decades really, of police abuse of power and then centuries of oppression of African-Americans,” says William Pretzer, senior history curator at the museum.

Stop Murder by Police

A poster, collected in Baltimore, Maryland, by curators at the National Museum of African American History, following the death of Freddie Gray. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Modern policing did not evolve into an organized institution until the 1830s and ’40s when northern cities decided they needed better control over quickly growing populations. The first American police department was established in Boston in 1838. The communities most targeted by harsh tactics were recent European immigrants. But, as African-Americans fled the horrors of the Jim Crow south, they too became the victims of brutal and punitive policing in the northern cities where they sought refuge.

In 1929, the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice published the Illinois Crime Survey. Conducted between 1927 and 1928, the survey sought to analyze causes of high crime rates in Chicago and Cook County, especially among criminals associated with Al Capone. But also the survey provided data on police activity—although African-Americans made up just five percent of the area’s population, they constituted 30 percent of the victims of police killings, the survey revealed.

“There was a lot of one-on-one conflict between police and citizens and a lot of it was initiated by the police,” says Malcolm D. Holmes, a sociology professor at the University of Wyoming, who has researched and written about the topic of police brutality extensively.

That same year, President Herbert Hoover established the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement to investigate crime related to prohibition in addition to policing tactics. Between 1931 and 1932, the commission published the findings of its investigation in 14 volumes, one of which was titled “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.” The realities of police brutality came to light, even though the commission did not address racial disparities outright.

During the Civil Rights Era, though many of the movement’s leaders advocated for peaceful protests, the 1960s were fraught with violent and destructive riots.

Police Disperse Marchers with Tear Gas
Police Disperse Marchers with Tear Gas by unidentified photographer, 1966 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Aggressive dispersion tactics, such as police dogs and fire hoses, against individuals in peaceful protests and sit-ins were the most widely publicized examples of police brutality in that era. But it was the pervasive violent policing in communities of color that built distrust at a local, everyday level.

One of the deadliest riots occurred in Newark in 1967 after police officers severely beat black cab driver John Smith during a traffic stop. Twenty-six people died and many others were injured during the four days of unrest. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson organized the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the causes of these major riots.

The origins of the unrest in Newark weren’t unique in a police versus citizen incident. The commission concluded “police actions were ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.”

The commission identified segregation and poverty as indicators and published recommendations for reducing social inequalities, recommending an “expansion and reorientation of the urban renewal program to give priority to projects directly assisting low-income households to obtain adequate housing.” Johnson, however, rejected the commission’s recommendations.

Black newspapers reported incidents of police brutality throughout the early and mid-20th century and the popularization of radio storytelling spread those stories even further. In 1991, following the beating of cab driver Rodney King, video footage vividly told the story of police brutality on television to a much wider audience. The police officers, who were acquitted of the crime, had hit King more than 50 times with their batons.

Today, live streaming, tweets and Facebook posts have blasted the incidents of police brutality, beyond the black community and into the mainstream media. Philando Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her daughter when he was shot, streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on her phone using Facebook live.

“Modern technology allows, indeed insists, that the white community take notice of these kinds of situations and incidents,” says Pretzer.

And as technology has evolved, so has the equipment of law enforcement. Police departments with military-grade equipment have become the norm in American cities. Images of police officers in helmets and body armor riding through neighborhoods in tanks accompany stories of protests whenever one of these incidents occurs.

“What we see is a continuation of an unequal relationship that has been exacerbated, made worse if you will, by the militarization and the increase in fire power of police forces around the country,” says Pretzer.

The resolution to the problem, according to Pretzer, lies not only in improving these unbalanced police-community relationships, but, more importantly, in eradicating the social inequalities that perpetuate these relationships that sustain distrust and frustration on both sides.

’There’s a tendency to stereotype people as being more or less dangerous. There’s a reliance upon force that goes beyond what is necessary to accomplish police duty,” says Holmes. “There’s a lot of this embedded in the police departments that helps foster this problem.”

Vox: The ugly history of racist policing in America

For the third consecutive summer, America’s attention has been turned to the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement — from the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, to the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, to the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this week.

The roots of the outrage and unrest that often follow such killings go back much, much further.

In 2014, during the unrest in Ferguson, Vox spoke with historian Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at Temple University who writes extensively on 20th-century urban politics and criminal justice and worked on the National Research Council’s 2014 report on mass incarceration, to talk about the tense and often hostile history between African Americans and the police in America.

Dara Lind: What does history teach us about what’s going on in Ferguson?

Heather Ann Thompson: There are some locally important things about this, and there are some nationally important things. There’s been a lot of attention to the fact that St. Louis did not riot during the 1960s, for example. But St. Louis has always had this very tortured racial history. In July of 1917, there was one of the most brutal riots against African Americans there — scores and scores of white folks attacking blacks simply for being employed in wartime industries. There were indiscriminate attacks and, in effect, lynchings: beatings, hangings of black residents.

So the fact that St. Louis didn’t erupt in the ’60s is almost an anomaly or an outlying story. Because St. Louis does have very tense race relations between whites and blacks, and also between the police and the black community.

detroit national guard civil unrest

This isn’t the first time the National Guard’s been called in against black protesters. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto)

Nationally, it suggests that we haven’t learned nearly enough from our history. Not just 1917, and all the riots that happened in 1919, and 1921 — but, much more specifically, from the ‘60s. Because of course, this is exactly the same issue that generated most of the rebellions of the 1960s. In 1964, exactly 50 years ago, [unrest in] Philadelphia, Rochester, and Harlem were all touched off by the killing of young African Americans. That’s what touches off Harlem. It’s the beating of a young black man that touches off Rochester in ’64. It’s the rumor that a pregnant woman has been killed by the police in Philadelphia in ’64. So in some sense, my reaction to this is: of course. Because until you fundamentally deal with this issue of police accountability in the black community and fair policing in the black community, this is always a possibility.

DL: This continuity from the white attacks on black citizens after World War I, to the rioting of disenfranchised African Americans in the 1960s, is interesting. Is there a relationship between those two and between the violence of private white citizens and violence of police?

HT: On the surface they seem unrelated: you’ve got racist white citizens who are attacking blacks in the streets, and then years or decades later, you have the police acting violently in the black community.

“it’s the police that are called out when blacks try to integrate white neighborhoods”

In response to all those riots in the 1910s and 1920s, civil rights commissions were set up in cities, and there was pressure on both local and federal governments to address white vigilantism and white rioting against blacks. And while it was not particularly effective, it certainly had this censuring quality to it. And then what historians would agree happened is that, in so many cities, the police became the proxy for what the white community wants.

So one of the answers is that police became the front line of the white community — or, at least, the most racially conservative white community. It’s the police that are called out, for example, when blacks try to integrate white neighborhoods. It’s the police that become that body that defends whites in their homes.

cop bobby stick watts riots

Fifty years ago this summer, protests in Rochester brought out aggressive police response. (William Lovelace/Hulton)

DL: How did this play out after the unrest that you mentioned?

HT: We start the war on crime in 1965, which, of course, is very much in response to these urban rebellions. Because politicians decide that protests against things like police brutality are exactly the same thing as crime — that this is disorderly. This is criminal.

And so, police are specifically charged with keeping order and with stopping crime, which has now become synonymous with black behavior in the streets. The police, again, become that entity that polices black boundaries. And I will tell you that one of the most striking things about the media coverage of Ferguson is that they are absolutely doing what they did in the 1960s in terms of the reporting: “This is all about the looters, this is all about black violence.”

DL: It certainly seems that even before any looting actually happened in Ferguson, police were anticipating that kind of thing.

HT: Any time that there is urban rebellion, the way that it is spun has everything to do with whether it’s granted legitimacy. Notably, when there was rioting in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and you saw the police with fire hoses and police dogs, it was very easy for white Northerners, particularly the press, to report that for exactly what it was — which was police violence on black citizens who were protesting. Everyone’s very clear about that. Sheriff Bull Connor is a racist, the police are racist, and that is why it is violent.

But the minute that these protests moved northward, the racial narrative was much more uncomfortable. “Why in the world would blacks be protesting against us good-hearted white folks in the North? And how dare they?” And what it means is that they were demanding too much, and that they were in fact just looking for trouble. So that narrative of who gets to be a legitimate protester shifts dramatically once protests move northward. It’s all about violence, troublemaking, looting, and so forth.

rochester riot army

Northerners sympathized with protesters in Birmingham, but in Rochester they sent in the army. (William Lovelace/Hulton Archive)

DL: What’s the response to a narrative like that?

HT: Even in the 1960s, you’ve got the white and black liberals who are saying, “Calm down, calm down, go home, stop this. Be peaceful.” And the white community, white politicians are desperate for these black politicians to have that kind of legitimacy: “Please go out and entice people to calm down!”

“they don’t have rubber bullets. it’s never a fair fight.”

Until black life is valued to the same extent white life is by members of law enforcement and by the criminal-justice community, there will be this question of legitimacy of the police and their actions, particularly among black folks who are routinely stopped. And then, people get angry. And then, people do start throwing rocks and bottles. But make no mistake about it: they don’t have rubber bullets. It’s never a fair fight.

DL: What we’ve heard from police officers is that the best way to prevent something like what’s happening in Ferguson is for residents to already trust the police, to have a good relationship during so-called “normal” times — when there isn’t an obvious incident. How has that worked in the past?

HT: It doesn’t work. It isn’t working. It’s the reason why immigrant communities, for example, are terrified to call the police in times when police might be needed — for domestic violence, for times when people have been robbed or been victimized —because the police might then round them up and deport them. There’s no legitimacy. The data is clear that the community knows, firsthand and every day, that the level of policing of black communities is so disproportionate to both the lethalness and the severity of crime that’s taking place.

Most people are not being arrested for raping and robbing, murdering and stealing. It’s this low level, oppressive policing of communities on the basis of marijuana possession. Low-level drug busts. Riding up on people. Throwing them against cars. Not because blacks do drugs more than whites, not because they possess it more, but because that’s where the policing is.

riot police Miami 1989

Riot police in Miami, 1989. (Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty)

DL: How does that specifically relate to what happened in Ferguson?

HT: For Ferguson, it’s much more about the fact that there is an absolute unwillingness to deal with the core issues in American society about equality in the streets: [the principle that] a black citizen and a white citizen really do have equal rights under the laws. Black citizens don’t believe it. They shouldn’t believe it. It’s not true that they have equal rights under the laws. It’s not true that they have the same assumptions of innocence. It’s not true that they have the same assumptions of peaceful countenance.

“on some level, it doesn’t even matter what the circumstances are”

And so, Ferguson happens. A kid gets killed. On some level, it doesn’t even matter what the circumstances are around the death. Because all that anyone needs to know is that here is yet another young African-American kid who is going about his business and he’s now dead. Let’s imagine that somehow he was hassling the police. Let’s imagine that. Does that require a death sentence? If the same thing had happened to a suburban teen kid in an elite suburb of St. Louis, would they now be dead? Everybody knows that the answer is no. And thus, the rage.

DL: Some protesters in Ferguson are demanding that the police force should reflect the community’s demographics. How essential is it to make police forces more diverse?

HT: In Detroit, in Philadelphia, in Rochester, in Harlem, and all those places [in the 1960s], when you have an all-white police force policing an all-black community, not only is there evidence that policing does not happen justly, but you have the perception and the feeling that you have kind of an occupying army in your community. I think it’s kind of obvious why it’s problematic.

“the act of policing places the police in opposition to the community”

But people misunderstand what it takes to actually integrate a police department and what the impact of that is. It’s very difficult to integrate these departments. It took the rebellions of the ‘60s to put pressure on city officials to do that in most cities. In Detroit, however, even though there was a rebellion in ’67, the police force does not really start to get integrated until 1973, when there’s a black mayor. Indeed, he gets elected in large part because he is promising, finally, to rein in the vigilante forces in the police department and to finally integrate. It takes enormous effort to actually integrate a police department. And what seems to have happened is that that has really fallen by the wayside. Many affirmative-action clauses and statutes and pieces of city governance and university governance and certainly private business governance have made it very easy to not abide by integration rule now.

Even if police departments are integrated — certainly this has been proven in Detroit, and in other cities where you have many, many more black police officers — the problem is that police are charged with policing the community and particularly policing the poor black community. The act of policing places the police in opposition to this community. Even if the officers are black, that does not guarantee that there’s going to be smooth police-community relations. Fundamentally, the problem is that there is so much targeted policing in these neighborhoods.

Ron Johnson Ferguson

Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s softer touch with protesters is “swimming upstream.” (Joe Raedle/Getty)

DL: Have there been any genuinely good policing trends in the last 20 years, or anything that police departments have developed to succeed in building trust with policed communities and policing them less?

HT: I think community policing has merit. The whole origin of community policing, which really comes out of the rebellions of the ‘60s, the pressure on departments to be representative of communities, to actually get out of cars and walk the streets and actually be part of the community — I think that was all good. l think it does have potential.

“there’s a much broader sense of justice that needs to be had”

But meanwhile, we started a war on crime where we invested every last dime we had in policing and arresting and criminalizing behavior. Not just any behavior, but criminalizing black behavior. And once every resource went to that, that’s how we go from having a declining prison rate to being the biggest prison populator of the entire globe. That happens because all of this attention and resources go to policing black communities.

DL: Has history taught us anything about how communities can successfully demand accountability from police after civil unrest?

HT: Unfortunately, everyone’s immediate response is justice, meaning, “Let’s arrest this cop. Let’s put this cop on trial.” I think that there’s a much broader sense of justice that needs to be had.

For example, there were these killings in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, known colloquially as the Greensboro Massacre. This was when the police and the Klan kind of clashed with demonstrators, and people got killed, and it’s really just a horrible situation.

They had a truth and reconciliation commission set up to deal with that. It’s a really interesting story. What it resulted in was just pages and pages and tons of documents about what the community felt, and what the hell was going on, and who are these police, and what about the Klan?

Right now everybody’s clamoring for this cop to stand trial and so forth. Is that going to heal? Is that going to change the next kid who gets pulled over and shot? Probably not. The broader question of how communities are policed and how black people are viewed and treated on the streets is fodder for something much more significant that the community needs to engage in.”

HG: The History of Police Brutality, and What it Means for You

“The United States has a sordid history involving racial relations. Some of this history has been manifested in notable cases regarding police brutality. Given the dire historical context, police brutality may impact a defendant.

Police Brutality Defined

Police brutality is defined as the use of excessive physical assault or verbal assault during police procedures, such as apprehending or interrogating a suspect. Deadly force is not always excessive force. However, when deadly force exceeds the force that is necessary to create a safe environment, it is considered police brutality.

Media Attention

Media has played a pivotal role in informing communities of suspected instances of police brutality. Media attention often focuses on the disparate treatment by police based on the race of the suspect. For example, while white people may have represented more numeric deaths in police killings, blacks make up a disproportionate share of these deaths. While Caucasians represent about 63 percent of the United States population, blacks make up about 14 percent of the United States population. Nonetheless, in some years, blacks have accounted for more than a quarter of victims of police shootings despite the lower percentage of the total population they represent.

One notable case that received vast media attention was the Rodney King attack. The case which displayed video footage of police officers beating a black man in Los Angeles in 1991 became a continued topic of conversation and media attention for years.

Racial Stereotypes

Police brutality is sometimes motivated by racial stereotypes. Law enforcement officers may believe that blacks are more violent than others, and this image is often replicated in media. Law enforcement officers who are already concerned about their safety on the job may be even more anxious when confronting individuals who they prematurely perceive as violent or criminal. These stereotypes are rooted in the sordid history of enslavement, genocide and segregation.

Racial stereotypes are only part of the problem that leads to police brutality. Other factors include rampant discrimination and disparate treatment of certain minorities in the judicial system also lead to the misinformed belief that certain minorities are more likely to engage in criminal activity than others.

Historical theories have been made across centuries, beginning with theories regarding dominance based on color. This theory states that the dominant racial group minimizes police brutality because marginalized groups are more likely to experience this treatment rather than the dominant group. The dominant group may justify such behavior by believing that other groups deserved such treatment.

Historical Context

Police brutality has historically been perpetrated against individuals in lower socioeconomic levels and the social marginalized, commencing with worker strikes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Police brutality was permitted against citizens who challenged big industries. Police brutality was used to oppress labor strikes. Also, police would brutalize working-class people and arrest them without cause. Police brutality was also a common occurrence during the civil rights era when activists would be sprayed down with water hoses and attacked by police dogs.

Lack of Consequences

While police officers who demonstrate excessive force may receive a negative review or face some consequences on the job, many fatal police altercations are ultimately ruled in favor of the law enforcement officer, allowing him or her to keep a job even if he or she killed an unarmed suspect or community member. Even in the Rodney King case, the officers were originally acquitted by an all-white jury. In repeated instances and even in the rare circumstance that a law enforcement officer is charged with criminal activity pertaining to police brutality, law enforcement officers continue to be acquitted or the jury deadlocks. The lack of consequences may contribute to undeterred instances of police brutality.

Avoiding Police Brutality

Individuals who are confronted by law enforcement may wish to be particularly careful, especially if they are a person in a group that has been historically marginalized. He or she may keep his or her hands on the wheel during a traffic stop and be polite. He or she may avoid sudden movements that may be perceived as threatening to a law enforcement officer, especially at night during a traffic stop. They may comply with requests without giving up their rights. They may also choose to listen to police instructions to prevent becoming a victim of police brutality.”

Zinn Project Education: Sept. 14, 1941: Rally Against Police Brutality

“On Sept. 14, 1941 four marches from different points in the city of Washington, D.C. got underway, involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent African American victims of police brutality.

Signs carried by protesters included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

A crowd gathers at 10th & U Street NW on Sunday September 14, 1941 to protest police brutality in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Historical Image Collection

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Lucy SloweThis protest followed years of organizing against police brutality in Washington, D.C.

For example, in May of 1937,  the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

One of the judges in the mock trial was educator and athlete Lucy Diggs Slowe.

Washington Area Spark: Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

“A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.

Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.


The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.

Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis.

The Marshall Project: The Kerner Omission  

“During the summer of 1967, more than 150 cities erupted into violence, fueled by pent-up resentments in the cities’ black communities over police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. News networks broadcast the unrest around the country, and as the cities burned, many Americans watched in shock and horror.

President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by organizing a commission, comprised of lawmakers and law enforcement officials from around the country, to understand what caused the violence that left scores of people dead and caused millions of dollars in damages. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — more commonly known as the Kerner commission after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr. — released its recommendations on Feb. 29, 1968. Today, 50 years later, the commission’s findings, that “the nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white — separate and unequal,” still ring true.

From left, Roy Wilkins, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois, and President Lyndon B. Johnson in July, 1967.

But just as the report laid bare the inequality experienced by black Americans in urban areas and attempted to paint police brutality as a main cause of the uprisings, the Johnson administration doubled down on a law-and-order agenda. The president, still expected to run for re-election later that year, was driven by the fear that white voters would not sympathize with the commission’s findings. Crime was rising in many cities, but the commission urged the federal government to invest heavily in programs aimed at improving the lives of the cities’ black populations.

What’s more, the violence provided the support lawmakers needed to shift from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, which funneled millions of dollars of federal resources to local police departments and undermined local efforts to address the racialized policing practices that had set entire cities on fire. In the wake of the violence, two seperate and opposing movements formed. While the black community pushed for police reform alongside socioeconomic improvement, the federal government responded by equipping police with new tools to control violent expressions of civil unrest.

Some historians see the commission as a missed opportunity to broach a national conversation on the role of police in black communities. Still others point out an important insight into the nature of police brutality — that poverty and segregation can foster police violence. A closer look at both the Kerner commission’s findings and the ensuing fallout uncovers the tangled roots of protests in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, St. Paul, Minn., Baton Rouge, La., and Chicago in recent years.

On July 12, 1967, police officers in Newark, N.J., arrested a black cab driver named Sam Smith for tailgating and allegedly driving the wrong way down a one-way street. A bystander who witnessed the arrest told several civil rights leaders in the city that Smith had been assaulted by the police while being taken into custody. The community leaders visited Smith in jail, noted his injuries, and demanded he be transferred to a hospital.

The police granted the request, but word had already begun to spread through the black community that officers had brutalized Smith. Residents slowly gathered around the police station where Smith had been held. What began as a nonviolent gathering soon erupted into a riot.

Residents threw rocks, smashing the station’s windows. Officers unsuccessfully tried to disperse the swelling crowd. As the riot grew, some protestors lobbed Molotov cocktails, setting a car on fire, while others looted stores.

The violence enveloped the city, and local police were ineffective at quelling the rising chaos. Mayor Hugh Addonizio asked the governor to call in the National Guard.

By the afternoon, 3,000 National Guardsmen descended on the city, but the protests continued for several days.

When the uprising finally ended five days after Smith’s arrest, 26 people were dead, 750 were injured, and more than 1,000 had been thrown in jail.

A few days later, Detroit residents clashed with the city’s police during a raid of an after-hours club.

It began in the wee hours of July 23, 1967. It was a hot and humid night, and residents flocked to a party at the Blind Pig, an illegally-operated club on the corner of Clairmount Avenue and 12th Street in Detroit. The city’s vice squad raided the club, shutting it down, but patrons would not leave. Outside, residents gathered to watch the commotion. The police began slowly hauling clubgoers away, and by the time they placed the last one in the back of a squad car, a small crowd had gathered on the corner.

The crowd began throwing bottles, sending one crashing through the window of a police car. The commotion drew thousands out of their homes and into the streets, and by dawn a full-blown riot was underway. People set buildings on fire, fought with the police and firemen who responded to calls for backup, and looted storefronts. The riot swelled and spread until the city was enveloped in flames.

The rioting raged for five days, prompting Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh to call in the National Guard. When the ashes settled, 43 people were dead, thousands more were injured, and nearly 7,000 people were arrested. The 12th Street riot was one of the worst in U.S. history.

The riots in Newark and Detroit were not isolated incidents. Three years earlier, during the summer of 1964, black residents in Harlem, Chicago, Philadelphia and Jersey City, N.J., had taken to the streets to protest police brutality.

That same year, Lyndon B. Johnson ran a successful campaign for the presidency, declaring open war on poverty. But the riots threatened his vision for a Great Society defined by equal rights and opportunity. By 1965, Johnson had reworked his agenda, adding programs aimed at combating rising crime. One of the most notable shifts came in the form of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which Johnson signed into law in the fall of 1965.

“The Great Society we are striving to build cannot become a reality unless we strike at the roots of crime, and strike again until we have brought it under our control,” read Johnson’s statement following the signing of the bill.

The bill was signed against the backdrop of rising crime rates and increasing segregation in America’s cities. The riots accelerated the flight of white residents to the suburbs, just as the second Great Migration pushed more and more African-Americans into urban areas. The predominately white police forces in increasingly black cities further exacerbated racial tensions. By 1968, a public opinion poll found that 81 percent of the respondents believed law and order had broken down in America.

By the time the Kerner commission report landed on Johnson’s desk, the foundation for a renewed focus on suppressing violence had already been laid, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act had given the federal government new influence over local police activities.

The Act established the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, which later led to the Office of Justice Programs in the Department of Justice, and tasked it with funding the development of new crime control methods. For the first time, the federal government was directly involved in improving the quality of state and local law enforcement programs.

The first draft of the commission’s report was penned by a group of social scientists hired to synthesize weeks of hearings and scores of interviews with witnesses of the violence. But the commission balked at the scientists’ first draft, entitled, “The Harvest of American Racism.” It offered a searing indictment of white racism toward black Americans, implicating the police as both a symbol and enforcer of white power. The scientists asserted that racism was a direct cause of the violent rebellions and urged the federal government to take action to prevent more unrest.

The initial draft asserted that black Americans would no longer tolerate living as second-class citizens, declaring that, “a truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” that black Americans were unwilling “to compromise or wait any longer” and would rather “risk death than have their people continue in a subordinate status.”

But the bipartisan commission balked at the draft and compelled the scientists to tone down their findings before submitting a report to the president. They ordered the initial draft destroyed, and the second version put segregation and economic inequality at the center, shying away from the previous criticisms of the police. Today, the original draft rests in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the word “DESTROY,” emblazoned across the front page.

“For all the criticisms of the police and the recommendations for change outlined in the report, they pale in comparison to the evidence that was actually produced,” said University of Oklahoma historian and author Steven M. Gillon. “The final document is a watered-down version of the evidence that had been collected in the field about the role the police played in creating the riots and responding in a way that made the situation worse.”

Gillon is the author of the forthcoming book, “Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism,” which explores the history of the commission. Gillon says the leaders Johnson appointed took issue with the scientists’ declaration that the police were poorly trained and that many in the black community no longer respected law enforcement.

Still, former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, a Democrat and the last surviving member of the commission, said the members had a clear vision for addressing the fractured relationship between the police and the black community.

“We thought the police ought to look like the people they are dealing with,” he told The Marshall Project on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the report. “We were against the militarization of the police. We thought that tanks and automatic weapons had no place in urban areas. We thought the police ought to enforce the law on behalf of the community.”

“The police are not merely a spark factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and the double standard of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.”

Report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders

But Johnson had another focus.

“Racialized policing was not on the agenda and not on the program,” said Heather Ann Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, “Economic development, that was Lyndon Johnson’s hobby horse, so the commission becomes a game of political football around economic injustice.”

Thompson, who wrote a book detailing Detroit’s upheaval in the 1960’s and 70’s entitled, “Whose Detroit,” notes that the commission’s directives to invest in the black community were subsumed by Johnson’s focus on eliminating poverty and controlling crime. At the same time, in response to the violence, local leaders intensified their calls for police reform.

“The community was asking for community policing and other reforms, but simultaneously the federal government is advocating for more aggressive policing,” Thompson said.

Mayoral races in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and Cleveland, where the black population had grown weary of living in substandard conditions with ineffective policing, exemplified the push for reform. In the years following the riots, several black candidates made their way onto the ballots, thanks to the support of the cities’ black populations.

Many of the black mayoral candidates were calling for the integration of the police forces and civilian review boards to address complaints against the police. But success was mixed at best.

While Stokes’ suggestions were based largely on witnessing the injustices carried out by the police, his agenda gained credence from the 1966 Little Hoover Commission report. The commission, under the direction of Stokes’ predecessor, conducted an in-depth study of the city’s administration and recommended major changes to the police department. Ultimately, Stokes’ vision was undermined by internal scandals and the Glenville riot in 1968, which left three Cleveland policemen dead.

In Detroit and Philadelphia, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, away from reform. Residents elected former law enforcement agents to govern the cities, a decision widely understood as a reaction to the summer of violent protest. Instead of reform, residents pushed for greater law and order. In Philadelphia, former police commissioner Frank Rizzo became mayor. And in Detroit, former Wayne County Sheriff Roman S. Gribbs beat the city’s first black candidate, Richard H. Austin.

Under Gribbs, the police department launched a controversial anti-crime unit called STRESS, short for Stop the Robberies – Enjoy Safe Streets, to quell the robberies and petty violence that had taken over many of Detroit’s black neighborhoods. The city’s black residents protested the new unit’s tactics, saying they were too aggressive. By the time Detroit’s first black Mayor, Coleman Young ended the STRESS program in 1974, officers had killed 20 civilians, the majority of whom were black.

Change progressed in fits and starts at the local level. While cities were divided over how best to respond to the riots and reform police departments, the biggest blow to meaningful improvement came from the federal government.

The Kerner commission had called for investment into urban areas to create new jobs, improve education, hasten integration, and improve housing conditions. Even though their suggestions aligned with the Great Society’s mission, Johnson was threatened by the findings, fearing that he would lose public support, especially from the white community who were reluctant to accept the role of racism in the riots. As crime rose, many saw stronger policing as the only way to address the violence. Johnson abruptly disbanded the commission and never publicly thanked its members for their work.

Johnson’s abandonment of the commission’s vision is perhaps most apparent in his signing of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, nearly six months after the Kerner commission submitted its report. The new law authorized $400 million in grants to states to provide new equipment and technical assistance to local police forces. It also built on the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which had paved the way for increased federal involvement in local policing. The new law made the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which was initially established under the 1965 act, permanent.

The federal government was now in the business of providing direct support to local police departments in the form of research, better weapons, and surveillance. Much of their work focused on understanding the social aspects of crime and preventing further riots.

“Under the new legislation, the federal government financially encouraged states to acquire surplus M-1 military carbines, army tanks, bulletproof vests, and walkie-talkies for local police by covering up to 90 percent of the costs of the riot prevention programs,” wrote Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton in an journal article entitled “A War within our Own Boundaries.”

Hinton argues that Johnson’s Great Society programs coupled with his increasing focus on preventing violent uprisings in the black community, “laid the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration.” What started as anti-poverty programs had morphed into programs to control violent crime.

The Kerner commission’s findings are widely hailed as one of the most insightful and enduring analyses of racial and economic inequality in America. But the commission’s recommendations were largely ignored. In their place, Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, emphasized tough-on-crime law enforcement policies that would sweep up millions of black Americans into the criminal justice system, further fracturing the relationship between the police and the people they are sworn to protect.

When residents of Ferguson took to the streets in 2014 after a police officer killed teenager Michael Brown, national media pointed back to the Kerner commission’s findings, noting that little had changed since 1968 with respect to economic inequality and police-community relations.

On the surface, the cause of the protests seemed clear. In many instances, protesters were responding to an incident of fatal police force, while the officers involved were either acquitted, not indicted or not charged. In contrast to the Kerner commission, investigations into the causes of the riots have tended to focus directly on the role of the police. In Ferguson, the Department of Justice concluded that years of racially biased police practices had created an atmosphere of tension and resentment between Ferguson’s black residents and the police force, which turned to rage and protest after Brown was killed. The department’s report on Ferguson’s police lays out a set of guidelines aimed at creating “meaningful and sustainable reform” within the department.

In response to the civil unrest, President Barack Obama convened the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Just as Johnson had gathered the Kerner commission to find out the causes of the riots, Obama empowered his task force to gather community input on how to improve policing and mend the broken relationship between the police and the black community.

But unlike Kerner, Obama’s task force came back with a report that centers on reforms to police departments. There is little mention of the role of poverty and enduring economic inequality in creating crime and violence. For Malcolm Holmes, a sociologist at the University of Wyoming, whose work focuses on police brutality, the task force’s findings are understandable, but misguided.

“We talk about changes in policing — they are important, but I don’t think anything is going to change until we deal with these underlying issues of social inequality,” Holmes said.

Holmes argues that the Kerner commission’s findings actually provide a framework for ending police violence. His research shows that black people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods with high segregation are at the highest risk of police violence, and that it is the environment that puts residents at risk. In neighborhoods with high segregation and poverty, the police are more likely to use excessive force, which he interprets as a reaction to fear, prejudice against the black community, and past experiences with community violence. Holmes says it’s one of the reasons reforms focused on sensitivity and diversity haven’t been effective.

“You can’t put the police officers in a training seminar for a day and expect them to change their worldview,” he said. “It flies in the face of what they see on the job.”

Holmes’s theory helps to explain why the Justice Department found that police still unnecessarily used excessive force in Detroit in 2003 and in Newark in 2014 despite the fact that the departments had become increasingly diverse.

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In 2015, the Department of Justice released a resource guide for local law enforcement designed to help police departments across the country implement the recommendations outlined by Obama’s task force. The guidelines focus on steps departments can take to build trust and support, strengthen police oversight, promote officer safety, and make use of new crime-fighting technologies. But the the Justice Department under the Trump administration has backed away from the Obama-era reforms, and has routinely promoted its commitment to tough-on-crime policies.

For Harris, the author of a new book entitled, “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America 50 Years After the Kerner Report.” the original message of the commission is still just as important today as it was in 1968. It is racial and economic inequality, he insists, that drive both police violence and the subsequent community response.

“There is no way you can solve those problems with the police unless you get at these intertwined issues of race and poverty.”

Britannica: Police brutality in the United States

“Police brutality in the United States, the unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by U.S. police officers. Forms of police brutality have ranged from assault and battery (e.g., beatings) to mayhem, torture, and murder. Some broader definitions of police brutality also encompass harassment (including false arrest), intimidation, and verbal abuse, among other forms of mistreatment.

African Americans and police brutality

Americans of all races, ethnicities, ages, classes, and genders have been subjected to police brutality. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, poor and working-class whites expressed frustration over discriminatory policing in northern cities. At about the same time, Jewish and other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe also complained of police brutality against their communities. In the 1920s many urban police departments, especially in large cities such as New York and Chicago, used extralegal tactics against members of Italian-immigrant communities in efforts to crack down on organized crime. In 1943 officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were complicit in attacks on Mexican Americans by U.S. servicemen during the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, reflecting the department’s history of hostility toward Hispanics (Latinos). Regular harassment of homosexuals and transgender persons by police in New York City culminated in 1969 in the Stonewall riots, which were triggered by a police raid on a gay bar; the protests marked the beginning of a new era of militancy in the international gay rights movement. And in the aftermath of the 2001 September 11 attacks, Muslim Americans began to voice complaints about police brutality, including harassment and racial profiling. Many local law-enforcement agencies launched covert operations of questionable legality designed to surveil and infiltrate mosques and other Muslim American organizations in an effort to uncover presumed terrorists, a practice that went unchecked for at least a decade.

Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American. In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is antiblack racism among members of mostly white police departments. Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalized groups.

Whereas racism is thought to be a major cause of police brutality directed at African Americans and other ethnic groups, it is far from the only one. Other factors concern the unique institutional culture of urban police departments, which stresses group solidarity, loyalty, and a “show of force” approach to any perceived challenge to an officer’s authority. For rookie officers, acceptance, success, and promotion within the department depend upon adopting the attitudes, values, and practices of the group, which historically have been infused with antiblack racism.

Because African Americans have been the primary—though certainly not the only—target of police brutality in the United States, the remainder of this article will deal mainly with their experiences, both historically and in the present day.

The Great Migration

Interactions between African Americans and urban police departments were initially shaped by the Great Migration (1916–70) of African Americans from the rural South into urban areas of the North and West, especially following World War II. Most white communities, including white police departments, were unaccustomed to the presence of African Americans and reacted to their increasing numbers with fear and hostility, attitudes that were exacerbated by deeply ingrained racist stereotypes. Reflecting the beliefs of many whites, northern police departments acted upon the presumption that African Americans, and especially African American men, possessed an inherent tendency toward criminal behaviour, one that required constant surveillance of African Americans and restrictions on their movements (segregation) in the interests of white safety. Accordingly, by the mid-1950s many urban police departments had implicitly reconceived their missions as essentially that of policing African Americans—i.e., protecting whites against blacks.

The forms of police brutality to which this situation gave rise were variable and generally not limited to physical assault (e.g., beatings) and excessive use of force. They also included unlawful arrests, verbal abuse (e.g., racial slurs) and threats, sexual assaults against African American women, and police homicides (murders of civilians by police). Police were also sometimes complicit in drug dealing, prostitution, burglaries, protection schemes, and gun-smuggling within African American neighbourhoods.

Although police brutality against African Americans had become a serious problem in many urban areas by the mid-20th century, most whites remained unaware of it until about the mid-1960s, in large part because most large-city newspapers (whose readerships were primarily white) did not consider it newsworthy. In contrast, incidences of police brutality were regularly covered in the black press from the early 20th century, frequently in front-page articles. Likewise, local and national civil rights organizations collected thousands of affidavits and letters from African Americans documenting their direct experiences of police brutality.

Police brutality after World War II

For a variety of reasons, incidences of police brutality against African Americans became more frequent and more intense throughout the country in the decades following World War II. First, the victory of the forces of democracy in the war overseas created among African Americans expectations of greater freedom and democracy at home, especially as many of them had served in combat in the U.S. armed forces (albeit in racially segregated units). As black Americans began to assert their formal rights and liberties, demanding that they be respected by local governments, judiciaries, and law-enforcement agencies, their demands had the effect of reinforcing the tendency of white police officers to view themselves as protectors of white communities.

Second, the migration of rural whites to nearby cities in search of better economic opportunities encouraged police to view their own violence against African Americans as a more acceptable means of control than the mob hysteria that rural whites had been accustomed to and that urban spaces simply did not allow. In effect, police brutality replaced lynchings as a means of oppressing blacks. During this period, white supremacist and terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council operated openly in Southern cities, where police brutality against African Americans was abetted by government and political leaders, district attorneys, and judges, among others.

Third, in other cities, especially in the North, the flight of whites to the suburbs and the natural growth of the African American population made African Americans more visible and allowed them to be more mobile within formerly white areas. Such demographic changes made African Americans as a group appear more threatening to white police officers and allowed the latter to more easily justify extralegal tactics as a means of controlling African Americans’ mobility and limiting their use of public spaces.

Fourth, beginning in the 1970s, African Americans who had joined local police forces in large numbers as a result of aggressive recruitment and affirmative action programs themselves committed serious acts of brutality against African American civilians, in part because they wished to be seen as “good cops” and to be otherwise accepted within their departments.

Finally, the escalation of urban crime rates in the 1970s and ’80s, including in predominantly African American and other minority neighbourhoods, strengthened the perception among white police officers and whites generally of African Americans as inherently criminal, a trend also reflected in a newly racially charged political and policy discourse, referred to by critics as the criminalization of the black poor and working class.

Police brutality and race riots

From the 1960s, police brutality was a catalyst for many of the race riots that took place in urban America, including the Watts Riots of 1965 and the Detroit Riot of 1967. In 1980 the Liberty City section of Miami erupted over the police killing of an unarmed African American man. During a period of three days, 18 people were killed and some 1,000 arrested, and more than $100 million in property damage was committed. Twelve years later the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and their subsequent acquittal on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force triggered the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, still considered the worst race riots in American history. During a period of six days, more than 50 people were killed and more than 2,300 were injured, and property damage was estimated at about $1 billion.

The Hampton Institute: Coming Home to Roost: American Militarism, War Culture, and Police Brutality

“Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle… you are here because you are real men and all real men like to fight!” The thundering voice rang out from the large box speakers situated across the damp, cement floor. ” Americans love a winner! Americans will not tolerate a loser! Americans despise cowards! Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American! ” The words surged violently from the mesh screens, ostensibly louder by the second. A quick glance across the concrete quad produced a herd of silhouettes, all frantically running to their predetermined spots in the haze of a 4:00 AM-fog. “We don’t want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats! If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards! The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the God-damned cowards and we will have a nation of brave men!” It was the summer of 1994. I was 19 years old. The words screaming from those speakers – a daily sound that I would become accustomed to over the course of a few weeks – were those of U.S. Army General George Patton (through the voice of George C. Scott). The location was Columbia, South Carolina, though it might as well have been halfway across the world because the only things I would see for the next two months were marching drills, firing ranges, fields of mud and grass, and miles upon miles of indistinguishable running terrain. This was US Army Basic Training and I was one of thousands of recruits eager to soak up the glory of “defending our country.”

Everything that is done in basic military training is done with intent. The primary goal is to develop and condition killing machines – human beings who are capable of exterminating other human beings on command. The corollary effects of this development are vast. The transforming of one’s self to a component of a “well-oiled machine.” The suppressing of human emotion, and even human reason. The extraction of, as Patton suggested, cowardice – in other words, compassion, understanding, empathy, or simply anything that would cause a soldier to stop and question what they are doing at any given time. The ultimate goal of this training is to make one robotic – the finished product of a process of dehumanization, whereas one is forced to shed elements of humanity out of necessity; and, in doing so, runs the risk of viewing others in less than humane ways. It is difficult to deny that, in the event a person finds themselves in the midst of war, this training becomes invaluable. The chaotic, unpredictable, and nerve-rattling environment that is inherent with any battlefield does not allow for time to think. It does not allow for time to reflect. It only allows for conditioned reaction – proactive and reactive measures that are designed to create efficient “soldiering” and optimum survival.

Soldiers, themselves, lose a great deal of autonomy in this process. On a hot and hazy July afternoon, just a few days before my introduction to the words of Patton, as I joined hundreds of others in a frantic scramble off a convoy of refurbished school buses, I lost myself. I became a blank slate. I became a shell of a young man, readily available for shaping, sculpting and conditioning as my new makers saw fit. Life suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I was now accountable to others, as they were accountable to me; and our accountability was on parade for all to see. If anyone stepped out of line, questioned anything, considered alternatives, or attempted to think for themselves, their “irresponsible defiance” was immediately transferred to public humiliation. However, our forced accountability to one another – something we as a society could certainly use more of – was not an issue. It was the underlying purpose of this accountability that becomes questionable in retrospect. Ultimately, it rested on the acceptance of our roles as tools of war, something that would develop steadily in our subconscious. Already armed with abstract notions of patriotism, American exceptionalism and moral superiority, our self-inscribed ‘greater good’ was now supplemented with an inescapable obligation to fulfill orders. This is the inherent psychology of ‘soldiering’ – a role that requires a prolonged and nuanced conditioning that begins at a very early age.
Objectification, Empathy Erosion, and an Internalized Culture of War and Oppression

In the United States, the process of objectification begins at a young age. Americans are conditioned by everything from television, music, and marketing to sports, pornography, and even their parents, to objectify others. Gender roles play a major part in this process. Males are taught to objectify the female body; and females are taught to embrace this objectification by basing their self-worth on outward appearance. Correspondingly, females are taught to objectify males as dominant protectors; and males are taught to embrace this objectification by basing their worth on machismo, aggression, and physical prowess.

According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, objectification occurs in various ways. A person may be objectified if they are treated:

    • as a tool for another’s purposes (instrumentality);
    • as if lacking in agency or self-determination (denial of autonomy, inertness);
    • as if owned by another (ownership);
    • as if interchangeable (fungibility);
    • as if permissible to damage or destroy (violability);
  • as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences (denial of subjectivity).[1]

Our collective conditioning runs the gamut of Nussbaum’s list. First and foremost, objectification (or reification) is a prerequisite to our dominant economic system of capitalism. By objectifying others, people become more suitable participants in this scheme that thrives off exploitation and alienation. With this conditioning, the CEO is more apt at seeing employees as numbers on a spreadsheet, the banker is able to view clients as nothing more than borrowers, the landlord is able to view a family simply as renters, and the boss sees nothing but workers who need to be prodded like cattle. People, essentially, become sources of income and profit to those who are willing to use them as such. And, perhaps more importantly, these “sources” are gradually shaped into willing participants along the way, apathetically giving in to systems of power and control.

This coercive nature naturally extends into the socio-political realm, where wealthy politicians are more than willing to use working class children as pawns of war, allowing their lives to be extinguished and bodies to be mangled for stock portfolios. This dehumanizing process also creates a world where these same politicians see citizens as nothing but fickle subjects, the government seeks to control “the mob,” the soldier sees only enemies, and the police officer only criminals in desperate need of order and discipline. It is, as Vasily Grossman once warned, a society where man has ceased to exist, unavoidably being replaced with “man-like creatures that have undergone an internal transformation.”[2]

“When people are solely focused on the pursuit of their own interests, they have all the potential to be unempathic,” explains Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at Cambridge University. What has occurred in this process, according to Baron-Cohen, is a societal phenomenon of “empathy erosion.” Quite simply, “When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode. In such a state, we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”[3] While this naturally occurs within everyone from time to time, its expansion in American culture has become the pervasive product of a “me, first” mentality created by the marketization and commodification of everything from sex and violence to human services and education.

The significance of this development is profound. Essentially, the more we dehumanize interactions, or the more we make human contact impersonal, the more willing we are to engage in forceful, aggressive, and unempathic interactions with others – behaviors that are (it’s worth noting) viewed as positive attributes within the sports world many of us grow up in, and the business world many of us enter as adults. In this sense, it is not competition – in and of itself – that represents a problem; but rather, it is the objectifying nature of coercive relations that pose as competition within any hierarchical society.

The act of objectifying others, whether treating them as “interchangeable tools” to be used at your disposal or simply stunting their self-determination in some manner, is a reciprocal process that is internalized by both parties. The objectifier, through the process of dehumanizing the objectified, becomes less human themselves. This internalization is what allows for a culture of war and oppression to persist. America’s “war culture” is shaped by a myriad of factors. First and foremost, we are an imperialist country. The US has been at war, involved in a foreign conflict, or militarily occupied foreign territory (or all three) for 216 years of its 237-year existence. [4]

War is our business, and we do it well. And yes, common, everyday Americans have benefitted in some form or another from war (i.e. the formation of an “industrialized middle class”); however, these “benefits” haven’t come without sacrifice – the most prominent of which is a collective misery that has been brought to much of the world’s population through colonialism, geopolitical land grabs, and the theft of natural resources. War is, essentially, nourishment for a parasitical corporate hierarchy that takes what it wants and discards of the scraps, allowing them to “trickle down” to the rest of the world, including the working class in the US.

With a vast majority of Americans coming from this working class, widespread victimization – and a stubborn acceptance of it – represents a “rite of passage” in our culture. Whether through impoverished circumstances, socioeconomic limitations, substandard education, a general sense of exploitation that is realized as we grow older, or the grueling, existential crisis we all seem to face at one point or another, we are all victims of repression and exploitation on some level. This has never been more evident than during the past four decades. And the notion that we are to avoid “the victim card” at all costs – as it is supposedly a sign of “weakness” – is laughable when considering the immense amount of injustice we face as a whole: drowned out by corporate power, strangled by government suppression, working more and more while making less and less, forced into consumer debt, dealing with skyrocketing costs of living, chained by student debt, etc.

The class-based oppression and victimization which stem from our embedded hierarchy present peculiar dynamics in terms of carrying out the violent projection of war culture. The fact that soldiers and police officers – the hired guns of the ruling classes – almost always come from working-class backgrounds is especially interesting when considering their roles as enforcers of the very ideology that attacks their class peers. However, when combined with this process of objectification that has become commonplace, an immersion into a deep-seated “war culture” and militarism, and the robotic programming of military or police training, it comes as little surprise that a demographic consisting predominantly of white males is able to complete this transition from working-class oppressed to working-class oppressor with relative ease. Educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, eloquently describes this process of transformation through internalization:

The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of “adhesion” to the oppressor. Under these circumstances they cannot “consider” themselves. This does not necessarily mean that the oppressed are unaware that they are downtrodden. But their perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression. At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.[5]

This widespread process of internalization is crucial to those wishing to maintain an inherently unjust and oppressive status quo. For, in order to keep such a system intact, the very few who benefit from this arrangement must rely on some members of the working class to ignore or shed themselves of class-consciousness on their way to breaking class ranks and carrying out the violent acts needed to sustain. Professor Abdul JanMohamed tells us, “according to (Antonio) Gramsci, any hegemony is subtended, in the final analysis, by the deployment of violence; and for hegemony to function as such, the masters’ rules, including the deployment of violence, must be adequately internalized.”[6] Without this internalization, human beings – and especially those coming from the working classes – would be left to act on their own interests, something that would not serve the ruling classes well.

American Militarism and White Supremacy

Any discussion involving American militarism must include the underpinnings of white supremacy, an all-encompassing ideology which has ravaged the lives and communities of non-white peoples for centuries. White supremacy is fueled by objectification and, more specifically, the collective dehumanization of peoples of color. Its power lies in the fact that it not only transcends the fundamental societal arrangement of class, but that it is embraced largely by working class whites who have shown a willingness to internalize and project their own oppression onto others – in this case, the non-white working classes.

Not surprisingly, this foundation extends far beyond the geographic confines of the US, representing the basis for which the “White Man’s Burden” and age-old foreign policies like the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine operate. The ties that bind what Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” cannot be underestimated, as they provide the self-righteous, societal “justification” necessary to carry out indiscriminate acts of aggression both here and abroad. Social theorist bell hooks’ assessment of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman turned murderer of Trayvon Martin, captures this mindset: “White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action.”[7]

When Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, famously stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong; No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he was referring to the dominant power structure of white supremacy that had not only subjugated him in his own country, but also had global implications regarding imperialism, colonialism, and ever-increasing militarism. Ali, along with other conscious Black Americans, recognized life in the U.S. as a microcosm of the war in Vietnam. Whether in Birmingham, Alabama or the Ben Tre Province in South Vietnam, black and brown people were being murdered indiscriminately. African Americans had their share of enemies at home – Bull Connor, George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI, Jim Crow – and, for good reason, had no vested interest in wars abroad. Their priorities were defense and self-preservation in their homeland; not offense and destruction in Vietnam.

Racism is a cousin to militarism, and its influence on shaping American culture over the years is undeniable. Despite misconceptions, reconstruction in the post-slavery US was no more kind to Black Americans than during colonial years, especially in the southern states. “In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lynching of Black people in the Southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize Blacks and maintain white supremacy,” explains Robert A. Gibson. “In the South, during the period 1880 to 1940, there was deep-seated and all-pervading hatred and fear of the Negro which led white mobs to turn to ‘lynch law’ as a means of social control.”[8] These lynchings were almost always spontaneous, rooted in white supremacist and racist emotion, and void any semblance of due process. They were also mostly supported – whether through direct supervision or “turning a blind eye” – by local politicians, judges, and police forces.

According to Tuskegee Institute figures, between the years 1882 and 1951, 3,437 African Americans were lynched in the United States – a tally that amounts to roughly 50 per year, or a little over 4 per month through the lifespan of an entire generation.[9] Essentially, for nearly a century, “freed” slaves were still very much at the mercy of, as WEB DuBois once noted, “men who hated and despised Negroes and regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk.” [10] This general hatred was not only projected by white citizens throughout the country, but remained institutionalized by laws of racial segregation – also known as “Jim Crow” – in much of the US until the 1960s.

While the courageous and awe-inspiring Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was successful in curbing some government-backed segregation, the ugly stain of white supremacy has endured well into the 21st century through a convoluted lens of extreme poverty, poor education, lack of opportunity, and disproportionate imprisonment. It has become blatantly evident within the world of ‘criminal justice,’ and more specifically through the ways in which law enforcement engages and interacts with Black communities across America.

Modern forms of lynching have gained a foothold with laws such as New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” and Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” – with both providing legal outlets to harass and kill Black Americans at an alarming rate. However, even before such laws, police officers terrorized inner-cities for decades. The most glaring example occurred in 1991 with the beating of Rodney King – an incident that uncovered a deliberate and widespread brand of racist policing as well as “an organizational culture that alienates itself from the public it is designed to serve” while teaching “to command and confront, not to communicate.”[11]

The 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman served as a sobering reminder of the tragically subhuman value that has been placed on Black life in America. Martin’s death rightfully brought on cries of an “open season on young black men,” while another 2012 murder, this time of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn in broad daylight while sitting in a car with three friends, reiterated this fact. Like Martin, Davis was unarmed and posed no threat – and certainly not enough of a threat to justify lethal force. In Davis’ case, the murderer, Dunn, indiscriminately fired 8 bullets into the vehicle where Davis and his friends were sitting. The public reaction to the two murders (adults killing unarmed children, mind you), especially from those who somehow felt compelled to defend the killers, as well as the subsequent trials, the posthumous (and false) ‘criminalizing’ of the victims with decontextualized images and information, and the total absence of justice on both accounts – all products of a long-standing culture of white supremacy – exposed the lie that is “post-racial” America.

However, these reactions were and are nothing new. It has been “open season” on young black males for many years in the US, and very few outside African American or activist communities couldn’t care less. One study estimates that “one Black person is killed every 24 hours by police, security guards, or vigilantes.”[12] Furthermore, “43% of the(se) shootings occurred after an incident of racial profiling,” Adam Hudson tells us. “This means police saw a person who looked or behaved “suspiciously” largely because of their skin color and attempted to detain the suspect before killing them. [13]

Many of the victims of these “extrajudicial” killings posed no threat at the time of their murders, as was the case with Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Aaron Campbell, Orlando Barlow, Steven Eugene Washington, Ervin Jefferson, Kendrec Mcdade, Kimani Gray, Wendell Allen, Ronald Madison, James Brisette, Tavares McGill, and Victor Steen, to name a few. [14] Some, like Brisette (17), Gray (16), McGill (16), and Steen (17), were children. Others, like Madison and Steven Eugene Washington, were mentally ill or autistic. All were unarmed.

If the Rodney King trial taught us (and police) anything, it was that officers in the US can inexplicably beat an unarmed and non-threatening Black man to near-death and face no consequences for doing so. Twenty years later, this unaccountability on the part of law enforcement has evolved into an overly-aggressive and often fatal approach to interacting with innocent, young black men. This has never been more evident than during a rash of indiscriminate and blatant acts of police brutality in recent years. All peoples of color have become viable targets, and some of the most alarming examples have been directed at children and people with special needs and disabilities.

In 2009, a 16-year-old autistic boy, Oscar Guzman, was chased into his family’s restaurant by two Chicago police officers after they questioned him for “watching pigeons.” Guzman, who was posing no threat and breaking no laws, was “struck in the head with a retractable baton, causing a four-centimeter laceration that had to be closed with staples at a nearby hospital.”[15]

In 2011, two Miami-Dade officers stopped 22-year-old Gilberto Powell, who has Down syndrome, due to a “suspicious bulge” coming from his waistband. When the officers confronted Powell and began patting him down, Powell became frightened and ran. The officers caught up and beat him. The “bulge” turned out to be a colostomy bag. Powell was unarmed and breaking no laws.[16]

In November of 2013, a 14-year-old child was “roughed up” and Tasered by police in Tullytown, Pennsylvania after being caught shoplifting at a local Wal-Mart. The child suffered a broken nose, multiple abrasions, and two swollen and black eyes as a result. He was unarmed and posed no threat to the officers.

On January 3, 2014, 64-year-old Pearl Pearson was pulled over by police on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident. After Pearson failed to show his hands when instructed by officers, a “7-minute altercation ensued” and Pearson was severely beaten. He was unarmed and posed no threat. The reason he did not show his hands as ordered: he’s deaf – a fact that is displayed on a sign attached to his car.[17]

Other examples include the unnecessary brutalization of incapacitated individuals, as well as the emergence of a universal, reckless “shoot-first” mentality. The most recognizable incident was the 2009 street execution of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Policeman, Johannes Mehserle. Following a brush-up with other passengers, Grant and a friend were apprehended by officers who had them lay prone on the ground. Grant was “restrained, unarmed,” and had “his hands behind his back,” when the officer shot him in the back, killing him. The entire incident was caught on video.

Shockingly, occurrences like this have become common with relatively little fanfare. In May of 2013, 33-year-old David Sal Silva was beaten to death by California officers after he was stopped and questioned for suspected public intoxication. “When I got outside I saw two officers beating a man with batons, and they were hitting his head so every time they would swing, I could hear the blows to his head,” said witness Ruben Ceballos, who told the Californian the noise was so loud it woke him up. Sal Silva, unarmed, “begged for his life” before being bludgeoned to death for no apparent reason.[18]

In September of 2013, following a car accident, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times by Charlotte police officer, Randall Kerrick. After knocking on the door of a nearby home, Ferrell spotted the officer and began running towards him for help when Kerrick opened fire. Ferrell was unarmed, posed no threat, and was merely seeking assistance after accidentally crashing his car into a tree line off the road. He died instantly.[19] That same month, Long Beach police officers were captured on a video posted to YouTube repeatedly Tasering and striking Porfirio Lopez with a baton as he lay in the street. Lopez was unarmed and posed no threat to the officers.[20]

In October of 2013, Sheriff’s deputies in Santa Rosa, California shot and killed a 13-year-old boy who was carrying a pellet gun. The boy, Andy Lopez, was walking down the sidewalk on his way to return the “low-powered, air pellet gun” to a friend who he had borrowed it from. Before realizing the gun was a toy, and despite having no reason to believe the child was a threat, an officer shot him dead.[21]

In 1968, Huey P. Newton noted that “the country cannot implement its racist program without the guns. And the guns are the military and the police.”[22] 45 years later, this comment rings true. Institutions and lawmakers alone cannot carry out racial and class-based oppression on their own – they need willing participants. Domestically, police officers must become these willing participants; and their psychological makeup, which is shaped by a process of objectification and a prolonged internalization of “war culture,” is crucial. On a global scale, this task is left to our soldiers – working-class women and men who are routinely placed in harm’s way for the wrong reasons, and many of whom suffer a compounded and severe mental toll in the process.

The Mental Toll and Savagery of War

America’s “war culture” goes far beyond psychological preparation and conditioning. Ultimately, and most significantly, it includes the physical projection of this collective mentality. It includes, as social commentator Joe Rogan simply put it, “sending these big metal machines that kill people” halfway across the world.[23] The young, working-class women and men (like myself) who become the willing participants of this projection are the very products of this conditioned mentality. As children, our inherent submission to objectification and subsequent immersion into “war culture” makes this possible.

Unfortunately, the effects of war are real. They are shocking. And they are horrifying. The mental health effects on the participants of these wars are vast, especially with regards to the modern battlefield. Soldiers are returning to the US with a variety of such conditions – most notably Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Depression, and Anxiety.

Dr. Deborah Warden, of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, noted in a report for the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation that elements specifically related to modern warfare have resulted in a significant increase in head trauma-related injuries.[24] Two major factors in this development are technological advances in protective equipment and a relative increase in “blast attacks.” “In the current conflict, mortality has declined, and it is believed that this is because of the advances in body armor worn by the military personnel,” explains Dr. Warden. “With the high-quality body armor, individuals who may have died in previous wars may survive with possible injuries to extremities and head and neck.” In addition to this, “more TBI may be occurring in the current war because of the frequency of explosive, or blast attacks. Military sources report that approximately two thirds of army war zone evacuations are due to blast,” and “88% of injuries seen at second echelon treatment sites were due to blast.”

In a study conducted nearly six years after the beginning of the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was determined that, out of 1.64 million military service members who were deployed into these arenas, “approximately 300,000 individuals currently suffer from PTSD or major depression, and that 320,000 individuals experienced a probable TBI during deployment.” [25] Additionally, “about one-third of those previously deployed have at least one of these three conditions, and about 5 percent report symptoms of all three.” A separate study found that “21 percent of active duty soldiers and 43 percent of reserve soldiers developed symptoms significantly related to mental health disorders.”[26]

According to another study:

“15,204 soldiers who had completed their first deployment participated in two questionnaires about their mental health and sleep patterns from 2001 to 2008. During baseline questionnaires before deployment, most soldiers did not have any psychiatric disorders or a history of one. However, during follow-up questionnaires, 522 soldiers had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 151 have anxiety, and 303 were depressed. Fifty percent of the soldiers studied reported combat-related trauma and 17 percent reported having insomnia prior to their deployment.” [27]

The increase in mental illness among soldiers has been identified as the main cause of increasing suicide rates. In 2012, the Army reported that 325 suicides occurred within its ranks – “Our highest on record,” according to Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of staff, manpower and personnel for the Army.[28]

Naturally, within any arena of combat where young, impressionable adults are moved around like pawns on a chessboard, human emotion runs wild. Despite the robotic conditioning that occurs during basic training, this chaotic environment has a tendency to penetrate the human psyche, bringing about an extreme range of feelings, vexations, actions, and reactions. Human beings are simply not equipped to handle the terrors that accompany war – the sight of human corpses, charred and mangled bodies, some of them children – in their totality. And coping skills, whether inherent or forced, vary in effectiveness from person to person. Unfortunately, some cope by internalizing the terror. In these cases, we see the worst in humanity.

The infamous Wikileaks video that leaked in 2010, showing “thirty-eight grisly minutes of US airmen casually slaughtering a dozen Iraqis in 2007” – including two Reuters newsmen – puts this savagery into focus “not because it shows us something we didn’t know, but because we can watch it unfold in real time. Real people, flesh and blood, gunned down from above in a hellish rain of fire.”[29] The video footage, which immediately went viral, came on the heels of the haunting images taken at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were physically and sexually abused, tortured, raped, sodomized, and killed by American and Iraqi soldiers.[30] Other such incidents were inevitable.

2010 was an especially gruesome year in Afghanistan. A February 12th nighttime raid by U.S. Special Operations forces near Gardez killed five people, including two pregnant women.[31] Another airstrike by U.S. Special Operations forces helicopters on February 23 killed more than 20 civilians and injured numerous others. Among the injured was a 4-year-old boy who lost both of his legs. A few months later, during a visit with the child at a hospital in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai “scooped him up from his mattress and walked out to the hospital courtyard,” and asked, “Who injured you?” as helicopters passed overhead. “The boy, crying alongside his relatives, pointed at the sky.”[32] A few months later, in April, American troops “raked a large passenger bus with gunfire” near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing 5 civilians and wounding 18.[33]

In January of 2014, numerous photos showing US Marines burning and looting the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers were obtained by the media. “Two of the photos show a Marine apparently pouring a flammable liquid on two bodies. Other shots show the remains on fire and, after the flames went out, charred. A Marine in another photo is shown apparently rifling through clothing amid one corpse’s skeletal remains. Another Marine is shown posing in a crouch with his rifle pointing toward a human skull.” [34] Overall, more than a dozen bodies were shown in the photos, some of which were covered with flies and one being eaten by a dog.

Considering the savagery that accompanies such an environment, it is not difficult to see how undervalued human life becomes. The soldiers who carry out, witness, or even hear of this brutality are almost certain to suffer long-standing mental health effects. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, symptoms of PTSD include “bad memories or nightmares” and “flashbacks”; triggered and impulsive emotions; intense feelings of fear, guilt, or shame; and “hyperarousal” – feeling jittery, paranoid, and “always on the lookout for danger.”[35] The effects of TBI include numerous sensory problems, depression and anxiety, and severe mood swings and/or aggressive behaviors, among many other things. [36]

When all is said and done, and the politicians decide to bring them home, the soldiers who are lucky enough to return in one physical piece are often shattered into bits and fragments of mental and emotional distress. Often times, these soldiers face limited options – one of the most common of which is transitioning to a career in law enforcement.

From Fallujah to Philadelphia: Bringing the Wars Home

Police training mimics military training, both physically and mentally. Transition programs that funnel soldiers to police forces have become common at all levels of government. The changing face of law enforcement is indicative of this process as forces that are traditionally advertised to “protect and serve” have become noticeably militaristic. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that soldiers, many of whom carry the mental baggage of war, are being streamlined from the streets of Fallujah to the city blocks of the US.

In a recent article for “Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine,” Mark Clark tells us that military veterans seeking employment in police ranks “is happening right now in numbers unseen since the closing days of the Vietnam War.” To assist with job placement and transitioning, organizations like “Hire Heroes USA” works with “about 100 veterans each week” – at least 20% of whom are seeking law enforcement jobs.[37] Law enforcement agencies like the Philadelphia Police Department and San Jose PD, which boast of being structured as “a paramilitary organization,” actively seek military veterans by awarding preferential treatment.[38] Many police departments across the country have added increased incentives and benefits, including the acceptance of military active duty time towards retirement, to acquire veterans.

An October 2013 edition of the Army Times reports that “more than seven in 10 (local law enforcement agencies) said they attend military-specific job fairs, and three quarters reported developing relationships with the Labor Department’s local veterans employment representatives.” Also, “Half said they work with military transition assistance programs, and half also said they develop relationships with local National Guard and reserve units.”[39] Most local departments also have some type of veterans hiring preference, and “more than 90 percent reported having at least one vet in a senior leadership position.”

An example of this trend can be found in Hillsborough County, Florida, where the Sheriff’s department is seeking to hire “200 law enforcement deputies and another 130 detention deputies,” and Major Alan Hill has set his sights on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to fill these roles. Ironically, Hill points to “coping skills” as a main reason. “A lot of them know how to operate under stress. All of them know how to take orders,” Hill said. “We want to get the best of the best, and bring them in here, and give them a home, and allow them to continue to serve.”[40] Other departments across the country – such as the City of Austin Police Department and the Webb County Sheriff’s Office, both in Texas; the Denver Police Department in Colorado; the Hillsborough County and Orange County sheriff’s offices in Florida; and the Tucson Police Department in Arizona – have initiated similar efforts.

The correlation between the mental baggage of war, the increased hiring of military combat veterans as police officers, and an observable escalation of aggressive and violent police brutality is difficult to ignore. Police departments have screening processes, but many are lacking. The lingering effects from being in a war zone are unquestionable, and signs and symptoms which often are suppressed during “downtimes” tend to surface and intensify under distress – a common occurrence for police officers.

A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “19 percent of the 912 police officers surveyed in the New Orleans Police Department reported PTSD symptoms and 26 percent reported symptoms of major depression.”[41] A 2008 report by the US Department of Justice concluded that “police who have unresolved mental health concerns – whether or not those concerns are associated with their combat-related experiences – are at risk of harming themselves or others because of the nature of their jobs.” [42] Furthermore, the “mental health effects of combat deployment can manifest themselves in the daily activities of police work with more severity than perhaps other lines of work.” Specifically, “Officers’ combat experiences can affect how they use their weapons, their adherence to use-of-force policies, how they drive their police vehicles, and how they treat citizens with whom they come into contact.” [43]

Despite the potential dangers of these mental health effects, police departments fail to adequately assess them during the evaluation and hiring process. And even in cases where they are considered, the presence of such conditions are either (1) intentionally hidden by candidates, (2) undetectable due to their impulsive nature, or (3) simply not considered a reasonable basis for disqualification.

Soldiers transitioning from military to civilian life will often mask the psychological effects of combat out of fears of being stigmatized or disqualified for employment. “Of those reporting a probable TBI, 57 percent had not been evaluated by a physician for brain injury.”[44] In a recent study conducted at the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control (COCS), Kara Ballenger-Browning reported that “many of these soldiers are self-conscious about the diagnosis.” In her findings, Ballenger-Browning cited a poll where “half of Iraq/Afghanistan combat veterans with suspected mental disorders believed that receiving treatment would harm their careers; and another 65% stated that they would be considered weak for seeking help and many were afraid that their peers would lose confidence in their abilities.”[45]

The study also focused on military-sponsored “soldier-to-civilian” transition programs which sought to assist veterans with civilian job placement. Within such programs, “anonymous questions about PTSD treatment and future employment dominate online discussion forums, and many erroneously assume and advise that outside agencies embrace a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” Consequently, “these findings give reason to believe that veterans may not seek treatment for PTSD, fearing automatic disqualification from employment based on the diagnosis.”[46]

Since the transition from soldier to police officer has become commonplace, the COCS study included an assessment of the typical candidate evaluation process used by police departments to determine how or if the lingering mental health effects of combat would influence hiring decisions. Information was gathered from a dozen random departments throughout the US. The study found that:

    • In each case, a psychological evaluation of the applicant was required; however, a separate evaluation for PTSD was not typically administered.
    • The vast majority stated that a history of PTSD would not result in automatic disqualification.
    • Although screening tools, such as the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), exist to evaluate levels of PTSD severity, no law enforcement agencies reported using one.
  • In cases where mental health diagnoses were known, “most agencies suggested that medication, including psychotropic medication, was evaluated to ensure that safe and efficient job performance would not be adversely affected.”[47]

While many advocate groups view this lack of screening as a positive thing – because it’s one less obstruction for veterans to face when seeking employment with law enforcement – it should be concerning to members of the communities that are subjected to the ill effects of officers who suffer from combat-related conditions like PTSD or TBI. “Despite the challenges faced by veterans leaving active-duty military service for new or existing police careers,” lauds Clark, “the ranks of police forces are swelling with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” [48] Considering that one-third of all soldiers returning from deployment suffer from PTSD, TBI, some form of depressive disorder, or a combination of these, it’s probable that many of these new recruits who are “swelling the ranks” are bringing significant mental baggage with them.

The combination of this development with the standard process of objectification and internalized oppression, as well as the ingrained mentality of “war culture,” is a volatile one. Add the deliberate militarization of domestic police forces to the mix and we have an alarming trend – one that is highlighted by the near-daily occurrence of indiscriminate police violence across the country.

The Evolution of Domestic Militarism

The militarization of America’s police forces has been a gradual process which began as blowback from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Radley Balko, an investigative journalist for the Huffington Post, has spent much of the past decade following this alarmingly fascistic development. What Matt Taibbi is to the mortgage banking scandal, and Jeremy Scahill is to US imperialism, Balko is to the militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies. Likening modern police forces to a “standing army,” Balko has made compelling arguments – using constitutional law and the 13th amendment, as well as deploying an historical analysis extending back to old English law – that the mere existence of these forces are unconstitutional.[49]

“We got here by way of a number of political decisions and policies passed over 40 years,” explains Balko. “There was never a single law or policy that militarized our police departments – so there was never really a public debate over whether this was a good or bad thing.”[50] Over the course of several decades, Balko points to three main developments that have led to this massive domestic militarization:

First, as a general response to the grassroots militancy of the Cultural Revolution – which sought greater degrees of liberty, freedom, and equality – police forces began borrowing from the “special forces” model of the military. “They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.” This led to the development and proliferation of SWAT teams. “Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969,” explains Balko. “By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country.”[51]

The second development was the “war on drugs,” which “overlapped” and developed simultaneously with the reactive militarization of the late ’60s. Balko captures the vibe: “Nixon was declaring an ‘all-out war on drugs.’ He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.” Shortly thereafter, with the arrival of Reagan, “the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis – mostly to serve drug warrants.”[52]

Two decades later, domestic militarization reached new heights with the third development in this evolution: The World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Broadening the “war on drugs” to include an all-encompassing and often-times ambiguous “war on terror” opened the door for massive increases in “domestic security measures,” which led to seemingly limitless funding of police forces, the creation of new “security” agencies such as Homeland Security, and the opportunity for millions of dollars of profit to be made through the privatization of these services.

Private corporations like G4S Secure Solutions (formerly “The Wackenhut Corporation”), mimicking their international counterparts like Academi (formerly “Xe Services” and originally ” Blackwater“), jumped at the chance to secure government contracts (including US Customs and Border Protection) and boost revenue.[53] The creation of a “police industrial complex” has allowed companies like these to benefit from a “business to business global security market that is estimated to generate revenues of up to $14.9 billion per year” while being heavily subsidized by government contracts.[54] As a complementary development, the privatization of prisons works hand in hand with this newly-found, multi-billion-dollar law enforcement industry by creating even more incentive to seek out arrests and incarcerations.

“Federal funding in the billions of dollars has allowed state and local police departments to gain access to weapons and tactics created for overseas combat theaters.”[55] In an ongoing study by the ACLU, which is awaiting responses to “over 260 public records requests with law enforcement agencies in 25 states,” enough discernable evidence has been gathered to determine that “the use of military machinery such as tanks and grenades, as well as counter-terrorism tactics, encourage overly aggressive policing – too often with devastating consequences.” The study highlights random developments across the country:

    • A county sheriff’s department in South Carolina has an armored personnel carrier dubbed “The Peacemaker,” which can shoot weapons that the U.S. military specifically refrains from using on people.
    • New Hampshire police received federal funds for a counter-attack vehicle, asking “what red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this?”
    • Police in North Dakota borrowed a $154 million Predator drone from Homeland Security to arrest a family who refused to return six cows that wandered onto their farm.
    • Two SWAT Teams shut down a neighborhood in Colorado for four hours to search for a man suspected of stealing a bicycle and merchandise from Wal-Mart.
  • Police in Arkansas announced plans to patrol streets wearing full SWAT gear and carrying AR-15 assault rifles. [56]

Furthermore, during a 2007 House subcommittee hearing, Balko reported a “1,500% increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades.” Today, in America, “SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day.” [57]

The equipment and machinery regularly utilized by local police forces across the US now mimics that of a war zone. They possess everything from body armor to high-powered weaponry to tanks, armored vehicles, and even drones. But why? Are the duties of police officers really as dangerous as they’re made out to be? Out of approximately 900,000 police officers in the US, there are roughly 150 fatalities per year. Nearly 100 of these fatalities are accidental; therefore, 50 out of 900,000 officers – or 1 out of every 18,000 (five hundred thousandths of one percent of the entire force) – are ‘maliciously’ killed each year.[58] The odds of being struck by lightning over the course of a lifetime are 1 in 3,000.[59] Yet police are armed to the teeth – a fact that suggests conscious shifts from “defense” to “offense” and “protecting and serving” to “confronting and repressing.” Citizens – most notably poor, working class, and people of color – who are intended to be the beneficiaries of this “protective service” are now viewed and treated as enemy combatants on a battlefield.

Coming Home to Roost

“It was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.”

– Malcolm X, explaining his “chickens” quote[60]

America’s culture of war and violence was bound to catch up to all of us. Over the past decade, yearly US military expenditures more than doubled from a little over $300 billion in 2001 to over $682 billion in 2013. [61] [62] US military spending represents 39% of global spending – more than the combined spending of China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Canada, and Australia. Since 1945, the US military has invaded, intervened in, or occupied at least 50 countries.[63] Currently, the US operates and/or controls between 700 and 800 military bases worldwide, a list that includes locations in 63 countries. In addition to these bases, there are 255, 065 US military personnel deployed in 156 countries worldwide.[64]

This global military presence has real and often disastrous consequences for human life. In the 2011 book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, author John Tirman estimates that “between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians.”[65] However, wartime casualties pale in comparison to the lingering effects, chaos, and disorder stemming from prolonged military occupations. “In the period 1950-2005, there have been 82 million avoidable deaths from deprivation (avoidable mortality, excess deaths, excess mortality , deaths that did not have to happen) associated with countries occupied by the US in the post-1945 era.”[66] While it’s difficult to gauge how much of a role the military occupations played in this devastation, it’s safe to assume the instability created by such occupations factor significantly.

The violence that is perpetrated abroad mimics the violent culture at home. As of June 2013, it’s estimated that there are up to 310 million guns in the US, which amounts to just about one gun per person (the US population is 314 million).[67] The next highest number of guns per capita by country is Serbia at 58% and Yemen at 55%, compared to the US at 90%.[68] Since 1968, there have been 1,384,171 gunfire deaths in the US – which amounts to more American deaths than from all of the US wars in the nation’s history combined (1,171,177).[69] The US averages 10.2 “firearm-related deaths” per every 100,000 people. Americans are 10 times more likely to suffer gun-related deaths than people in Australia and Ireland; 15 times more likely than people in Turkey; 40 times more likely than those in England; and 170 times more likely than those in Japan. [70]

America’s police forces also reflect this culture. And while law enforcement agencies across the US have delivered pain and devastation to poorer, inner-city communities for nearly a half-century, their militarization has only recently begun to attract national attention. Much of this attention can be pinpointed to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the response it received from police, which included unadulterated brutality against peaceful protesters, unnecessary use of force, and the negligent use of tasers and Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper) spray – a substance that has been proven to cause “adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and even sudden death” in some cases.[71] However, it was not merely these careless and sadistic actions which have attracted such attention, but rather the changing profile of the victims of this brutality – young, white, “middle-class” women and men.

“For 25 years, the primary ‘beneficiaries’ of police militarization have been poor people in high-crime areas – people who generally haven’t had the power or platform to speak up,” explains Balko. “The Occupy protesters were largely affluent, white, and deft at using cell phones and social media to document and publicize incidents of excessive force.” Their public victimization, despite falling far short of the police brutality that has existed within communities of color for decades, inevitably struck a chord with a nation still inundated with white supremacist ideals that assign varying degrees of value to American lives – mainly based on the color of one’s skin and their socioeconomic background. Ultimately, white members of the media, seeing reflections of their own sons and daughters being abused, suddenly chose to report en masse. White viewers, seeing reflections of their neighbors and relatives, suddenly expressed widespread disgust. This was no longer an episode of COPS, “glamorizing controversial police tactics” and perpetuating “implicit biases regarding race and class.” [72] These were now white, middle-class lives being affected and brutalized.

Essentially, the hate that Malcolm X spoke of, historically reserved for “defenseless black people,” is now developing into indiscriminate rage – targeting poor and working-class people of all colors throughout the US. Through this ongoing process, it is becoming apparent that even white privilege, in itself, is beginning to lose its immunity from this unaccountable wrath.

The 2011 beating of a homeless schizophrenic man, Kelly Thomas, in a transit parking lot in Fullerton, California confirmed this wrath. The incident was, unbeknown to officers, recorded by security cameras on the night of July 5, 2011, and later viewed by millions of Americans as the officers’ trial was closely followed. Thomas was unarmed and posed no threat at the time of the beating. “The surveillance camera footage shows Thomas being beaten, clubbed and stunned with a Taser by police.” [73] Thomas suffered a coma and died five days later in a hospital bed.

November of 2011 showcased yet another incident of blatant disregard as a police officer doused UC-Davis students with streams of pepper spray. At the time, the students were engaged in non-violent protest by sitting together with their arms locked. Video footage of the officer calmly and methodically walking up and down the line of students, spraying in and around their faces without pause, epitomized the sadistic nature of modern policing. [74]

On August 10, 2013, Tallahassee police officers, while conducting a field sobriety test on 44-year-old Christina West, forcefully slammed her face-first into the road as one officer screamed in rage. While obviously inebriated, Ms. West was subjected to what City Commissioner Scott Maddox later described as “a disturbing use of force against a completely non-aggressive arrestee.”[75]

In September of 2013, 20-year-old David Connor Castellani was arrested, beaten by police, and attacked by a K-9 unit after a verbal altercation outside of an Atlantic City casino. Castellani was unarmed.[76] The following month, after a disagreement with his father over cigarettes, 19-year-old Tyler Comstock found himself the target of a police chase in Iowa. Despite being told to “back off” in order to defuse the situation, officers escalated the incident by pursuing Comstock, crashing into the truck he was driving, and shooting and killing him. He was unarmed. [77]

In January of 2014, a 2009 surveillance video from a Seabrook, New Hampshire police station was leaked, showing police slamming Mike Bergeron face-first into a concrete wall and dousing him with pepper spray while he was on the floor. Bergeron was arrested under suspicion of drunk driving and was unarmed, handcuffed, and relatively calm when one officer decided to violently slam his face into the wall, to the apparent joy of the other officers who could be seen laughing. [78]

Incidents like these and many others have signified the donning of a new age – one that is eerily reminiscent of authoritarian societies gone by, draped with violently oppressive, daily interactions between agents of government and the citizenry, and dripping of fascistic notions built upon a culture of militarism and war. A violence historically reserved for the most disenfranchised of the population – and ignored by most of the rest – is finally extending itself beyond the oppressive structures of old, transcending targeted demographics to include a working-class-wide assault.


An extensive 2006 report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that, in the United States, the “War on Terror” has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”[79] “For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they’re fighting a war,” explains Balko. “They’ve been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they’ve explicitly and repeatedly told them they’re fighting a war. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.”

This development, while unwanted, was inevitable for a nation that was built on a foundation of Native American genocide, African enslavement, the ruthlessness of capitalism, a culture of misogyny, and persistent strains of racism and classism. The process of objectification which has become pervasive for America’s youth has served as an expedient catalyst to a culture of war and oppression; and the insidious victimization of America’s working class has worked in tandem with the internalization of this oppressive culture, producing willing participants eager to earn a place in the master’s good graces by brutalizing their working class peers.

As products of this conditioning, the mindset of the modern police officer in the US remains peculiar. As individuals, within the confines of their own lives – amongst their families, loved ones, children, and friends – they aren’t much different than many of us. Ironically, despite being enforcers of government policy in their professional capacity, many do not hesitate to jump on the soapbox of anti-government rhetoric – often opposing things like Obamacare, welfare, gun control, open immigration policy, and even taxation – on their “personal time.” Right-wing fringe groups like the Tea Party and Oath Keepers have actively recruited both military personnel and police officers, finding an abundance of narrow and impressionably ripe minds within these ranks. While claiming to “return to the basics” and “serve the US Constitution,” their actions (even when serving their “public” duties) ultimately rely on literal interpretations of a highly-subjective, often vague, and antiquated document that was written by wealthy, white (some slave-owning) landowners nearly 250 years ago. [80]

Naturally, these interpretations are skewed by a myriad of privileges. Regardless of the officer’s own ethnicity or socioeconomic background, it is the role that ultimately represents a virtual arm of white supremacy and class oppression. Regarding the racist dynamics of law enforcement in the US, “It’s useful to understand this as an allegory about how white skin privilege works,” explains Annalee Newitz. “The police uniform (and) the badge are like white skin, and the person who wears that skin is allowed to enforce laws which he doesn’t himself intend to follow.” [81] Within their roles as “officers of the law,” they become the embodiment of the government-backed suppression they often despise in their private lives. Only the suppression they carry out is against a specific target population (people of color, the poor and disenfranchised, and the working class). And, despite coming from that very working class, they undoubtedly lose any and all sense of class consciousness in their roles as ruling class watchdogs.

Within this role, they take ownership of a wide array of hypocritical entitlements – a mindset that wholeheartedly believes the US Constitution protectsmy rights to own guns, and my rights to protect my privileged status in society, and my rights to protect my property, and so on. However, those rights don’t apply to you. And they certainly don’t apply to young men of color who happen to be walking home at night. Nor do they apply to striking workers demanding a living wage. Nor do they apply to Occupy protestors collectively sitting in protest of illegal wars, corporate greed, and corrupt banks. Nor do they apply to evicted homeowners who were exploited by deceitful mortgage schemes. Nor do they apply to homeless people who are simply trying to survive on the streets.

Rather than seeing themselves as public servants, police officers have increasingly embraced the “us vs. them” mentality – anyone who isn’t a cop is a potential threat. In doing so, they have become “mindless drones” void of any conscience amidst a world that is becoming increasingly unconscionable – the ultimate tool on an ever-intensifying class-war landscape. The collective baggage they bring with them – products of objectification, war culture, militarism, and combat-induced mental illness – serve as positive attributes in the eyes of those who use them as tools of oppression, while representing erratic triggers of violence to everyone else. The war has come home. The chickens are here to roost.”

Ebony: Mr. Kaepernick

“Multiple police organizations have condemned Nike for featuring former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick in its latest ad campaign. The National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations have both criticized the move, implying it was an insult to law enforcement officers.

The National Association of Police Organizations took it one step further, calling for a boycott of the brand while deeming Kaepernick a “shallow dilettante seeking to gain notoriety by disrespecting the flag for which so many Americans have fought and died,” in a letter written to Nike President and CEO, Mark Parker, which can be read in full here.

The National Black Police Association has now come to the athlete’s defense, saying he has a 1st amendment right to peacefully protest on the football field. They also reject the idea that Kaepernick is anti-police.

“Your inclusion of Mr. Kaepernick in your ads seems appropriate to us. We live in a country where the 1St Amendment is a right of the people. Mr. Kaepernick chose to exercise his right where his passion was on the football field,” NBPA Chairperson Sonia Y.W. Pruitt wrote in a letter to Parker. “NAPO believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s choice to openly protest issues surrounding police brutality, racism and social injustices in this country makes him anti-police. On the contrary, the NBPA believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance is in direct alignment with what law enforcement stands for-the protection of a people, their human rights, their dignity, their safety, and their rights as American citizens.”

Read the entirety of the NBPA’s letter below:

Mr. Parker:

It is with great dismay that we were made aware of a letter that you received from the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) regarding your use of Colin Kaepernick in your new “Just Do It” advertising campaign. The National Black Police Association (NBPA) is not in agreement with NAPO on this matter, and we strongly condemn their call for police officers and their families to boycott Nike and its products.

Your inclusion of Mr. Kaepernick in your ads seems appropriate to us. We live in a country where the 1St Amendment is a right of the people. Mr. Kaepernick chose to exercise his right where his passion was on the football field. NAPO believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s choice to openly protest issues surrounding police brutality, racism and social injustices in this country makes him anti-police. On the contrary, the NBPA believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance is in direct alignment with what law enforcement stands for-the protection of a people, their human rights, their dignity, their safety, and their rights as American citizens. NAPO has shown an adeptness at maintaining the police status quo and the tone in their letter further validates Mr. Kaepernick’s concerns, as it undermines the trust that is needed by law enforcement in order for the profession to maintain its legitimacy. That NAPO has chosen this matter to take a stance, only perpetuates the narrative that police are racist, with no regard, acknowledgement, respect, or understanding of the issues and concerns of the African- American community.

Your quote “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” is also appropriate as it relates to Mr. Kaepernick. For NAPO to presuppose that Mr. Kaepernick has not made sacrifices because he did not die on a battlefield, shows you just how out of touch NAPO is with the African-American community. We would like for them to stop their false narrative that you are not worthy of respect unless you were in the military or worked in law enforcement. The beauty of this country are the countless sacrifices that all people make in their everyday lives. The African?American community makes a sacrifice each time a life is unjustly lost at the hands of the very people who should protect them. A sacrifice is made each time the criminal justice system treats people of color as less than. A sacrifice is made each time a letter is sent asking officers to boycott a corporation, without asking those very African-American officers who are most affected, what their opinion is.

If they had asked the NBPA, we would have told them that they are out of line, and that the NBPA supports any person or group who exercises their right to peacefully protest against any form of social injustice, including police brutality and racism.

The NBPA proudly supports Nike and your use of Mr. Kaepernick in your new “Just Do It” advertising campaign. Truth and upholding the Constitutional rights of citizens, are cornerstones of leadership in policing. Our mission includes striving constantly to bridge the gap between law enforcement and our communities we are committed to ensuring equity for the community, as we work to enhance trust, legitimacy, transparency, and accountability in policing.

We will likely be buying and wearing lots of Nike products in the near future.

Best wishes,

Sonia Y.W. Pruitt

National Chairperson

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Modern Policing Issues

Racial Police Brutality Captured on Tap

Since the rise of cellphone cameras and police body cameras there has been a rise of police brutality against black people captured on tape. *Trigger Warning*

Militarization of Police

NY Times: What Happened in Ferguson?

Slate: The Militarization of the Police

“The most striking photographs from Ferguson, Missouri, aren’t of Saturday’s demonstrations or Sunday night’s riots; they’re of the police. Image after image shows officers clad in Kevlar vests, helmets, and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and tear gas. In one photo, protesters stand toe-to-toe with baton-wielding riot police, in another, an unarmed man faces several cops, each with rifles at the ready.

What’s more, Ferguson police have used armored vehicles to show force and control crowds. In one photo, riot gear-clad officers are standing in front of a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, barking commands and launching tear gas into groups of demonstrators and journalists.

This would be one thing if Ferguson were in a war zone, or if protesters were violent—although, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which American police would need a mine-resistant vehicle. But an episode of looting aside, Ferguson police aren’t dealing with any particular danger. Nonetheless, they’re treating demonstrators—and Ferguson residents writ large—as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.

This is part of a broader problem. In his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko notes that since the 1960s, “law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M–16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.”

This process ramped up with the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, as the federal government supplied local and state police forces with military-grade weaponry to clamp down on drug trafficking and other crime. And it accelerated again after the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the federal government had—and sent—billions in surplus military equipment to state and local governments. Since 2006, according to an analysis by the New York Times, police departments have acquired 435 armored vehicles, 533 planes, 93,763 machine guns, and 432 mine-resistant armored trucks. Overall, since Congress established its program to transfer military hardware, local and state police departments have received $4.3 billion worth of equipment. Accordingly, the value of military equipment used by these police agencies has increased from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995 (shortly after the program was established), to nearly $450 million in 2013.

At the same time as crime has fallen to its lowest levels in decades, police departments are acquiring more hardware and finding more reasons to use SWAT teams and other heavy-handed tactics, regardless of the situation. According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released this summer, 79 percent of SWAT deployments from 2011 to 2012 were for search warrants, a massive overreaction that can have disastrous consequences, including injury and death. That was the case for Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed during a SWAT raid by the Detroit police department. Serving a search warrant for an occupant of the house, Detroit police rushed in with flash bangs and ballistic shields. When one resident tried to grab an officer’s gun, it fired, striking Aiyana. She was 7.

If you know anything about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, then it also shouldn’t shock you to learn that SWAT deployments are used disproportionately in black and Latino neighborhoods. The ACLU finds that 50 percent of those impacted by SWAT deployments were black and Latino. Of these deployments, 68 percent were for drug searches. And a substantial number of drug searches—60 percent—involved violent tactics to force entry, which lead predictably and avoidably to senseless injury and death.

That is how we get images like the ones in Ferguson, where police officers brandish heavy weapons and act as an occupying force. We should expect as much when we give police departments military weapons. Already—when it comes to predominantly black and brown communities—there’s a long-standing culture of aggressive, punitive policing. Add assault weapons and armored vehicles, and you have a recipe for the repressive, violent reactions that we see in Ferguson, and that are likely inevitable in countless other poor American neighborhoods.”

CNN: Trump to lift military gear ban for local police

“(August 28, 2017) The Trump administration will unveil a new plan Monday to roll back limits on a controversial program that provides local law enforcement agencies with surplus military gear, marking the end of a policy implemented during the Obama administration. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 prohibiting the transfer of a host of equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms following controversy over the “militarization” of the police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said at the time. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”  Civil rights groups swiftly blasted the equipment policy shift Monday, saying the Obama-era guidelines were critical to rebuilding trust with communities of color.
“These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality,” said Vanita Gupta, former head of DOJ’s civil rights division under Obama and who now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone.” But the National Fraternal Order of Police applauded the news and the group’s president, Chuck Canterbury, explained that the FOP has been working to roll back Obama’s restrictions since the day they were announced.”


Blue Lives Matter Laws

Washington Post: ‘Blue lives’ do matter — that’s the problem

How police identity trumps public interest

“In May 2016, Louisiana became the first state to propose a “Blue Lives Matter” law, which amended hate crime provisions to include targeting an individual “because of actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.” Since then, dozens of bills in states across the nation have been proposed to follow Louisiana’s lead.

The reaction to the new legislative agenda was immediate. The common refrain — “Blue lives don’t exist because officers can take their uniforms off” — was an understandable reaction to the constant racism and brutality black Americans experience every day in interactions with law enforcement.

But “blue lives” do exist. That’s the problem.

The “Blue Lives Matter” movement and its corresponding legislation are just the latest chapter in the evolving notion of what it means to be a police officer, one that dates back over 150 years. The subsequent history shows that, at least for white officers, this strong sense of identity and camaraderie — of police-hood — often supersedes an ability to empathize with civilians of color…

…Yet even as black officers adopt blue lives, their experiences show the tenuousness of the notion that police can adopt a uniform identity, regardless of their race. Without a uniform on, black police are often less able to live unthinkingly in their identities as police, the armed defenders of order and the status quo. “I get anxious in those situations, even more so because I’m legally carrying a gun,” Perry Tarrant of the Seattle Police Department told NBC News. “The potential for things to go sideways makes you well aware of who you are. And I don’t think my situation is unique.”

He’s right. In June of this year, for instance, a white officer shot a black off-duty member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.  And yet as Alex Vitale and other sociologists of policing have argued, the “warrior mentality” of us vs. them sinks in after police training, with black officers often siding with white colleagues…

…The Lexow Committee that investigated NYPD corruption warned of this trend in 1895. The committee found that “it appears that the police form a separate and highly privileged class, armed with the authority and machinery for oppression and punishment, but practically free themselves from the operation of criminal law.” The ironies of lawless law enforcement, of specially protected protectors, have been with us for a long time.

Whether through recruitment procedures, community relations or the abolition of law enforcement as we know it, policing in the 21st century is in need of a drastic reframing and reforming. Not toward blue lives, but toward a broader sense of identity, one that understands the police as being the same as civilians, rather than a separate class looking out for its own.”

The Nation: The Case Against ‘Blue Lives Matter’ Bills

Hate-crimes laws make sense for groups that have been historically discriminated against. Police officers don’t qualify.

“Two weeks ago, the New York State Senate passed a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill—a law that makes offenses against police and first responders a hate crime. Forms of such legislation have been introduced in at least 14 states since the beginning of 2016. There is little chance that New York’s bill will pass through the state assembly, where Democrats hold a majority, but the sentiment behind the proposed legislation—that police officers need another layer of protection beyond that which they are already afforded—has raised concern among civil-rights advocates and in heavily policed communities.

So far, two Blue Lives Matter bills have been signed into law: The first was passed last May in Louisiana, and the second just two months ago in Kentucky. Hate crimes laws often increase the sentence imposed on the offender, but, more than that, they are symbolic. “Most hate crime statutes protect against groups that have historically been targets of bigotry; hate crime statutes across all states most commonly prohibit crimes based on race, religion, and ethnicity,” writes Jessica Henry, a justice-studies professor at Montclair State University. Is that the case for police officers?

…The 1968 Civil Rights act made it a crime to “willfully…injure, intimidate or interfere with—any person because of his race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Robinson says hate-crime legislation should and has historically been used for victims and communities who have not been properly protected by the law. For black Americans, he said, hate-crime laws have made sense, though conviction rates for hate crimes remain incredibly low. Between 2010 and 2015 a total of 270 hate crimes were referred to federal prosecutors across the country and 230 of them weren’t ever even prosecuted. During that five-year period, only 29 people were convicted of a hate crime. Meanwhile, every state in America has an increased penalty for those who attack law enforcement.

Killing a police officer can result in life imprisonment—just last month a New York man was sentenced to life for killing an NYPD officer. And killing a federal law-enforcement official can be punishable by death. “It’s counterproductive to add a hate crime statute,” said Michael Lieberman of the Washington Council for the Anti-Defamation League. With a hate crime, Lieberman explained, the intent of the offender must be proven in a court of law, a standard of proof that actually makes it more difficult to get a conviction. He suggested strengthening existing protections for police instead of adopting legislation that makes offenses against police a hate crime. Moore, who worked on the landmark case that ruled New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional, says that police “get so much the benefit of the doubt from juries and legal immunity,” he said. Officers, he said, can avoid liability even when the court finds that their conduct violated the constitution if they say they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. “[Law enforcement] get two bites of the apple, we don’t generally even get one.”

Another troubling aspect of the Blue Lives Matter bills is that they’re incredibly vague. “There’s nothing in the language of New York’s bill that limits the type of offenses which may be perpetrated against the police officer that could be elevated to a hate crime,” said Moore. “It could include any felony or misdemeanor under the state of New York.” That means a person could be charged with a hate crime for something like resisting arrest.

In Louisiana, “resisting arrest” did come up as a potential offense covered under the hate-crime law. “Resisting an officer or battery of a police officer was just that charge, simply. But now, Governor Edwards, in the legislation, made it a hate crime now,” said Police Chief Calder Hebert of St. Martinville, Louisiana, to a local TV station

…If there are already far-reaching protections for police officers in all 50 states, why are states pursuing this legislation? The answer, of course, is politics. “If New York State wants to send a message that black lives don’t matter unless they’re cops, this is the best way to do it,” said Vince Warren, Executive Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy organization. “At their core, ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bills like this one seek to turn Black Lives Matter protesters into enemies of the state.” Warren said that the proposed bill “gives the police added incentive to claim an assault when being lawfully confronted by protesters, which will deter legitimate protest even when those assaults don’t actually happen.” So, beyond these bills being redundant, they also have the potential to detract peaceful protesters from gathering. “You’re supposed to pass bills to address problems,” said Moore. In this case, he adds, “There’s no need for it.””

Daily News:  Louisiana police chief charging people with a felony hate crime, punishable by 10 years in prison, if they resist arrest

“Now that Louisiana’s Blue Lives Matter law is in full effect, the troubling consequences are already being felt across the state. According to St. Martinville Police Chief Calder Hebert, if a man is arrested for the misdemeanor of stealing a candy bar from a convenience store, but then resists arrest, he can and will be charged with a felony hate crime and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for it. In fact, if someone is wrongly arrested, but then resists that wrongful arrest, instead of simply being charged with the misdemeanor of resisting arrest, they, too, can be charged with a felony hate crime against police. It doesn’t matter if they actually hate police or not, which would seem to be a necessary requirement of a hate crime, but resisting arrest is being made into a serious felony nonetheless.

In fact, Hebert told KATC News that he is already enforcing the law and charging people with felony hate crimes against police when they resist arrest. “Resisting an officer or battery of a police officer was just that charge, simply. But now, Gov. Edwards, in the legislation, made it a hate crime now,” said the chief.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we have more people in prison than any other nation in the world. Making resisting an arrest into a felony hate crime is preposterous. First off, the charge of “resisting arrest” is already outrageously nebulous and regularly abused by police who can deem even the slightest movement or failure to immediately reply to a command as “resisting arrest.”

I knew a man who had a police dog biting him all over his body, including his genitals, who was then charged with “resisting arrest” because he did not remain calm and still. I knew a woman who was charged with resisting arrest because of her sluggish behaviors during a diabetic attack.

These laws, like most laws in America, will be used to criminalize blackness itself. White police officers will disproportionately enforce this new felony hate crime statute against people of color. Conservatives will then say more people of color are being charged with this ridiculous felony because people of color resist arrest more. It’s all so damn predictable. What I know is that when a young white kid who had too much to drink gets a little rowdy with the police, this law simply won’t be applied to him. That’d simply be too much. Instead, Louisiana’s already crowded jails and prisons will continue to be overstuffed with black and brown bodies who did not endure arrest in robotic silence — no matter how tight the cuffs or bogus the charge.”

Washington Post: How do we fix the police ‘testilying’ problem?

Back in 1967, former U.S. attorney and New York criminal judge Irving Younger warned that the criminal justice system was providing cops with heavy incentives to lie in court. (Note: The transcription of the article below contains some punctuation errors.)

On March 20, in McCray v. Illinois, the Supreme [Court] held that when, on being questioned as to whether there was probable cause to arrest a defendant, a policeman testifies ‘that a “reliable informant” told him that the defendant was committing a crime the policeman need not name the informant[.] Justice Stewart, for himself: and four other members of the Court, said that “nothing in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state court judge in every such hearing to assume the arresting officers are committing perjury.”

Why not? Every lawyer who practices in the criminal courts knows that police perjury is commonplace. The reason is not hard to find. Policemen see [themselves] as fighting a two‑front war — against criminals in the street and against “liberal” rules of law in court. All’s fair in this war, including the use of perjury to subvert “liberal” rules of law that might free those who “ought” to be jailed. And even if his lies are exposed in the courtroom, the policeman is as likely to be indicted for perjury by his co‑worker, the prosecutor, as he is to be struck down by thunderbolts from an avenging heaven.

It is a peculiarity of our legal, system that the police have unique opportunities (and unique temptations) to give false testimony. …

The difficulty arises when one stands back from the particular case and looks at a series of cases. It then becomes apparent that policemen are committing perjury at least in some of them. and perhaps in nearly all of them. Narcotics prosecutions in New York City can be so viewed. Before Mapp [v. Ohio] the policeman typically [testified] that [he] had stopped the defendant for little or no reason, searched him, and found narcotics on [his] person. This had the ring of truth. It was an illegal search (not based upon probable cause”), but the evidence was admissible because Mapp had not yet been decided. Since it made no difference, the policeman testified truthfully. After, the decision in Mapp it made a great deal of difference.

For the first few months, New York policemen continued to tell the truth about the circumstances of their searches, with the result that evidence was suppressed. Then the police made the great discovery that if the defendant drops the narcotics on the ground, after which the police man arrests him, then the search is reasonable and the evidence is admissible. Spend a few hours in the New ‘York City Criminal Court nowadays and you will hear case after case in which a policeman testifies that the defendant dropped the narcotics on the ground whereupon the policeman arrested him.

Usually the very language of the testimony is identical from one case to another. This is now known among defense lawyers and prosecutors as “dropsy” testimony. The judge has no reason to disbelieve it in any particular case, and of course the judge must decide each case on its own evidence, without regard to the testimony in other cases. Surely, though, not in every case was the defendant unlucky enough to drop his narcotics at the feet of a policeman. It follows that at least in some of these cases the police are lying.

That was nearly 50 years ago. We still haven’t figured out how to solve the problem.

One by one, five police officers took the witness stand at the Skokie courthouse late last month for what would typically be a routine hearing on whether evidence in a drug case was properly obtained.

But in a “Perry Mason” moment rarely seen inside an actual courtroom, the inquiry took a surprising turn when the suspect’s lawyer played a police video that contradicted the sworn testimony of the five officers — three from Chicago and two from Glenview, a furious judge found.

Cook County Circuit Judge Catherine Haberkorn suppressed the search and arrest, leading prosecutors to quickly dismiss the felony charges. All five officers were later stripped of their police powers and put on desk duty pending internal investigations. And the state’s attorney’s office is looking into possible criminal violations, according to spokeswoman Sally Daly.

“Obviously, this is very outrageous conduct,” a transcript of the March 31 hearing quoted the judge, a former county prosecutor, as saying. “All officers lied on the stand today. … All their testimony was a lie. So there’s strong evidence it was conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie. … Many, many, many, many times they all lied.”

All five are veteran officers. Glenview Officer Jim Horn declined to comment Monday, while the other four — Sgt. James Padar and Officers Vince Morgan and William Pruente, all assigned to narcotics for Chicago police, and Glenview Sgt. Theresa Urbanowski — could not be reached for comment.

As Michelle Alexander pointed out in a New York Times op-ed last year, a Brooklyn judge recently had the same revelation.

In 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed after several police officers were accused of mishandling evidence. That year, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn condemned a widespread culture of lying and corruption in the department’s drug enforcement units. “I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

In fact, Younger’s warning has been repeated ad nauseam over the years by other judges, defense attorneys, conscientious police chiefs, numerous academics and law journal articles, and whistleblowers.

There are a number of reasons for the “testilying” problem. As Alexander points out, even since Younger’s time, the federal government only worsened the incentives by instituting a number of grants that reward police agencies for raw numbers of stops, arrests and convictions, particularly in drug cases. There are professional and financial incentives for racking up the stats, for police agencies as a whole, for the brass who lead them and for individual police officers. And there’s very little pushback for going too far to achieve those numbers.

But one unfortunate truth is that police lying has long been encouraged by the Exclusionary Rule, the rule that (usually) prohibits evidence found during an illegal search from being used against a suspect at trial. This is an unfortunate truth because the Exclusionary Rule is also the only real deterrent to illegal searches. Eliminate the Exclusionary Rule, and cops may well stop lying about how they obtain evidence, but there will then be very little to stop them from violating the Fourth Amendment with impunity, based on little more than hunches. Remember, they’re lying to hide the fact that they may have violated someone’s civil rights. Remove the incentive to lie about the violation without removing or at least combating the incentive to commit the violation in the first place, and you’ve only fixed the coverup. You haven’t fixed the underlying crime. And this is one scenario where the crime is actually quite a bit worse than the coverup.

So what do we do? My fellow Washington Post blogger Randy Barnett has suggested trading the Exclusionary Rule for increased liability for cops who commit constitutional violations in the form of financial awards to victims, whether they’re eventually found guilty or innocent. Barnett suggests that the awards be paid by police departments (and ultimately taxpayers), not individual police officers. This seems like a policy that would be politically difficult to enact into law. Given how pressure from police groups has made it difficult to pass basic reform even on a policy such as civil asset forfeiture — a much more obvious injustice to most people — convincing lawmakers to force agencies to pay awards to convicts because the evidence used to convict them was found in an illegal search seems like a tough sell.  It also rests on the assumption that frequent awards for illegal searches will eventually move voters to push for reform. I’m just not convinced that will happen.

The answer may actually lie in how those Chicago cops got caught. The ubiquity of citizen-shot video, along with the onset of mandatory dashboard camera and lapel camera videos, is making it increasingly difficult for cops to get away with lying. Interestingly, Younger hinted at this 47 years ago.

In March 1966, the American Law Institute promulgated a Model Code of Pre‑Arraignment Procedure, which provides that the police must make a tape recording of their questioning of an arrested person in order “to help eliminate factual disputes concerning what was said.” More recently the 20th police precinct in New York City has begun to tape‑record all interviews with suspects.

But there will be no tape recordings on the streets . . .

Perhaps not in 1967. But that is more and more the case today. All of those recordings are catching more and more cops in the act of lying. Every time a recording shows a cop to have lied, a number of things happen. First, that particular cop is (hopefully) disciplined. That probably doesn’t happen as often as it should, but judges and prosecutors tend to treat perjury much more seriously than they do an illegal search. Yes, in an ideal world, cops would be disciplined as harshly for the act of violating someone’s civil liberties as they are for lying about doing so to a judge or jury after the fact. But we have to work with what we have.

Second, it serves as a warning to other cops who are lying or might lie in the future in police reports and courtrooms. The cameras are rolling. Eventually, you’ll be exposed. And third, it begins to undermine the prestige that police testimony holds with judges, prosecutors and political officials. It isn’t that cops are inherently dishonest people. But they are in fact merely people, subject to the same failings, temptations, bad incentives and trappings of power as someone in any other profession. Put another way, the problem isn’t that cops aren’t capable of telling the truth. The problem is that the courts have treated cops as if they’re incapable of lying. Video is changing that.

Of course, for video to change police behavior, the video needs to exist. So the move toward dashboard cameras and lapel cameras is a good thing — provided there are safeguards to protect the privacy of regular citizens inadvertently recorded by those cameras. We also need the courts, or perhaps state legislatures, to adopt or pass a “Missing Video Presumption” — if there should be audio or video of an incident, and there isn’t, the courts should presume that the audio or video would not have supported the claims of the party that failed to preserve the evidence. (That would seem to be the police in most cases, but it could also be a suspect who destroys incriminating video on his surveillance camera or cellphone.)

These policies — with a robust Exclusionary Rule and proper sanctions against cops shown by video to have committed perjury — won’t forever end the illegal searches or the practice of “testilying.” But they should begin to tilt the incentives, so that there’s at least as much to lose by skirting the Fourth Amendment (and then lying about it) as there is to gain.”

NY Times: Why Police Lie Under Oath

“THOUSANDS of people plead guilty to crimes every year in the United States because they know that the odds of a jury’s believing their word over a police officer’s are slim to none. As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? As one of my colleagues recently put it, “Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying.”

But are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals? I think not. Not just because the police have a special inclination toward confabulation, but because, disturbingly, they have an incentive to lie. In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.

That may sound harsh, but numerous law enforcement officials have put the matter more bluntly.  Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police commissioner, wrote an article in The San Francisco Chronicle decrying a police culture that treats lying as the norm: “Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”

The New York City Police Department is not exempt from this critique. In 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed after several police officers were accused of mishandling evidence. That year, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn condemned a widespread culture of lying and corruption in the department’s drug enforcement units. “I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

Remarkably, New York City officers have been found to engage in patterns of deceit in cases involving charges as minor as trespass. In September it was reported that the Bronx district attorney’s office was so alarmed by police lying that it decided to stop prosecuting people who were stopped and arrested for trespassing at public housing projects, unless prosecutors first interviewed the arresting officer to ensure the arrest was actually warranted. Jeannette Rucker, the chief of arraignments for the Bronx district attorney, explained in a letter that it had become apparent that the police were arresting people even when there was convincing evidence that they were innocent. To justify the arrests, Ms. Rucker claimed, police officers provided false written statements, and in depositions, the arresting officers gave false testimony.

Mr. Keane, in his Chronicle article, offered two major reasons the police lie so much. First, because they can. Police officers “know that in a swearing match between a drug defendant and a police officer, the judge always rules in favor of the officer.” At worst, the case will be dismissed, but the officer is free to continue business as usual. Second, criminal defendants are typically poor and uneducated, often belong to a racial minority, and often have a criminal record.  “Police know that no one cares about these people,” Mr. Keane explained.

All true, but there is more to the story than that.

Police departments have been rewarded in recent years for the sheer numbers of stops, searches and arrests. In the war on drugs, federal grant programs like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program have encouraged state and local law enforcement agencies to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding. Agencies receive cash rewards for arresting high numbers of people for drug offenses, no matter how minor the offenses or how weak the evidence. Law enforcement has increasingly become a numbers game. And as it has, police officers’ tendency to regard procedural rules as optional and to lie and distort the facts has grown as well. Numerous scandals involving police officers lying or planting drugs — in Tulia, Tex. and Oakland, Calif., for example — have been linked to federally funded drug task forces eager to keep the cash rolling in.

THE pressure to boost arrest numbers is not limited to drug law enforcement. Even where no clear financial incentives exist, the “get tough” movement has warped police culture to such a degree that police chiefs and individual officers feel pressured to meet stop-and-frisk or arrest quotas in order to prove their “productivity.”

For the record, the New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, denies that his department has arrest quotas. Such denials are mandatory, given that quotas are illegal under state law. But as the Urban Justice Center’s Police Reform Organizing Project has documented, numerous officers have contradicted Mr. Kelly. In 2010, a New York City police officer named Adil Polanco told a local ABC News reporter that “our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them.” He continued: “At the end of the night you have to come back with something.  You have to write somebody, you have to arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number’s there. So our choice is to come up with the number.”

Exposing police lying is difficult largely because it is rare for the police to admit their own lies or to acknowledge the lies of other officers. This reluctance derives partly from the code of silence that governs police practice and from the ways in which the system of mass incarceration is structured to reward dishonesty. But it’s also because police officers are human.

Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot — multiple times a day — even when there’s no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like “I lost your phone number; that’s why I didn’t call” or “No, really, you don’t look fat.” But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group.

The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status. The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.

And, no, I’m not crazy for thinking so.”

NY Times: ‘Testilying’ by Police: A Stubborn Problem

“…a problem so old and persistent that the criminal justice system sometimes responds with little more than a shrug: false testimony by the police.

“Behind closed doors, we call it testilying,” a New York City police officer, Pedro Serrano, said in a recent interview, echoing a word that officers coined at least 25 years ago. “You take the truth and stretch it out a little bit.”

An investigation by The New York Times has found that on more than 25 occasions since January 2015, judges or prosecutors determined that a key aspect of a New York City police officer’s testimony was probably untrue. The Times identified these cases — many of which are sealed — through interviews with lawyers, police officers and current and former judges.

In these cases, officers have lied about the whereabouts of guns, putting them in suspects’ hands or waistbands when they were actually hidden out of sight. They have barged into apartments and conducted searches, only to testify otherwise later. Under oath, they have given firsthand accounts of crimes or arrests that they did not in fact witness. They have falsely claimed to have watched drug deals happen, only to later recant or be shown to have lied.

No detail, seemingly, is too minor to embellish. “Clenched fists” is how one Brooklyn officer described the hands of a man he claimed had angrily approached him and started screaming and yelling — an encounter that prosecutors later determined never occurred. Another officer, during a Bronx trial, accused a driver of recklessly crossing the double-yellow line — on a stretch of road that had no double-yellow line.

In many instances, the motive for lying was readily apparent: to skirt constitutional restrictions against unreasonable searches and stops. In other cases, the falsehoods appear aimed at convicting people — who may or may not have committed a crime — with trumped-up evidence.

In still others, the motive is not easy to discern. In October 2016, for example, a plainclothes Brooklyn officer gave a grand jury a first-person account of a gun arrest. Putting herself in the center of the action, the officer, Dornezia Agard, testified that as she approached a man to confront him for littering, he suddenly crouched behind a van, pulled from his waistband a dark object — later identified as a gun — and threw it on the ground…

…Police lying raises the likelihood that the innocent end up in jail — and that as juries and judges come to regard the police as less credible, or as cases are dismissed when the lies are discovered, the guilty will go free. Police falsehoods also impede judges’ efforts to enforce constitutional limits on police searches and seizures…

…In two recent cases, The Times found, officers appear to have given false accounts about witness identifications. These cases are particularly troubling because erroneous identifications by witnesses have been a leading cause of wrongful convictions…

…But more often, The Times found, false statements by the police seem intended to hide illegal searches and seizures, such as questionable car stops or entries into apartments that result in officers finding guns or drugs. If the truth were to emerge that the case began with an illegal police search, the evidence would quite likely be thrown out and the case dismissed…

…As more police encounters are recorded — whether on the cellphones of bystanders or the body-worn cameras of officers — false police testimony is being exposed in cases where the officer’s word might once have carried the day. That is true for run-of-the-mill drug cases as well as for police shootings so notorious that they are seared into the national consciousness.

Yet interviews with officers suggest the prevalence of cameras alone won’t end police lying. That’s because even with cameras present, some officers still figure — with good reason — that a lie is unlikely to be exposed. Because plea deals are a typical outcome, it’s rare for a case to develop to the point where the defendant can question an officer’s version of events at a hearing…

…To be sure, there are other motives for lying, other than to cover up illegal searches. Some police officers have said they faced pressure from commanders to write more tickets or make more arrests. A decade ago, narcotics detectives were found to have falsely accused people of dealing drugs in order to meet arrest quotas”

VICE: Baltimore Cops Carried Toy Guns to Plant on People They Shot, Trial Reveals

One officer involved in the city’s massive corruption scandal said officers kept the replicas “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.

“Last week, the beginning of an explosive corruption trial involving eight members of Baltimore’s elite Gun Trace Task Force revealed that a handful of Baltimore cops allegedly kept fake guns in their patrol cars to plant on innocent people—a failsafe they could use if they happened to shoot an unarmed suspect, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Detective Maurice Ward, who’s already pleaded guilty to corruption charges, testified that he and his partners were told to carry the replicas and BB guns “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” The directive allegedly came from the team’s sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, the Washington Post reports. Though Ward didn’t say whether or not the tactic was ever used, Detective Marcus Taylor—another cop swept up in the scandal—was carrying a fake gun almost identical to his service weapon when he was arrested last year, according to the Sun.

The revelation is just one of many egregious abuses that have come out of the sprawling trial that the Sun has called “Baltimore’s biggest police corruption scandal in memory.” Prosecutors say the squad, which was tasked with getting illegal guns off the streets, abused its power by robbing suspects and innocent people, raiding homes without warrants, and selling confiscated drugs, among other crimes.

But the BB gun testimony is particularly disturbing in light of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death in 2014, the 13-year-old in Baltimore who was shot twice by cops in 2016 after he allegedly sprinted from them with a replica gun in his hand, and the 86 people fatally shot by police in 2015 and 2016 who were spotted carrying toy guns.

Six of the eight task force members charged in the corruption scandal have pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, but Taylor and Detective Daniel Hersl have pleaded not guilty. They’re currently on trial while several of their former partners testify against them.”

Democracy Now: Ex-Police Chief in Florida Pleads Guilty to Framing Innocent Black Men

The Miami Herald reports that a former police chief in Biscayne Park, Florida, a conspiracy charge of depriving three innocent black men of their civil rights by framing them. Raimundo Atesiano admitted to directing police officers to frame innocent men in cases of unsolved burglaries and break-ins to benefit his department’s crimes record. Atesiano had previously boasted about the department’s success rate. Atesiano reached a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and will face sentencing in November.

LA Times: You’ve been arrested by a dishonest cop. Can you win in a system set up to protect officers?

PBS: FBI warned of white supremacists in law enforcement 10 years ago. Has anything changed?

“In the 2006 bulletin, the FBI detailed the threat of white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police in order to disrupt investigations against fellow members and recruit other supremacists. The bulletin was released during a period of scandal for many law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including a neo-Nazi gang formed by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who harassed black and Latino communities. Similar investigations revealed officers and entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio and Texas

…The memo also warned of “ghost skins,” hate group members who don’t overtly display their beliefs in order to “blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes. “At least one white supremacist group has reportedly encouraged ghost skins to seek positions in law enforcement for the capability of alerting skinhead crews of pending investigative action against them,” the report read.

Problems with white supremacists in law enforcement have surfaced since that report. In 2014, two Florida officers — including a deputy police chief — were fired after an FBI informant outed them as members of the Ku Klux Klan. It marked the second time within five years that the agency uncovered an officer’s membership in the KKK. Several agencies nationwide have also launched investigations into personnel who may not be formal hate group members, but face allegations of race-based misconduct.

Social media has made it easier to expose white supremacists who serve in law enforcement. In September 2015, a North Carolina police officer was fired after a picture of him giving a Nazi salute surfaced on Facebook. And as recently as August, the Philadelphia Police Department launched an internal investigation after attendees of a Black Lives Matter rally outside the Democratic National Convention spotted an officer in charge of crowd control with a tattoo of the Nazi Party emblem on his forearm and posted the image on Instagram.

“Many people in these communities of color feel they have been the subject of police violence for decades,” said Samuel Jones, professor of law at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago. “And when an officer engages in conduct that adds or enhances that divide, they are ultimately jeopardizing the integrity of their agencies and putting their fellow officers in danger.”

Policing in America has historically had racial implications. The earliest forms of organized law enforcement in the U.S. can be traced to slave patrols that tracked down escaped slaves, and overseers assigned to guard settler communities from Native Americans. In the centuries since, many law enforcement agencies directly participated in antagonizing communities of color, or provided a shield for others who did. But in the 10 years since the FBI’s initial warning, little has changed, Jones said.

Neither the FBI nor state and local law enforcement agencies have established systems for vetting personnel for potential supremacist links, he said. That task is left primarily to everyday citizens and nonprofit organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of few that tracks the growing number of hate groups in America…

…The First Amendment’s freedoms of association and expression mean it’s perfectly legal for anyone to join a hate group — as long as it’s for the purpose of legal activity — and still be a member of law enforcement. They can even serve in other positions of public office. But according to the FBI memo, the government can limit employment opportunities of members “when their memberships would interfere with their duties.” Jones says that’s problematic.”

The Intercept: The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement

“White supremacists and other domestic extremists maintain an active presence in U.S. police departments and other law enforcement agencies. A striking reference to that conclusion, notable for its confidence and the policy prescriptions that accompany it, appears in a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015, obtained by The Intercept. The guide, which details the process by which the FBI enters individuals on a terrorism watchlist, the Known or Suspected Terrorist File, notes that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers,” and explains in some detail how bureau policies have been crafted to take this infiltration into account…

…No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, many of which have deep historical connections to racist ideologies. As a result, state and local police as well as sheriff’s departments present ample opportunities for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists looking to expand their power base…

…That report (October 2006 FBI internal intelligence assessment) appeared after a series of scandals involving local police and sheriff’s departments. In Los Angeles, for example, a U.S. District Court judge found in 1991 that members of a local sheriff’s department had formed a neo-Nazi gang and habitually terrorized black and Latino residents. In Chicago, Jon Burge, a police detective and rumored KKK member, was fired, and eventually prosecuted in 2008, over charges relating to the torture of at least 120 black men during his decadeslong career. Burge notoriously referred to an electric shock device he used during interrogations as the “nigger box.” In Cleveland, officials found that a number of police officers had scrawled “racist or Nazi graffiti” throughout their department’s locker rooms. In Texas, two police officers were fired when it was discovered they were Klansmen. One of them said he had tried to boost the organization’s membership by giving an application to a fellow officer he thought shared his “white, Christian, heterosexual values.”…

…In 2009, shortly after the election of Barack Obama, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence study, written in coordination with the FBI, warned of the “resurgence” of right-wing extremism. “Right-wing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African-American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda,” the report noted, singling out “disgruntled military veterans” as likely targets of recruitment. “Right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” The report concluded that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.

Faced with mounting criticism, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano disavowed the document and apologized to veterans. The agency’s unit investigating right-wing extremism was largely dismantled and the report’s lead investigator was pushed out. “They stopped doing intel on that, and that was that,” Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s tracking of extremist groups, told The Intercept. “The FBI in theory investigates right-wing terrorism and right-wing extremism, but they have limited resources. The loss of that unit was a loss for a lot of people who did this kind of work.”

“Federal law enforcement agencies in general — the FBI, the Marshals, the ATF — are aware that extremists have infiltrated state and local law enforcement agencies and that there are people in law enforcement agencies that may be sympathetic to these groups,” said Daryl Johnson, who was the lead researcher on the DHS report. Johnson, who now runs DT Analytics, a consulting firm that analyzes domestic extremism, says the problem has since gotten “a lot more troublesome.”

Johnson singled out the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association for their anti-government attitudes and efforts to recruit active as well as retired law enforcement officers. “That’s the biggest issue and it’s greater now than it’s ever been, in my opinion.” Johnson added that Homeland Security has given up tracking right-wing domestic extremists. “It’s only the FBI now,” he said, adding that local police departments don’t seem to be doing anything to address the problem. “There’s not even any training now to make state and local police aware of these groups and how they could infiltrate their ranks.”

In 2014, the Department of Justice re-established its Domestic Terrorism Task Force, a unit that was created following the Oklahoma City bombing. But for the most part, the government’s efforts to confront domestic terrorism threats over the last decade have focused on homegrown extremists radicalized by foreign groups. Last year, a group of progressive members of Congress called on President Obama and DHS to update the controversial 2009 report. “The United States allocates significant resources towards combating Islamic violent extremism while failing to devote adequate resources to right-wing extremism,” they wrote. “This lack of political will comes at a heavy price.”

Critics fear that the backlash following the 2009 DHS report hindered further action against the growing white supremacist threat, and that it was largely ignored because the issue was so politically controversial. “I believe that because that report was so denounced by conservatives, it sort of closed the door on whatever the FBI may have been considering doing with respect to combating infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists,” said Samuel Jones, a professor of law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who has written about white power ideology in law enforcement. “Because after the 2006 FBI report, we simply cannot find anything by local law enforcement or the federal government that addresses this issue.”

Pete Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who spent decades studying the proliferation of white supremacists in the U.S. military, agreed. “The report underscores the problem of even discussing this issue. It underscores how difficult this issue is to get any traction on, because a lot of people don’t want to discuss this, let alone actually do something about it.” Simi said that the extremist strategy to infiltrate the military and law enforcement has existed “for decades.” In a study he conducted of individuals indicted for far-right terrorism-related activities, he found that at least 31 percent had military experience.

After a series of investigations uncovered substantial numbers of extremists in the military, the Department of Defense moved to impose stricter screenings, including monitoring recruits’ tattoos for white supremacist symbols and discharging those found to espouse racist views.

“The military has completely reformed its process on this front,” said the SPLC’s Beirich, who lobbied the DOD to adopt those reforms. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the same for police officers; we can’t have people with guns having crazy ideas or ideas that threaten certain populations.”

Reforming police, as it turns out, is a lot harder than reforming the military, because of the decentralized way in which the thousands of police departments across the country operate, the historical affinity of certain police departments with the same racial ideologies espoused by extremists, and an even broader reluctance to do much about it.

“If you look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, it is a history of white supremacy, to put it bluntly,” said Simi, citing the origin of U.S. policing in the slave patrols of the 18th and 19th centuries. “More recently, just going back 50 years, law enforcement, particularly in the South, was filled with Klan members.”

Daily Mail: Mayor suspends four Alabama narcotics officers for making alleged ‘white power’ gesture in local newspaper photo shoot

 The narcotics officers made the sign while posing for a picture the mayor arranged to celebrate a recent drug bust 

 The narcotics officers made the sign while posing for a picture the mayor arranged to celebrate a recent drug bust 

Altnet: 5 Times the Media Has Smeared Black Victims of Police Killings Since Michael Brown

Mike Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson exactly one year ago Sunday. His death not only sparked a nationwide movement against police violence generally known as #BlackLivesMatter, it also provided the script which all of the frequent subsequent police shootings of unarmed black men and women have played out in the media.

From the beginning, the media was quick to contextualize Brown’s shooting by finding unflattering personal details about his life including routine run-ins with the law. The most shameless case was the now infamous August 25th profile in the The New York Times  that insisted “Mike Brown was no angel” as if anyone had argued otherwise about him, or another human being on earth. It was a piece that feigned nuance, but was really a part of a weeks-long posthumous trial of the dead teenager. For Brown, and countless black victims like him, they were as much, if not more, on trial than the person who had done the actual killing. They were being tried posthumously and without PR counsel.

In the wake of a police shooting, the need to rationalize police violence — typically under the guise of “balance” — almost always means demonizing the victim through public records requests, government leaks, and selective interviews. When one adopts a “both sides” mentality for police shootings, based on the nature of murder, one person cannot speak for themselves, invariably leaving us with one perspective: that of the police.

Police Departments have millions in PR budgets, while the victim’s families are almost always poor and unschooled in press manipulation. The state has records on the victim, and yet the family is barred in most states from even knowing their son or daughter’s killer. The deck, to put it mildly, is stacked in favor of the powerful — rendering appeals to objectivity hollow. Howard Zinn famously said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” This has never been more obvious that in the dozens of cases of African-Americans killed by police over the past year, almost all of whom found themselves being tried in absentia by a press which prioritizes “objectivity” over fairness and access over justice.

Here are the five worst examples of demonization of black victims of police violence since Mike Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer on August 9th 2014:

Blame only the man who tragically decided to resist

Eric Garner and Michael Brown had much in common, not the least of which was this: On the last day of their lives, they made bad decisions.

Epically bad decisions.

Each broke the law — petty offenses, to be sure, but sufficient to attract the attention of the police. And then — tragically, stupidly, fatally, inexplicably — each fought the law. The law won, of course, as it almost always does.

There it is. Because Mr. Garner was a “career criminal” who, for once, resisted arrest in the most benign way possible, he deserved to die. No account of whether such extreme force was needed. No account for the banned chokehold, no account for whether or not six white men jumping on top of one black man was, at all, racially charged. No, in authoritarian rightwing land, anything short of complete submission to the police is punishable by death. And, because to them black life is cheap, their deaths become a morality tale for other black people to follow — obey the police or suffer the same fate. In this sense, black deaths aren’t just ignored, they are used as a warning to others.

1. Eric Garner

Choked on camera in broad daylight for “resisting arrest” with his hands up, Eric Garner’s death was one of the few cop killings that was so egregious it resulted in relatively bipartisan outrage – including, strangely enough, from former President George W. Bush. who said the decision not to indict Eric Garner’s killer Daniel Pantaleo was “hard to understand.”

But it’s important to stress the word “relatively” because rightwing trolls wouldn’t have it. Outlets from Breitbart, to Fox News to The New York Post to NewsMax dedicated considerable time to smearing Eric Garner as a “career criminal” who somehow caused his own death by resisting arrest. Vulgar human Bob McManus would pen one of the more offensive mainstream Garner smears, the day after his killer was set free by a Staten Island Grand Jury:

2. Sandra Bland

A combination of a likely illegal arrest, harassment, and outright neglect led to Sandra Bland’s death last month. Whether or not that was by way of suicide is yet to be determined, but thus far it seems she took her own life. In many ways, as other commenters have noted, it doesn’t matter. And in many ways, the media treated it no differently. In the wake of Ms. Bland’s death, aside from the aforementioned and entirely predictable authority worship from Fox News, another common smear tactic was trotted out: “marijuana in the system.”

It’s a popular line and one the media and St. Louis County authorities echoed time and time again in the wake of Mr. Brown’s death. That somehow having cannabis in one’s system is either relevant or inculpatory. As Managing Director of the Drug Policy Alliance Sharda Sekaran noted in the Huffington Post:

At a news conference discussing the preliminary findings of an autopsy following Bland’s alleged suicide at the Waller County Jail in Texas last week, officials placed heavy emphasis on marijuana reported to be found in the young woman’s system.

Why this emphasis? What does this have to do with widespread demands for accountability around the circumstances of her death? Are we expected to believe the not so subtle insinuation that marijuana use played a part? How is this still happening? Take a sample of random people in any walk of life in this country at any given moment in time, and you are likely to find marijuana in the system of many of them.

The reason for the emphasis is clear: in an effort to justify police killings under the guise of “balance” the media rushes to find anything — no matter how common or innocuous — to criminalize the victim. And, since roughly 1 in 9 Americans smokes cannabis regularly, an easy go-to is the “weed in the system” line.

3. Sam Dubose

Even after Hamilton County’s right-wing prosecutor delivered what has to be one of the most clear condemnations of a killer cop ever, Fox News couldn’t help itself, trying to muddy the waters soon after by, once again, blaming the victim.

As Media Matters noted at the time, Eric Bolling of Fox News’s The Five would repeat the ol’ “Don’t resist arrest line” because, as we all know, the punishment for resisting arrest is summary execution:

But everyone is rushing this, prosecutor just said the cop is guilty of murder. He’s already indicted him. And I’m not defending this at all. But people have to realize you can’t resist arrest. This guy is taking off. I don’t think that cop was fearing for his life. So I think he’ll probably be found guilty or something, but stop resisting.

Another Fox News contributor and former NYPD detective,  Bo Dietl wouldn’t miss a beat, telling Sean Hannity later than night, “Listen to me. I said it doesn’t outweigh the shooting. But should he have just driven away from the cop? Eric, is that right for him to just drive away from the cop? That’s not right either.

Body camera footage from the incident seems to contradict the claim that Dubose fled from the officer. The footage seems to suggest that, in contrast to what the officer claimed, Dubose’s car propeled forward after he was shot.

The impulse for the media, especially the right-wing media, to blame black victims for their own deaths is so strong, that even in the face of official Republican condemnation the bottom feeders at Fox News will still apologize for the police’s actions. Even when video is released that shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, a white police officer wrongfully killed a black man, the impulse to blame the victim cannot be contained. It’s not just bias, it’s a pathology.

4. Charly “Africa” Keunang

One of the lesser known police killings is also one of the more egregious examples of the media taking it upon themselves to smear a black victim. A video showing an unarmed homeless man being shot in broad daylight quickly went viral on March 1st, resulting in the LAPD going on the defensive. Per usual, the entirely unrelated criminal record of Keunang, who friends called “Africa,” would be leaked to the press and shamelessly repeated even thougt they had no bearing on the case whatsoever.

One reporter, in particular, Kate Mather of the Los Angels Times would feel the need to time and time again bring up a bank robbery Mr. Africa had committed over fifteen years ago. As I wrote at the time for FAIR:

This arrangement would become even sleazier yesterday when city authorities–and thus the LA Times–went into full on character assassination mode, with back-to-back smear pieces about Africa’s totally irrelevant criminal past. This screencap of the LA Times‘ Kate Mather’s bio page sums it up nicely:

Her jolly face contrasted with the scary, entirely non sequitur mugshot of Africa raises the question: Why? What does whether he robbed a bank 15 years ago have to do with anything? How is it relevant? How can it do anything but serve to posthumously try and convict him on unrelated charges of being poor and mentally ill?

This case illustrates an important point as well: the smearing of black victims isn’t just a staple of the rightwing media, it’s a very routine practice in local and corporate media who are in desperate need of information and always willing to uncritically repeat whatever the local police departments hand them inexchange for it. Which brings us to the last and most well-known smear:

5. Freddie Gray

The death of Freddie Gray was ruled a homicide and the officers involved were eventually arrested and charged with a number of crimes, including murder and manslaughter. But not after a week of smear pieces coming from anonymous police sources that attempted to blame Mr. Gray for his own death. Indeed, much of what the Baltimore Police said during the week of unrest in late April turned out to be bogus, including a “gang conspiracy” to take out cops that was uncritically repeated by the media but later revealed to be false by the FBI.

In addition to telling lies to discredit protestors, the Baltimore Police Department was content telling lies that also discredited the source of their outrage: Freddie Gray. Two days before prosecutors would indict the cops who were responsible for Gray’s death, the Washinton Post would run a rather bizarre — and ultimately discredited — piece based on anonymous BPD leaks detailing how Freddie Gray was trying to injure himself the day of his arrest:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray “banging against the walls” of the vehicle and believed that he “was intentionally trying to injure himself,”according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

Eventually, follow up corrections to the piece as well as the DA’s indictment would go a long way to discrediting the idea that Gray was supposedly responsible for his own death but in many ways the damage was done.

Like smears against protestors that almost always turn out to be bogus, smears again police victims are more about managing public outrage than they are about truth. They’re about playing to racist tropes and criminalizing victims so the power establishment — largely white and wealthy — will side with the killer, not the killed. They’re about justifying state violence either because of ideology or credulity. They’re, above all, about erasing black suffering from the national conversation and turning victims into criminals and criminal cops into heroes.

Daily News: Damn, Dallas: The dastardly character assassination of the victim of a police shooting

In America, accused individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Too often, in police-involved shootings, not only are officers presumed innocent, their victims are presumed guilty.

On Sept. 6, after finishing her shift, Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger entered the apartment of Botham Jean one floor above her own. She claims this was a mistake. Upon entering — she first said the door was locked, then said it was ajar — Guyger, who is white, fatally shot Jean, a black man, claiming she mistook him for an intruder.

In the 10 days since, Guyger has benefited from an insidious stealth PR campaign that extends to smearing a dead man.

It took three days after the incident for Guyger to be arrested. During that time, there are hints she may have been coached to tell her story in a manner meant to align with manslaughter, not murder, charges — as evidenced by her claims, inconsistent with third-party witness reports, that she gave Jean “verbal commands” before she fired.

Then Thursday, someone leaked to the press that a search of Jean’s apartment revealed the presence of 10 grams of marijuana. It is an abomination that these results were unsealed while others — such as a reported drug and alcohol test of Guyger — remain under wraps.

Botham Jean was shot dead while peaceably residing in his own home. Justice must be served.”

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Racial History of US Justice System

Vera: An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System

EJI: Race and the Criminal Justice System

“After slavery was abolished in 1865, Southern states, where more than 90 percent of black Americans lived, embraced criminal justice as a means of racial control. Discriminatory “Black Codes” led to the imprisonment of unprecedented numbers of black men, women, and children, who were returned to slavery-like conditions through forced labor and convict leasing systems that lasted well into the 20th century.

Criminal laws also were used against Civil Rights protestors, who were denounced as “law breakers” and faced arrest, incarceration, and police brutality. These courageous campaigns earned many victories, but policies to combat racial inequality, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have not targeted criminal justice, where outcomes are still impacted by the same racial bias and inequality that pervade American society. Mass incarceration today stands as a legacy of past abuses and continues to limit opportunities in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate; 2.3 million Americans are in prison today. Fueled by the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing policies, mass incarceration has a clear racial impact: 70 percent of American prisoners are non-white. The average American has a 1 in 20 chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, but that rate is much higher for Latino men (1 in 6) and African American men (more than 1 in 3) than for white men (1 in 23). Strikingly, 1 in 9 black men under age 25 lives under some form of restrained liberty: in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.”

EJI: Violence Against Civil Rights Workers

For a century following the Civil War, African Americans were the targets of a campaign of terror consisting of brutality and violence which served to maintain and bolster segregation in the South. This campaign of terror persisted during the Civil Rights Movement. Courageous activists were subjected to threats, mass arrests, beatings, church bombings, and murder. The criminal justice system turned a blind eye to the terrorism, often refusing to protect activists or prosecute perpetrators.

In 1955, Lamar Smith, a farmer and World War I veteran, was shot and murdered on a crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi, for urging blacks to vote. That same year, Reverend George Lee, a grocery store owner, was shot and murdered for organizing black voters in the Mississippi Delta.

On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, several hundred civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were met by an angry mob of state and local lawmen who brutally attacked the marchers. Months later, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student from Boston who traveled to Alabama to help with black voter registration in Lowndes County, was murdered by a deputy sheriff.

Though the intensity of racial violence decreased following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it created a legacy that has deeply scarred many communities.

EJI: Segregation in America

  • Criminal law has been used to maintain racial control since the end of the Civil War.252 In the 1960s, nearly a century after Emancipation, elected officials denounced peaceful civil rights protestors as “criminals” and “law breakers” and used the legal system to harass, beat, arrest, and imprison activists.253 The law protected white supremacy rather than racial equality, and persecuted those who opposed the racial status quo. “The Community Relations Service (CRS) of the Justice Department, established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reported police brutality and other violence against black people that went unpunished throughout the 1970s,” wrote historian Mary Frances Berry, “while the FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division spent their time in surveillance of black individuals and groups.”254

    A week after 17-year-old Deborah Bracy and several other black students integrated the high school in Wetumpka, Alabama, she was arrested, charged with assault, and jailed overnight for poking a white classmate with a pencil.255

    Clyde Kennard, a black veteran, was targeted by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission after he applied to all-white Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg in 1955. When surveillance and investigations failed to discredit him, officials charged him with minor allegations of theft and alcohol possession. An all-white jury convicted Mr. Kennard of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed and he was sentenced to seven years in prison, where he died from undiagnosed colon cancer in 1963. He was 36 years old.256

    In response to the Montgomery bus boycott, police arrested scores of black activists and carpool drivers on phony traffic charges and tried to disbar the black lawyer who filed the lawsuit challenging bus segregation.257

    Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and boycott organizer Jo Ann Robinson were among 89 leaders arrested and charged with organizing an illegal boycott.258 The grand jury wrote: “In this state we are committed to segregation by custom and law. We intend to maintain it.”259

    As a movement leader, Dr. King was routinely targeted by Southern law enforcement. Between the start of the Montgomery bus boycott and his 1968 assassination, Dr. King was arrested, jailed, and fined more than 25 times, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 and 1958; Atlanta in 1960; Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and 1962; Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and 1967; St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964; and Selma, Alabama, in 1965. 260 He was not alone.

    After two Florida A&M students were arrested for sitting in the “white section” of a bus in Tallahassee, the black community launched a boycott modeled after the Montgomery effort. Boycott organizers and participants faced similar harassment. In October 1956, 21 carpool drivers and nine boycott leaders were arrested for allegedly not having proper car tags. After a three-day trial, they were convicted; some were sentenced to pay fines and some were sent to jail.261

    “For more than a decade — from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s,” wrote Michelle Alexander, officials who opposed civil rights systematically and strategically framed their rhetoric as “calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.”294 Some segregationists even claimed that integration caused crime, and found their rhetoric bolstered by suspect but highly publicized FBI reports of dramatic increases in the national crime rate.295

    By criminalizing civil rights activists, opponents of civil rights shifted the public debate from segregation to crime.296

    In the 1968 presidential election, both Richard Nixon and former Alabama Governor George Wallace made “law and order” a central theme of their campaigns; combined, they won 57 percent of the vote.297 Nixon ran one ad that “explicitly called on voters to reject the lawlessness of civil rights activists and embrace ‘order’ in the United States.” 298

    It was a popular message. By 1968, 81 percent of Americans agreed that “law and order has broken down in this country” and the majority blamed “Negroes who start riots” and “Communists.” EJI

    “In 1961, an interracial group of civil rights activists set out on a Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Louisiana, to test a recent Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in interstate bus travel.314

    In Anniston, Alabama, segregationists hurled a fire bomb into a Freedom Rider bus on May 14, 1961. (AP Photo)

    When the Freedom Riders’ bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, it was met by a mob of white men armed with pipes, chains, and bats, who smashed windows, slashed tires, and dented the sides of the bus. 315 Police arrived 20 minutes after the attack began and made no arrests. They escorted the crippled bus to the city limits and then abandoned it. 316 When flat tires forced the driver to stop at a service station shortly after, another armed white mob trapped the riders in the bus and threw a firebomb inside, then viciously beat the riders who escaped.317 Two days later in Birmingham, police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor allowed a white mob of several hundred people to attack the riders with baseball bats, hammers, and pipes, leaving several seriously injured.318

    The next day, a new group of riders continued on to Montgomery, where they were abandoned by police and attacked by a white mob of 200 people at the downtown Greyhound bus station. About 20 people were injured in the attack, including reporters and photographers covering the Freedom Rides for national media.319

    That evening, civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth organized an evening service at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church in support of the riders. While more than 1000 people sang and listened to sermons inside the church, white men surrounded the building, vandalized parked cars, and threatened to set the church on fire. When federal marshals tried to intervene, they were pelted with bricks and bottles by white rioters, who then overturned cars, fired bullets and firebombs at local black residents, and attacked black people in the street.320

    Alabama Governor John Patterson refused to condemn the white rioters, and instead blamed the Freedom Riders for the violence they suffered in Alabama. During his 1958 campaign, Patterson had warned that integration would cause “violence, disorder, and bloodshed” and had refused to repudiate an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan.321

    “If the Federal Government really wants to help in this unfortunate situation,” Patterson told reporters in Montgomery, “they will encourage these outside agitators to go home. We have the means and the ability to keep the peace in Alabama without any outside help.”

Racist History of the Supreme Court

EJI: Segregation in America


“For more than a century before its groundbreaking decision to desegregate public schools in 1954, the Supreme Court protected slavery, undermined equal rights, immunized lynch mobs from punishment, and embraced Jim Crow. Brown v. Board of Education was a striking departure from the Court’s longstanding role shielding the South from challenges to its racial caste system.

The Supreme Court vigorously defended the property rights of slave owners and enshrined the narrative of racial difference in its precedent by holding that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” whether they were enslaved or not.58

The Court struck down state laws to prevent slave traders from kidnapping free black people and selling them into slavery59 and defended slave owners’ property rights by vacating the Missouri Compromise, which limited slavery in new United States territories.60

Infamously, the Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford established that no black person, free or enslaved, could be a citizen of the United States.61 The Court reasoned that black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations,” and therefore, it is “absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a State” and not entitled to the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship.62

Undermining Reconstruction

During Reconstruction — the period immediately following the Civil War when an effort was made to defend the rights of formerly enslaved black people — Congress passed three constitutional amendments: the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude; the Fourteenth Amendment overturned Dred Scott, declared all people born in the United States to be citizens, and guaranteed citizens due process and equal protection of the laws; and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited denying a man the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Supreme Court swiftly and systematically gutted all three.

The Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent states from violating the rights of formerly enslaved people. In 1872, in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Court nullified the amendment by holding that it could not limit the power of states to deny basic rights to their own citizens.63

In 1875, in United States v. Reese, the Court held that the Fifteenth Amendment did not grant African Americans a federal right to vote, 64 struck down the statute Congress passed to protect African Americans’ voting rights, and overturned the convictions of two election officials who had refused to count a black man’s vote. 65

Complicity in Racial Terrorism

As racial terror lynching raged throughout the South following the abolition of slavery, the Supreme Court repeatedly rendered the federal government powerless to protect African Americans from racial violence.

After killing as many as 150 black people peacefully protesting at the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873, white defendants were convicted under a federal law designed to combat the Ku Klux Klan. 66 The Court overturned their convictions in United States v. Cruikshank and struck down the statute, holding that Congress was empowered to regulate only state action, not the acts of private citizens — even if they committed murder.67

The conceit of this private/state actor distinction was laid bare in Screws v. United States, when the Court overturned the conviction of a sheriff who, along with two other law enforcement officers, beat a handcuffed black man to death.68

The Court not only shut down federal attempts to protect black citizens, but also permitted state courts to deny justice to black victims. While the Court struck down a law that excluded black men from jury service solely based on race in 1879, it permitted states to create property and educational requirements for jury service and gave local officials nearly unfettered discretion to use those requirements to exclude African Americans. 69

The Court made it so difficult to prove racial discrimination in jury selection that between 1904 and 1935, not a single conviction of a black defendant was reversed because of racial discrimination in jury selection, even though African Americans were universally excluded from Southern juries.70 Meanwhile, all-white juries reliably acquitted white perpetrators of lynchings and other racial violence.

Authorizing Jim Crow

In 1898, in Williams v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s poll tax and other voting qualifications, even though the Court acknowledged they were adopted explicitly to disenfranchise African Americans, because the provisions on their face were “not limited by their language or effect to one race.”71
And even though registrars used the qualifications to deny registration to all black voters, the Court found “it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil; only that evil was possible under them.”72

Alabama voting laws were more explicitly discriminatory, but in Giles v. Harris, the Court found no constitutional problem with Alabama’s scheme, even when shown that black men who met all qualifications were still refused registration.73 The Court concluded there was nothing it could do if Alabama was truly determined to prevent African Americans from voting, and so it denied all relief.74

While the Court struck down an undeniably unconstitutional grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States in 1915, it upheld the use of literacy tests75 and poll taxes — tactics used to effectively deny voting rights to generations of African Americans for another 50 years.76

The Court struck down anti-segregation laws and upheld state laws that required segregation. In 1877, the Court in Hall v. DeCuir struck down a Louisiana law that prohibited segregation on all public conveyances within the state, 77 holding that it unconstitutionally regulated interstate commerce. 78 But a few years later the Court allowed a Mississippi segregation law to mandate racial separation on interstate railroad cars. 79

Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court’s most well-known decision upholding segregation, considered a Louisiana law requiring racial segregation of railroad passengers and found no constitutional violation where facilities were “separate but equal.” Writing in 1896, the Court found that Louisiana’s law could not “abolish distinctions based upon color, or [] enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” 80 The Court rejected Mr. Plessy’s argument that forced racial separation branded black people as inferior, and countered, “If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” 81

Even when enforcing its own “separate but equal” doctrine, the Court showed little commitment to the “equal” requirement. In Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 55 years before Brown, the Court upheld the school board’s decision to close the black high school but keep open the white high school because, it concluded, “it is impracticable to distribute taxes equally.” 82 The Court absolved itself of responsibility for ensuring equality in education, writing that “the education of the people in schools maintained by state taxation is a matter belonging to the respective states.” 83

The Court’s embrace of Jim Crow extended even to voluntary associations between white and black people. In Berea College v. Kentucky, in 1908, the Court upheld a Kentucky law that prohibited private colleges from teaching black and white students together, reasoning that the college, although private, was nonetheless dependent on a state charter, and so was subject to virtually any conditions that Kentucky chose to impose. 84

In 1875, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, conveyances, and places of amusement. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Court struck down the law, holding that Congress had no authority to prohibit discrimination by private parties.

The Court rejected the argument that the law was meant to eradicate the effects of slavery, writing that formerly enslaved people had already been given enough time and assistance and could not expect to forever be “the special favorite of the laws.”

Thought Co. : 10 Racist U.S. Supreme Court Rulings

“The Supreme Court has issued some fantastic civil rights rulings over the years, but these aren’t among them. Here are 10 of the most astonishingly racist Supreme Court rulings in American history, in chronological order.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856)

When a slave petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for his freedom, the Court ruled against him—also ruling that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to African Americans. If it did, the majority ruling argued, then African Americans would be permitted “the full liberty of speech in public and in private,” “to hold public meetings upon political affairs,” and “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” In 1856, both the justices in the majority and the white aristocracy they represented found this idea too horrifying to contemplate. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment made it law. What a difference a war makes!

Pace v. Alabama (1883)

In 1883 Alabama, interracial marriage meant two to seven years’ hard labor in a state penitentiary. When a black man named Tony Pace and a white woman named Mary Cox challenged the law, the Supreme Court upheld it—on grounds that the law, inasmuch as it prevented whites from marrying blacks and blacks from marrying whites, was race-neutral and did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling was finally overturned in Loving v. Virginia (1967). More »

The Civil Rights Cases (1883)

The Civil Rights Act, which mandated an end to racial segregation in public accommodations, has actually passed twice in US history. Once in 1875, and once in 1964. We don’t hear much about the 1875 version because it was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases ruling of 1883, made up of five separate challenges to the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Had the Supreme Court simply upheld the 1875 civil rights bill, U.S. civil rights history would have been dramatically different.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Most people are familiar with the phrase “separate but equal,” the never-achieved standard that defined racial segregation until Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but not everybody knows that it comes from this ruling, where Supreme Court justices bowed to political pressure and found an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that would still allow them to keep public institutions segregated. More »

Cumming v. Richmond (1899)

When three black families in Richmond County, Virginia faced the closing of the area’s only public black high school, they petitioned the Court to allow their children to finish their education at the white high school instead. It only took the Supreme Court three years to violate its own “separate but equal” standard by establishing that if there was no suitable black school in a given district, black students would simply have to do without an education. More »

Ozawa v. United States (1922)

A Japanese immigrant, Takeo Ozawa, attempted to become a full U.S. citizen, despite a 1906 policy limiting naturalization to whites and African Americans. Ozawa’s argument was a novel one: Rather than challenging the constitutionality of the statute himself (which, under the racist Court, would have probably been a waste of time anyway), he simply attempted to establish that Japanese Americans were white. The Court rejected this logic.

United States v. Thind (1923)

An Indian-American U.S. Army veteran named Bhagat Singh Thind attempted the same strategy as Takeo Ozawa, but his attempt at naturalization was rejected in a ruling establishing that Indians, too, are not white. Well, the ruling technically referred to “Hindus” (ironic considering that Thind was actually a Sikh, not a Hindu), but the terms were used interchangeably at the time. Three years later he was quietly granted citizenship in New York; he went on to earn a Ph.D. and teach at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lum v. Rice (1927)

In 1924, Congress passed the Oriental Exclusion Act to dramatically reduce immigration from Asia—but Asian Americans born in the United States were still citizens, and one of these citizens, a nine-year-old girl named Martha Lum, faced a catch-22. Under compulsory attendance laws, she had to attend school—but she was Chinese and she lived in Mississippi, which had racially segregated schools and not enough Chinese students to warrant funding a separate Chinese school. Lum’s family sued to try to allow her to attend the well-funded local white school, but the Court would have none of it.

Hirabayashi v. United States (1943)

During World War II, President Roosevelt issued an executive order severely restricting the rights of Japanese Americans and ordering 110,000 to be relocated to internment camps. Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, challenged the executive order before the Supreme Court–and lost.

Korematsu v. United States (1944)

Fred Korematsu also challenged the executive order and lost in a more famous and explicit ruling that formally established that individual rights are not absolute and may be suppressed at will during wartime. The ruling, generally considered one of the worst in the history of the Court, has been almost universally condemned over the past six decades.

The People Vs. Hall (1854)

This California Supreme Court case ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible, largely based upon the prevailing opinion that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference” and as such had no right ” to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate” with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”

Section 14 of the “Act concerning Crime and Punishment”, passed in 1850, stated that “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.”

Stand Your Ground Law Stats

“Stand Your Ground” laws allow defendants to “stand their ground”, instead of retreating when possible, and use force without retreating, in order to protect and defend themselves or others against threats or perceived threats.  For a person to be justified in using deadly force, the person must not be ‘engaged in unlawful activity”.  The law was based on a legal precept called the “castle doctrine,” which does not require a person with a gun to retreat in the face of danger.

  • Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.
    • In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person
    • in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
  • when the shooter is black, the homicide is justified in about 1 percent of cases in “Stand your ground” states.
    • When a white person kills a black person in a “Stand your ground” state, the murder is justified 17 percent of the time (versus 11 percent in states without such laws)
    • the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.

Source: 2012 John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center conducted a study of “Stand your ground” data

  • Between 2005 and 2013, Florida juries were twice as likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime against a white person as they were to convict in a crime against a person of color.
  • These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is non-white

Source: Race, law, and health: Examination of ‘Stand Your Ground’ and defendant convictions in Florida

Slate: Ground Rules

“Stand your ground” laws give white citizens the kind of impunity that’s usually reserved for police

Last Thursday, 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton, who is black, was killed outside a convenience store in Clearwater, Florida. Surveillance video shows McGlockton, his girlfriend Britany Jacobs, and their three children pulling into a handicapped parking space in front of the store. While McGlockton was in the store with his 5-year-old son, a man later identified as 47-year-old Michael Drejka, who is white, went up to the car to argue with Jacobs. Seeing the scene, McGlockton walked over and shoved Drejka to the ground. Drejka pulled out a gun, and as McGlockton backed away, Drejka fired. McGlockton staggered back into the store, where he collapsed. He died at the hospital.

This wasn’t the first time Drejka confronted someone over the parking space. “He basically threatened to shoot me that day, too,” said one regular customer to the store, who had a similar experience with the shooter. Police declined to arrest Drejka—who said he feared for his life—and on Monday, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said it would not press charges, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

“He had to shoot to defend himself,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “And those are the facts and that’s the law.” He continued: “Markeis wouldn’t be dead if Markeis didn’t slam this guy to the ground. … So Markeis has got skin in this game, too.”

This is the world of “stand your ground,” where people can use deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if they fear “imminent death or great bodily harm.” While it’s impossible to say if race shaped this particular incident, it has undeniably shaped how the system responds. “Stand your ground” not only redistributes police power to ordinary citizens, it takes the usual impunity granted to police—who can essentially kill black people without consequence—and extends it to white citizens, and few others.

Florida passed the nation’s first “stand your ground” law in 2005. The logic is straightforward; the law treats your position at any point as your “castle,” and as with your actual home, you have no duty to retreat from that position. Since then, similar measures have passed in 21 other states, giving residents the right to use deadly force in almost any self-defense situation.

Florida’s law came to national prominence in 2012, after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman wasn’t initially charged, prompting questions of racial bias—Martin was black, Zimmerman is Hispanic—and was later acquitted by a Florida jury.* Those were unresolved, but later analysis of outcomes in “stand your ground” states uncovered significant evidence that white and black citizens are treated differently under the law. A 2013 study by the Urban Institute found “substantial racial disparities in the outcomes of cross-race homicides.” Homicides with a white perpetrator and black victim were 10 times more likely to be ruled justified than the reverse. Further examination affirmed the finding: in “stand your ground” states, whites who kill blacks were 354 percent more likely to be found justified versus whites who kill other whites.

A 2015 study of “stand your ground” cases in Florida found similar results. After examining 204 incidents where the law was citied—and controlling for multiple variables, including “whether the defendant could have retreated from the situation, whether the defendant pursued the victim, if the victim was unarmed, and who was the initiator of the confrontation”—researchers found that the “race of the victim” was a strong “predictor in the conviction of a suspect” and that “a suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, compared to when the victim is not white.” This, they note, is “similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement when the victim is nonwhite.”

The most recent study of “stand your ground,” published in 2017, confirms the view that the laws are racially biased. After reviewing 237 cases in Florida from 2005 to 2013, researchers found that the odds of conviction for a black defendant against a white victim were nearly 100 percent, with little margin of error, versus 90 percent with a modest margin of error for white defendants and white victims. The gender bias was even more pronounced, with low conviction rates for men in domestic violence cases. An infamous case was the prosecution of Marissa Alexander, a 29-year-old black woman who, facing deadly assault from her estranged husband, fired a warning shot to defend herself. She was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Callie Adams, another black mother, shot and killed her husband while defending herself from assault. She was charged with second-degree murder.

We know the outcomes of “stand your ground” laws, but we can’t know the motives of the police and prosecutors in question. This might be racial prejudice, or it might be something we can’t see or measure. But we do know something about the logic of the “carceral state,” the term historians and social scientists use for the formal institutions of the criminal justice system—the courts, the prisons, and the police precincts; the judges, wardens, and beat officers; the web of people, places, policies, and procedures that govern citizens’ relationship to the law.

Embedded in these institutions are racist stigmas and ideas that reflect the origins of American criminal justice in the legacy of slavery, its relationship to efforts to preserve racial hierarchy, and its reliance on flawed but popular notions of black pathology and black criminality. “The United States did not face a crime problem that was racialized; it faced a race problem that was criminalized,” observes historian Naomi Murakawa in her study of federal crime politics in the 20th century. And despite the massive size of the American penal system, notes legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race.”

In the American racial imagination, “black” is a property of crime, and crime is a property of blackness. We see this in social science, and we see it in public discourse, where euphemism (“urban” and “Chicago”) hardly obscures the intended message. What this means for policy is that any expansion of the carceral state—or any application of the logic of state punishment—falls hardest on black Americans, regardless of actual rates of offense. Putting police officers in schools means black children in handcuffs, stop-and-frisk policies mean black neighborhoods under virtual occupation, and criminal punishments for drug use means black addicts in prison.

Here’s where “stand your ground” comes in. Legally an expansion of the “castle doctrine,” it can be understood as an extension of police prerogative—the right to use deadly force against any perceived threat. These laws deputize ordinary citizens as agents of state violence, and as with all such violence, the distribution is racial.

Those ordinary citizens could be anyone. Proponents of “stand your ground” laws don’t make racial or gender distinctions about beneficiaries. But disparities in how those laws are applied reveal embedded ideas and racist assumptions around who has a “castle,” who can claim the right of violence to defend it, and who can expect impunity. For most of American history, the idealized citizen was a white man, secure in his person and property, prepared to defend both from intruders and interlopers.

North and South, white men were called to demonstrate their commitment to this ideal, serving in militias and slave patrols. During Reconstruction, white men in the South reaffirmed their manhood through acts of violence against newly free black Americans, and later, would do so with rituals of communal violence, ostensibly in defense of white womanhood. Our pop culture, of course, is littered with examples of idealized white manhood: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood built careers as self-sufficient white men prepared to bring gun violence to bear on threats to the order of things, from Native Americans in John Ford’s Stagecoach to criminals and liberal decadence in Dirty Harry.

On the other side was hostility to black gun ownership, informed by ideas around citizenship, manhood, and who rightfully holds the prerogatives of both. Post–Civil War “Black Codes,” for example, restricted freed people’s ability to own and carry weapons. Indeed, the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a legal gun owner killed after announcing his handgun to a police officer, illustrates the continuing ambivalence around black gun ownership. Despite widespread outrage, the National Rifle Association was silent on this infringement of gun rights. For black Americans themselves, gun ownership was one way to assert full citizenship—it’s one reason “By Any Means Necessary” remains a popular and powerful image of self-assertion, and why one of the most iconic figures of black cinema is a gun-toting, hypermasculine black man.

“Stand your ground” taps into this history, as well as a conservative discourse around crime, safety, and gun rights that took root toward the end of the 20th century. In her study of American traditions of self-defense, historian Caroline Light notes how print advertisements for the NRA “highlighted dangerous streets and armed criminals breaking into middle-class households at night.” Even in the face of decreasing crime rates, she notes, “the NRA portrayed the law-abiding, white citizen at risk for violent crime, and armed self-defense as an urgent need.”

There is no evidence or indication that Michael Drejka killed Markeis McGlockton because he was black. Based on what we know, this was a case of aggression and escalation, made tragic by the presence of a gun. But we cannot understand the incident—why it matters, why it resonates, why it’s brought protest and outrage to yet another Florida town—without an understanding of the forces at work. Each action in this tragedy—McGlockton’s shove, Drejka’s shot, and the sheriff’s excusal—embodies a different but connected history of race, violence, and manhood. We see how our nation’s embrace of lethal self-defense has “always been selective and partial, upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.”

Contrarians may deny the weight of history and legacy, but it’s here whether we acknowledge it or not, bringing its burden to bear on the world we inhabit and the lives we live now.

History of the Juvenile Justice System

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Racial History of Prisons

13TH | Official Trailer

The 13th Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime”

Global Research Article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?


“Prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War (1861-1865 ), a system of “hiring out prisoners” was introduced in order to continue the slavery tradition. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery – which were almost never proven – and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were Black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.

During the post-Civil War period, Jim Crow racial segregation laws were imposed on every state, with legal segregation in schools, housing, marriages and many other aspects of daily life.

“Today, a new set of markedly racist laws is imposing slave labor and sweatshops on the criminal justice system, now known as the prison industry complex,” comments the Left Business Observer.”

Wikipedia: “Penal labor in the United States

“Penal labor in the United States, a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This form of legal slavery is only allowed when used as punishment for committing a crime. The 13th Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Unconvicted detainees awaiting trial cannot be forced to participate in forced rehabilitative labor programs in prison as it violates the Thirteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Era of 1865 began as the government fashioned laws to help stabilize the economy, society, and government of the South.  From the time period of 1866 through 1872, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina begin to lease out convicts for labor.  As these states released larger and larger blocks of prisoners into the convict lease system to work for private companies, prison labor worked to reinforce a racial social order in the South.

The role of penal labor in the United States is mainly designed to benefit the states and their economies through the generation of revenue and power to uphold a market order.

Increases in prison labor participation began in 1979 with the formation of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979. This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board.

In more recent years, prison labor continues to be used by corporations, especially in the private prison sector. Corporations, especially those in the technology and food industries, contract prison labor, as it is legal and often completely encouraged by government legislature.  The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) serves as a federal tax credit that grants employers $2,400 for every work-release employed inmate.[8] “Prison in-sourcing” has increasingly grown in popularity as the cheaper alternative to outsourcing with a wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy’s and Sprint and many more actively participating in prison in-sourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The portrayal of prison-building/expansion as a means of creating employment opportunities through the utilization of inmate labor are particularly harmful elements of the prison-industrial complex in the United States as they boast clear economic benefits at the expense of the incarcerated populace. Prison labor also glorifies the prioritization of personal financial gain over ensuring one’s debt to society is adequately paid or actual rehabilitation process for criminals.


The current state of prison labor in the United States has distinct roots in slavery traditions. With the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, slavery was deemed unconstitutional with the exception as for a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. This caveat allowed those incarcerated to be forced to work without constitutional rights granted to them. The forced prison labor was then used to reinforce a system of racial control for years past. Southern states would criminalize minor crimes through “black codes” which drove up the arrest rate of freedmen and forced them to participate in penal labor when they could not afford the fines. During the Reconstruction era in order to boost the Southern economy, the institutionalization of convict leasing began to take effect.

Convict lease

The “convict lease” system became popular throughout the American South following the American Civil War and into the 20th century. Since the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries, they leased out prisoners to work at private firms. According to Douglas A. Blackmon, because of the revenue received by local governments, they had incentives to arrest blacks; tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. In Florida, convicts were often sent to work in lumber camps and turpentine factories.  The state governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners, with little oversight. This resulted in extremely poor conditions, numerous deaths, and perhaps the most inhumane system of labor in the United States.  Reformers abolished convict leasing in the 20th-century Progressive Era, stopping the system in Florida in 1919. The last state to abolish the practice was Alabama in 1927.

Convict leasing was one of the major contributors to the disenfranchisement of blacks across the South through the 20th century and worked to exclude African-Americans from the political system alongside a rising wave of lynching of blacks by white mobs. American criminologist Thorsten Sellin asserts that the sole aim of convict leasing “was financial profit to the lessees who exploited the labor of the prisoners to the fullest, and to the government which sold the convicts to the lessees.”  Although the leasing system came to a close, convict labor never ceased and continues today in various forms.

Hired Convict Labor

The earliest known law permitting convicts to be paid for their labor traces back to an act passed by New York governor John Jay in 1796. More explicit legislation suggesting that “it may be useful to allow [prisoners] a reasonable portion of the fruits of their labor” was later enacted in 1817 under Daniel D. Tompkins, only to be repealed the following year.

In 1924, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, held a conference on the “ruinous and unfair competition between prison-made products and free industry and labor” (70 Cong. Rec. S656 (1928)).  The eventual legislative response to the committee’s report led to federal laws regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of prison-made products. Congress enacted the Hawes-Cooper Act in 1929, the Ashurst-Sumners Act in 1935 (now known as 18 U.S.C. § 1761(a)), and the Walsh-Healey Act in 1936. Walsh controlled the production of prison-made goods while Ashurst prohibited the distribution of such products in interstate transportation or commerce.  Both statutes authorized federal criminal prosecutions for violations of state laws enacted pursuant to the Hawes-Cooper Act. Private companies got involved again in 1979, when Congress passed a law establishing the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program which allows employment opportunities for prisoners in some circumstances.  PIECP relaxed the restrictions imposed under the Ashurst-Sumners and Walsh-Healey Acts, and allowed for the manufacture, sale and distribution of prisoner-made products across state lines.  However, PIECP limited participation in the program to 38 jurisdictions (later increased to 50), and required each to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice for certification.

According to the International Labor Organization, in 2000-2011 wages in American prisons ranged between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. In California, prisoners earn between $0.30 and $0.95 an hour before deductions.

Over the years, the courts have held that inmates may be required to work and are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. They have also consistently held that inmates have no constitutional right to compensation and that inmates are paid by the “grace of the state.” Under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all able-bodied sentenced prisoners were required to work, except those who participated full-time in education or other treatment programs or who were considered security risks. Correctional standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association provide that sentenced inmates, who are generally housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security prisons, be required to work and be paid for that work. Some states require, as with Arizona, all able-bodied inmates to work.

Inmates have reported that some private companies, such as Martori Farms, do not check for medical background or age when pulling women for jobs.

Modern prison labor systems

Mississippi for-profit prison labor
Forced labor exists in many prisons. In Mississippi, Parchman Farm operated as a for-profit plantation, which yielded revenues for the state from its earliest years. Many prisoners were used to clear the dense growth in the Mississippi bottomland, and then to cultivate the land for agriculture. By the mid-20th century, it had 21,000 acres (8,498 ha) under cultivation. In the late 20th century, prison conditions were investigated under civil rights laws, when abuses of prisoners and harsh working conditions were exposed. These revelations during the 1970s led the state to abandon the for-profit aspect of its forced labor from convicts and planned to hire a professional penologist to head the prison. A state commission recommended reducing the size of acreage, to grow only what is needed for the prison.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
The 2017 Northern California wildfires consumed over 201,000 acres of land and took 42 lives. The state fire agency, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), mobilized over 11,000 firefighters in response, of which 1,500 were prisoners of minimum security conservation camps overseen by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 43 conservation camps for adult offenders exist in California and 30 to 40% of CAL FIRE firefighters are inmates from these camps. Inmates within the firefighting programs receive 2 days off for every day they spend in the conservation camps and receive around US$2 per hour. Most California inmate programs inside of institutions receive a little over $0.25 to $1.25 per hour for labor. The inmate firefighter camps have their origins in the prisoner work camps that built many of the roads across rural and remote areas of California during the early 1900s.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Responsible for the largest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 inmates) the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is known for being one of the most profitable prison systems in the country on part to their prison labor system. Prisoners do a variety of labor and tasks from raising, processing, and harvesting meat and vegetables to manufacturing soap and clothing items.  The inmates receive no monetary salary or compensation for their labor and receive other rewards in time credits, which could work towards cutting down a prison sentence and allow for early release under mandatory supervision. Prisoners are allotted to work up to 12 hours per day. The penal labor system, managed by Texas Correctional Industries, were valued at US$88.9 million in 2014.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice states that the prisoner’s free labor pays for room and board while the work they perform in prison equips inmates with the skills and experience necessary to gain and maintain employment after they are released. Texas is one of the 4 states in the United States that does not pay inmates for their labor in monetary funds, with the other states being Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Georgia Department of Corrections
Pat Biegler, director of the Georgia Public Works department stated that the prison labor system implemented in Georgia facilities saves the department around US$140,000 per week. The largest county prison work camp in Columbus, Georgia, Muscogee County Prison, saves the city around $17 to US$20 million annually according to officials, with local entities also benefiting from the monetary funds the program receives from the state of Georgia.  According to Prison Warden of Muscogee County Prison, Dwight Hamrick, the top priority is to provide prison labor to Columbus Consolidated Government and to rehabilitate inmates, with all inmates being required to work. Inmates performing tasks related to sanitation, golf course, recycling, and landfill receive a monetary compensation of around US$3 per day, while those in jobs such as facility maintenance, transportation, and street beautification do not receive any compensation.

Prison Labor Legislation

Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR or FPI) is a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to produce goods and services. FPI is restricted to selling its products and services to federal government agencies, with some recent exceptions.

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979.  This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board. The PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act were created with the goal of motivating state and local governments to create employment opportunities that mimic private sector work, generate services that allow offenders to contribute to society, offset the cost of their incarceration, reduce inmate idleness, cultivate job skills, and improve the success rates of transition back into the community after release. Before these programs, prison labor for the private sector had been outlawed for decades to avoid competition. The introduction of prison labor in the private sector, the implementation of PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act in state prisons all contributed a substantial role in cultivating the prison-industrial complex. Between the years 1980 through 1994, prison industry profits jumped substantially from $392 million to $1.31 billion. copied content from Prison-industrial complex; see that page’s history for attribution

The Prison-Industries Act allowed third-party companies to buy prison manufactured goods from prison factories and sell the products locally or ship them across state lines.  Through the program PIECP, there were “thirty jurisdictions with active [PIE] operations.” in states such as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and twelve others.

California Prison Industry Authority is an entity within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that develops and operates industrial, agricultural, and service enterprises using penal labor.


Free Alabama Movement
Three prisoners — Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council — who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have been in solitary confinement since the start of the labor strike. Protests took place in three Alabama prisons, and the movement has smuggled out videos and pictures of abusive conditions, and authorities say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to cooperate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that took place in the Georgia prison system in December 2010. The strike leaders argue that refusing to work is a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage. Prisoners appear to be currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Council, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, said “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have [prisoners] that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”

Ray said “We do not believe in the political process … We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for patties and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.””

“The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States.  They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer today”
Frederick Douglas

PBS: Slavery by Another Name (Convict Leasing)

Wikipedia: Convict leasing

“Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations (e.g. Tennessee Coal and Iron Company). The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. The state of Louisiana leased out convicts as early as 1844, but the system expanded all through the South with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It could be lucrative for the states: in 1898 some 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing…

…Convict leasing in the United States was widespread in the South during the Reconstruction Period. (1865–1877) after the end of the Civil War, when many southern legislatures were ruled by majority coalitions of blacks and Radical Republicans, and Union generals acted as military governors. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. Some southern legislatures passed Black Codes to restrict free movement of blacks and force them into employment with whites. If convicted of vagrancy, blacks could be imprisoned, and they also received sentences for a variety of petty offenses. States began to lease convict labor to the plantations and other facilities seeking labor, as the freedmen were trying to withdraw and work for themselves. This provided the states with a new source of revenue during years when they were financially strapped, and lessees profited by the use of forced labor at below market rates…

…While northern states sometimes contracted for prison labor, the historian Alex Lichtenstein notes that,

“only in the South did the state entirely give up its control to the contractor; and only in the South did the physical “penitentiary” become virtually synonymous with the various private enterprises in which convicts labored.”

Corruption, lack of accountability, and racial violence resulted in “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” African Americans, mostly adult males, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing,” made up the vast majority—but not all—of the convicts leased.

The writer Douglas A. Blackmon described the system:

“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

U.S. Steel is among American companies who have acknowledged using African-American leased convict labor.  The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle’s “Circular 3591″ of December 12, 1941.”

PBS: “Inside Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison

“The history of Mississippi State Penitentiary is a history of failed reforms. Its creation in 1901 was borne of a statewide shame and frustration at the contemporary system of convict leasing, writes David Oshinsky, historian and author of “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.”

In the Reconstructionist south, states’ coffers were empty, prisons destroyed, and their former free labor supply was emancipated. Many southern states, including Mississippi, began arresting almost exclusively young, black men on charges ranging from laundering to larceny to murder. Some were legitimate, but many more were fabricated or embellished. The state began leasing the prisoners to wealthy contractors, who would further sublease them to companies.

“The convicts, under convict leasing, would do the kind of work that free labor would not want to do. In other words, the work a white worker might not want to do,” Oshinsky said.

Under convict leasing, the inmates were essentially slaves again, Oshinsky said. They worked long hours for no pay, were poorly fed, and slept in tents at work sites doing dangerous jobs like dynamiting tunnels for railroad companies and clearing malarial-filled swamps for construction. Convicts, sometimes including children under age 10, were whipped and beaten, underfed, and rarely given medical treatment. Oshinksy writes that between 9 and 16 percent of convicts died yearly in the 1880s.

But poor whites began to resent the system that drove wages down for free workers. In 1904, Mississippi elected a new governor – James Kimble Vardaman – who aimed to reform the system, in part to benefit the lower-class whites. Parchman’s first year of operation was in 1905. It was massive, remote, and modeled after a traditional southern plantation.

Parchman was originally comprised of three separate farms: a small farm, which was maintained by white convicts, a smaller one farmed by women (mostly black), and a huge sprawling plantation for the prison’s black convicts. Over 20,000 acres and 46 miles, it was intended to be self-sufficient and profitable for the state, and it was.

Convicts, called gunmen, picked cotton under the watch of the most violent offenders, who were given guns and called trusty-shooters, or trusties, Oshinsky said. Hogjaw and Kinnie, the trusties Ward writes about in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” were also real men; in 1947 Hogjaw was pardoned for killing an escaping convict. The farm was profitable; in 1918, Oshinsky wrote that the prison had a net revenue of $825,000, or about $800 per inmate.

In 1911, The New York Times ran a sprawling spread in the Sunday edition which heaped praise on the prison.

“The pride of Mississippi, however, is the ‘Parchman Place,’” the article read. “Actually instances have been known of when negroes were turned out of the penitentiary, given a new suit and $10 in money, they would not want to leave and would inquire if there was not some way by which they could stay there.”

But the reality, says Oshinksy, is that Parchman was nearly uninhabitable. Convicts worked six days a week, lived in barracks with no separation or classification by crime, and were often subject to punishment by a whip referred to as “Black Annie.”

Destination Doom

Parchman Farm stayed this way, more or less, for the next 70 years. Cotton picking became mechanized and the state instituted some small reforms. A relatively impotent parole board deferred to the superintendent, Oshinksy writes, and small vocational and educational programs excluded black prisoners. A maximum security unit with a guard tower, fences, and gates housed individual cells, a gas chamber for executions, and a solitary confinement wing.

Otherwise, Parchman remained frozen in time, a segregated, harsh prison farm. It was during this period that it housed some of its most famous prisoners: Elvis Presley’s father Vernon was imprisoned in 1938 for “check forgery,” and blues singers Bukka White and Son House for dubious claims of violence. After his release, White composed his famous “Parchman Farm Blues,” which warned young men about the horror of the prison.

Some of the Freedom Riders, a group of interracial young civil rights activists who boycotted Jim Crow laws, served time at Parchman, although they were segregated from the general population. Claude Liggins, 77, said the racism by the guards at Parchman was mostly directed at the white Freedom Riders. “They couldn’t understand why they would want to go against their own race and support us,” Liggins, who is black, said. “They had several white men who were beaten almost to death.”

In 1971, a civil rights lawyer named Roy Haber visited a convict at Parchman who was challenging his conviction. While there, Haber heard accounts from other inmates and personally witnessed the conditions, which he described as the last legal vestiges of slavery.

Almost a century earlier, the 13th amendment had abolished slavery in all cases except in penal servitude. “You can make somebody work if they’re a prisoner. Using that distinction, they were able to maintain a slave state within the prison,” Haber said.

Haber represented the inmates in a class action lawsuit against the prison in the now landmark case of Gates v. Collier. In 1971, the judge ruled in favor of the inmates, and throughout the next decade, he forced the prison to desegregate, eliminate “Black Annie” and other unconstitutional forms of punishment, and end the forced field labor.

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Prisons Today: Private Prisons and Profits

Private prisons: How US corporations make money out of locking you up

Global Research Article, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?

Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.”

Currently, there are approximately 2 million inmates incarcerated in state, federal, and private prisons throughout the country. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

The figures reflect that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: Sadly, the U.S. has a half million more prisoners than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Additionally, statistics show that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, but only 5% of the world’s population. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population exploded to more than 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates- today, there are 100 private prisons, with 62,000 inmates. And according to reports, projections show that by the coming decade, the number is expected to reach 360,000.

What has happened over the last 10 years? Why are there so many prisoners?

“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”

The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. The industry also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”


According to reports by human rights organizations, factors that increase the profit potential for those who invest in the prison industry complex include:

  • Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine. In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana. In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.
  • The passage in 13 states of the “three strikes” law (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who received three 25-year sentences, based on convictions involving theft of a car and two bicycles
  • Longer sentences.
  • The passage of laws that require minimum sentencing, without regard for circumstances.
  • A large expansion of work by prisoners creating profits that motivate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time.
  • More punishment of prisoners, so as to lengthen their sentences…

Who is investing?

…At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generated by prison labor. Between 1980-1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum.

And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.

Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.

[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor (here).”


The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., but reached its height in the 1990s under William Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. Clinton’s program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Departments contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.

Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners.” The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.


Profits are so good that now there is a new business: importing inmates with long sentences, meaning the worst criminals. When a federal judge ruled that overcrowding in Texas prisons was cruel and unusual punishment, the CCA signed contracts with sheriffs in poor counties to build and run new jails and share the profits. According to a December 1998 Atlantic Monthly magazine article, this program was backed by investors from Merrill-Lynch, Shearson-Lehman, American Express and Allstate, and the operation was scattered all over rural Texas. That state’s governor, Ann Richards, followed the example of Mario Cuomo in New York and built so many state prisons that the market became flooded, cutting into private prison profits.

After a law signed by Clinton in 1996 – ending court supervision and decisions – caused overcrowding and violent, unsafe conditions in federal prisons, private prison corporations in Texas began to contact other states whose prisons were overcrowded, offering “rent-a-cell” services in the CCA prisons located in small towns throughout Texas. The commission for a rent-a-cell salesman is $2.50 to $5.50 per day per bed. The county gets $1.50 for each prisoner.


  • Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
  • It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of.
  • Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses.
  • Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness.”

GEO Group Private Prisons and Trump

In the United States, approximately 6% of state prisons, 16% of federal prisons and some local prisons in various states are owned by for-profit companies. This means that a third-party entity is contracted by the government to incarcerate individuals. These private prison companies are paid per-diem per prisoner or prisoner space, even if it is not occupied. The real estate to incarcerate people is some of the most profitable in the U.S. Among other devastating effects such as separating families and increasing mental illness, this has propogated institutionalized slavery cemented in policy-lead systemic racism, with 1 in 3 black men having a better chance of going to prison than to college. The U.S. holds 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s inmates.

Prison privatization began in the 1980’s, with the war and drugs and harsher sentencing for petty crimes (i.e. mandatory sentencing and the three-strikes law). This increased the costs to governments, giving them more incentive to find funding sources, which began their contractual agreements with private companies. Private companies hold 130,000 prisoners and 16,000 civil immigration detainees, allowing the top two companies to become billionaires Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Grouptood at nearly $3 billion). These institutions house civil rights violations and corruption from physical abuse, medical neglect and sexual harassment within these detention facilities. In 1984, a number of investors in Tennessee created the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) used venture capital to lease out and profit off of prisoners in cells/per-bed. It is now the largest private corrections company in the U.S., with its worth at $1.7 billion in 2012. These companies are also contracted to house undocumented immigrants and resident aliens, many of which reside in inhumane conditions

Private Prisons Cashing In On Migrant Crisis – But Who’s Paying? | Velshi & Ruhle | MSNBC

Grassroots Leadership: Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota

Executive Summary

“In 2009, in the midst of a multi-year decline in the undocumented immigrant population,[1] Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), then Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, inserted the following language regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) detention budget into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010: “…funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.”[2] This directive established what would become a controversial policy interpreted by ICE as a mandate to contract for and fill 33,400 (increased in 2013 to 34,000)[3] detention beds on a daily basis. The directive would come to be known as the “immigrant detention quota” or “bed mandate.” The immigration detention quota is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates under a detention quota mandated by Congress.

Since its implementation, the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy. The immigrant detention system has expanded significantly since the implementation of the quota, and the percent of the detained population held in private facilities has increased even more dramatically. Two major private prison corporations have emerged as the main corporate beneficiaries of immigrant detention policies: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group.

This report provides an in-depth assessment of the inception and implementation of the quota, with a specific focus on the role played by for-profit, private prison corporations. These companies have profited handsomely from the artificial stability provided by the quota while contributing millions of dollars in federal lobbying expenditures and in campaign contributions to ensure their interests are met. This report also features testimony from people directly impacted by detention and deportation, revealing the momentous human cost of the quota.

Key Findings:

  1. Private prison corporations have increased their share of the immigrant detention industry. Since just before the onset of the quota, the private prison industry has increased its share of immigrant detention beds by 13 percent. Sixty-two percent[4] of all ICE immigration detention beds in the United States are now operated by for-profit prison corporations, up from 49 percent in 2009[5]. Nine of the ten largest ICE detention centers are private[6]. This is particularly noteworthy in light of the expansion of the entire ICE detention system by nearly 47 percent in the last decade[7].
  2. Private prison corporations lobby on immigration and immigrant detention issues that affect their bottom line. Contrary to private prison corporation claims that they do not lobby on issues related to immigration policy, between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10,560,000 in quarters where they lobbied on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform.[8],[9] Of that amount, CCA spent $9,760,000, — 61 percent of total private prison lobbying expenditures — in quarters where they directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee,[10],[11] which maintains the immigrant detention quota language and shapes the way in which it is interpreted. Lobbying disclosure forms reveal spending on: “Issues related to comprehensive immigration reform” (GEO Group, 2013), and “FY 2014 and FY 2015 Department of Homeland Security appropriations – provisions related to privately-operated ICE detention facilities” (CCA, 2014).[12] Since 2010, CCA has spent at least 75 percent of its lobbying expenditures in quarters where it has lobbied directly on the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee.[13] Though GEO Group has not directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, the company recently began lobbying on immigration and immigrant detention issues, spending $460,000 between 2011 and 2014 in quarters when they lobbied on these issues.[14]
  3. Two private prison corporations — CCA and GEO Group — dominate the immigration detention industry. Together, they operate eight of the ten largest immigrant detention centers. GEO and CCA combined operate 72 percent of the privately contracted ICE immigrant detention beds.[15] In the years following the implementation of the immigrant detention quota, CCA and GEO expanded their share of the total ICE immigrant detention system from 37 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2014.[16] GEO Group in particular has increased its share of the total ICE immigrant detention system to 25 percent in FY14 from 15 percent in FY10.[17] Both companies have significantly augmented their profits since the implementation of the quota, CCA from $133,373,000[18] in 2007 to $195,022,000 in 2014.[19] GEO experienced an even more dramatic profit increase from $41,845,000[20] in 2007 to $143,840,000 in 2014, a 244 percent increase.[21]
  4. CCA and GEO have recently expanded their immigrant detention capacity, including new contracts for detaining asylum-seeking families. Since FY2014, the most recent numbers released by ICE, both CCA and GEO have both expanded their capacity for detaining women and children in new family detention centers[22] in South Texas.[23] The CCA-operated South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley opened in December 2014 and currently holds about 480 women and children. It is under expansion to grow to an expected capacity of 2,400 by May 2015. If this expansion proceeds, Dilley will be the largest immigrant detention center in the U.S.[24] The GEO-run Karnes County Residential Center opened in June 2014 and now holds around 600 women and children, but will expand to a capacity of 1,200.[25] Additionally, in January 2015, GEO acquired LCS Corrections, which owns several large immigrant detention facilities in Texas and Louisiana, further increasing its share of the immigrant detention business.[26]


  1. Congress should eliminate the immigrant detention quota from its 2016 appropriations request.
  2. ICE should reduce reliance on for-profit prison contractors. Congress should increase oversight within the contracting system and launch a system-wide review of the contracted prisons and their related intergovernmental service agreements.
  3. ICE should end contracts at facilities with a record of abuse and penalize contractors found to have multiple incidents of abuse or mismanagement in their facilities.
  4. Congress and the Administration should prioritize policies that expand the use of non-punitive, community-supported alternative to detention (ATD) programs. However, these measures must be used in place of current detention capacity, not in addition to it. The intent of any ATD program should be to reduce the population in immigration detention, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the immigration detention system entirely.”

Eyes on the Ties: Who is Profiting from Incarcerating Immigrant Families?

Common Dreams: Demand Grows for Tech Giants Like Microsoft and Salesforce to Cancel Contracts With ICE and Border Patrol

Private Prison Influence Over Judges

According to NPR,

“A Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison in connection to a bribery scandal that roiled the state’s juvenile justice system. Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was convicted of taking $1 million in bribes from developers of juvenile detention centers. The judge then presided over cases that would send juveniles to those same centers. The case came to be known as “kids-for-cash.””

Trump Administration Reverses Obama’s Attempt to Decrease Private Prisons

According to a February 2017 Time article,

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Thursday his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing an Obama administration directive to phase out their use. Stock prices of major private prison companies rose at the news.”

Vice: The Immigrant Crackdown Is a Cash Cow for Private Prisons

Detaining immigrants has turned into a very lucrative growth industry

“Earlier this month, Daniel Ragsdale, the second-in-command at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), confirmed he will be leaving his position to work at GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company. “While you may be losing me as a colleague, please know that I will continue to be a strong advocate for you and your mission,” said Ragsdale in a farewell email to his ICE colleagues.

He’s certainly not going far—GEO operates immigrant detention centers and will likely compete for a contract to run a new facility that will house up to 9,500 undocumented immigrants. (It was just given renewals on two existing contracts, to the tune of $664 million.) Ragsdale isn’t the first to go from ICE to GEO, but his move underscored the close relationship between the federal agency tasked with detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants and the private prison industry that helps house those detained immigrants. As of last year, more than two-thirds of immigrant detainees were housed in private facilities.

“Daniel Ragsdale’s move to GEO is another shameful example of the revolving door that exists between the federal agencies issuing lucrative immigration detention and prison contracts and the private prison companies receiving them,” said a statement from Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of organizations fighting for immigration detention reform.

“This is a standard tactic for both CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer working for the ACLU’s Prison Project, referring to two largest private prisons companies in the US. “They both hire from federal and state agencies that they are also seeking contacts with.”

Contracts from ICE could be especially important because the US prison population has declined recently as harsh sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, have become unfashionable.

“GEO group and other major companies have understood that criminal justice is not a growth area,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform nonprofit. “Immigration detention is something these companies are focusing on.”

GEO began contracting with ICE in the mid 80s, when the immigration detention system was a fraction of the size it is today. Then came the toughening of immigration laws in the mid 1990s, which greatly expanded mandatory detention of noncitizens pending their immigration proceedings. After 9//11, border security and visa screening became a priority for the federal government, resulting in the creation of ICE in 2003. Today the US immigrant detention system holds more than 400,000 people every year, with ICE overseeing an expansive network of more than 250 facilities, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. For the 2017 budget, ICE requested $2.2 billion to maintain these facilities; the number of people taken into custody by the agency has risen to more than 40,000 people per day.

ICE has also increasingly outsourced detention to private companies. In 2005, 25 percent of immigrants in ICE custody were in facilities operated by private prison companies. By 2009, that number was 49 percent, and today it is 73 percent, according to a report by the Detention Watch Network. And GEO Group holds more immigrant detainees than any other private prison company.

A 2016 Justice Department report found that private prisons were more likely to have rule violations than government-run facilities, confirming what advocates have long said about private prisons being cruel and inhumane. “Private prisons are a recipe for abuse and neglect,” said Carl Takei. “We have seen over and over again in terms of incidences of violence, understaffing, and medical neglect.”

Adrian Hernandez Garay, who spent 35 months at the Big Spring Correctional Institution, a GEO facility in Texas, told me that he was fed beans and rice seven days a week, a symptom of routine mistreatment. “The conditions inside were very bad. The facilities were old. The guards were poorly trained. If you got sick all they would just give you Tylenol and tell you to get back to your cell,” said Garay, who spoke with me through a translator from his home in Juarez, Mexico.

Garay previously served time at multiple detention centers for illegal re-entry into the US and described the conditions at the GEO facility as “far worse” than the other detentions centers he had been inside. (I reached out to Big Spring for comment and was referred to the GEO press office, who did not respond to my questions about the facility.)

The kinds of abuses described by Garay are not isolated. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found widespread abuse and neglect in immigrant detention centers in six southern states. But the Trump administration so far has shown no desire to reform this system, and instead will likely expand it.

GEO’s hiring of Daniel Ragsdale is, according to Takei, a simple attempt to attain more lucrative contracts. “ICE is a cash cow for these businesses,” said Takei. “They take the expertise they have working for the ICE and use that to lobby for even greater increases in their share of this system of mass detention,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher at Grassroots Leadership, an organization working to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers.

GEO routinely seeks to influence the federal government via lobbyists like Brian Ballard, who fundraised for Trump, and a pair of former aides to Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general. (Sessions recently rescinded the Obama administration directive to phase out private contacts in the federal prisons system.) GEO also allegedly gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump group, which would have been illegal since federal contractors aren’t permitted to make political contributions.

GEO maintains that it does not lobby directly to effect policy. “As a matter of longstanding policy our company does not advocate for or against specific criminal justice, sentencing or immigration policies” said Pablo Paez, a company spokesperson, in an emailed statement. However the company has clearly allied itself with Trump, whose draconian policies on crime and illegal immigration seem designed to increase the prison population. (Private prison company stocks skyrocketed after the election.) GEO and CoreCivic also support individual policies that would keep more bodies behind bars; a GEO lobbyist recently wrote a bill in Texas that would make it easier to keep detained immigrant children in the same facilities as their parents.

Crucially, these lobbying efforts help keep in place the the controversial immigrant detention bed quota, which requires ICE to maintain and pay for at least 31,000 beds at all times The arbitrary quota has been described by the the Center for Constitutional Rights as a primary driver of an immigrant detention—it also improves assures private prison companies that there will always be a need for their facilities.

This is the result of such a close relationship between private prison companies and the government that hires them—are policies like the bed quota just cynically designed to make these businesses money?

“When you have a situation where there is a mandate whose only benefit is the bottom line of specific companies you have to ask the question,” said Florida Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, who has fought to end the detention bed mandate.

“We have a policy that requires that tens of thousand of people being rounded up every day,” he added. “It does not make the country any safer. It does exactly the opposite, in the most inhumane way, and it only benefits one group.”

Detention Watch Network: “Immigration Detention 101″

The United States government maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system

Immigration detention is the practice of incarcerating immigrants while they await a determination of their immigration status or potential deportation. In 2016, the United States government detained nearly 360,000 people in a sprawling system of over 200 immigration jails across the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that runs the detention system, subcontracts the majority of detention space to county jails and private prison companies.

Immigrants in detention include undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the U.S. for years and are now facing exile, as well as survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women, and individuals who are seriously ill.

In detention, immigrants are often subjected to harsh conditions of confinement and denied access to adequate medical care, legal counsel and family contact. Since 2003, a reported 180 people have died in immigration custody.

Detention in Numbers

  • Number of beds: 39,000
  • Number of people detained each year: 359,520 (FY 2016 – latest numbers)
  • Cost per day: $134 for adult detention
    $319 for family detention
  • Detention budget: $2.6 billion (FY 2017)
  • Number of facilities: 205
  • Percent of people held in facilities operated by private companiesmore than 73 percent
  • Number of deaths since 2003180

History of Immigration Detention in the United States

The United States is the world’s leading incarcerator with over two million people in prisons and jails across the country. As the U.S. expanded prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, the detention of immigrants, once a little known practice, began to take shape.

In the early 1980s several thousand Cuban and Haitian refugees arriving on Florida’s shores each year were swept into newly opened detention facilities. Immigration policy began to emulate the criminal justice system in the late ‘80s when, during the height of the War on Drugs, Congress amended the Immigration and Naturalization Act to require the mandatory detention of immigrants with certain criminal convictions. This meant that their detention was automatic and compulsory, without a hearing or any consideration of their circumstances.

The 1990s brought on a paradigm shift in immigration policy, leading to detention being a primary means of immigration enforcement. In 1996, the U.S. enacted legislation that dramatically expanded the use of detention. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded mandatory detention. The 1996 laws also rendered any non-U.S. citizen, including legal permanent residents, vulnerable to detention and deportation.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS was divided into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It also moved from the Department of Justice to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration was now a national security issue and nowhere was this clearer than in ICE’s strategic plan for 2003-2012, Operation Endgame, which stated its purpose to, “promote the public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of all removable aliens through the fair and effective enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.”

Under the Obama administration, the implementation of the detention bed quota and the expansion of deportation programs such as 287(g), Secure Communities and the Criminal Alien Program, funneled thousands of immigrants into detention centers. In 2014, we saw even more detention expansion when the White House responded to an influx of Central American refugee families with the resurgence of family detention.

The Trump administration has further expanded these parts of the deportation dragnet — increasing the number of 287(g) agreements and other forms of entanglement with local law enforcement and the criminal legal system — while also ramping up community raids and eliminating the policies that deprioritized detention and deportation for some immigrants under the previous administration.

The drastic expansion of mandatory detention combined with a skyrocketing detention budget has created a sprawling and unaccountable system of mass detention. As a result, the number of individuals detained has grown dramatically. The average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.

After three decades of expansion, the detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year.”

“People detained by U.S. immigration officials are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations, and they comprise the fastest-growing part of the American prison population. Private detention facilities have been profiting from rising rates of immigrant detention since 9/11, and presidential administrations of both parties have overseen an increasing reliance on these profit-based models of immigration detention. Like American mass incarceration as a whole, the roots of this situation are deep and bipartisan, and the burdens are borne by the poor and people of color.

Private detention companies are paid a set fee per detainee per night, and they negotiate contracts that guarantee a minimum daily headcount. Many run notoriously dangerous facilities with horrific conditions that operate far outside federal oversight. Department of Justice officials in 2017 reversed an August 2016 pledge to phase out federal use of private prisons, but even that reform would not have done anything to slow, much less stop, the federal government’s use of private facilities to detain immigrants. In fact, the percentage of detainees held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) — about 400,000 people in 2016 — rose from 25 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2016, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

In January 2017, the White House issued a series of executive orders calling for an overhaul of immigration law enforcement and ordering ICE to work with private facilities to expand its nationwide network of detention centers. In June 2017, Mother Jones reported that the federal government contracted to build a new $110 million facility with a company whose detention facility in California was cited for “egregious medical errors” after three detainees died there within three months.”

Detention Watch Network: Family Detention

“Families fleeing extreme violence in Central America are migrating to the United States in search of refuge. Rather than providing protection, the United States detains women and children seeking asylum in family detention centers.

Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant mothers with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S., families are locked up in remote and punitive detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.

The government expanded the use of family detention in 2014 in an attempt to deter asylum seeking women and children from coming to the U.S. from Central America. This policy was implemented despite the U.S. having a direct hand in creating the violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing many to flee.

Families fleeing extreme violence in Central America are migrating to the United States in search of refuge. Rather than providing protection, the United States detains women and children seeking asylum in family detention centers.

Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant mothers with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S., families are locked up in remote and punitive detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.

The government expanded the use of family detention in 2014 in an attempt to deter asylum seeking women and children from coming to the U.S. from Central America. This policy was implemented despite the U.S. having a direct hand in creating the violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing many to flee.”

NY Times: Serving Time Should Not Mean ‘Prison Slavery’

A national strike by prisoners is the latest iteration of demands for freedom from forced labor.

“Since Aug. 21, prisoners across the United States have been on one of the largest prison strikes the nation has seen in years. They have several demands, but at the top is the end of the forced labor the state coerces out of them. Up to 800,000 prisoners a day are put out for work without their choice, usually for extremely paltry compensation that in Louisiana is as low as 4 cents per hour.

With often privatized prisons operating with maximum security and limited communication among prisoners, even discovering what is happening remains difficult, yet prisoners have organized themselves nonetheless in one of the most important labor actions in this country.

The prison strike is a multiracial action, but that African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of the nation’s prison population and its leadership of this movement is no accident. This strike is part of centuries’ worth of labor actions to protest the compelled labor out of black bodies by a white-dominated society. We should not see the prison strike as an isolated event. It is instead the latest iteration of demands for freedom from forced labor that go back to slavery.

From the beginning of black chattel slavery in what became the United States, African-American workers have sought to take control over their lives and work. Sometimes this was through slave revolts such as Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 Virginia. But more common was individual acts of resistance — running away, slowing down in the fields, stealing food from the master.


During the Civil War, slaves freed themselves by walking to Union lines. What was a trickle in 1861 became a flood by 1864, as thousands of self-emancipated slaves followed Union soldiers. What the pioneering civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois called the “general strike” of slaves changed the outcome of the war, forcing a reluctant Lincoln administration to move toward the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 13th Amendment, all while slowing the Confederate war effort by undermining the labor force and thus the economy. Slaves could not have won the war by themselves, but their actions were crucial in deciding the war and creating its moral impact.

The Civil War may have ended chattel slavery, but the 13th Amendment had a fatal flaw, allowing for an exception from free labor for the incarcerated. Almost immediately, states, especially in the South, used this to control black labor. They began rounding up ex-slaves after the war, passing vagrancy laws that allowed the state to sell their labor. Congressional interference during Reconstruction briefly limited this practice, but by the late 19th century, white rule created a huge economic sector based upon unfree black labor, especially in the prison chain gangs at institutions such as Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, symbol of the Jim Crow era’s murderous regime against black people, as well as in contract labor, where private employers worked black prisoners into the grave. Increasingly, prison authorities compelled labor out of nonblack prisoners as well.

The civil rights movement challenged this prison regime, but by no means ended it. In Texas during the 1970s, segregated prison gangs worked under overseers picking cotton for no money. This was modern slavery. In 1978, 1,500 inmates at the Canfield Prison in Ellis, Tex., refused to work in support of a lawsuit (in part against unpaid prison labor) started by a civil rights activist imprisoned in 1972 for inciting a riot during a protest against a white-owned store. They started a prison strike, which spread through the state’s prison system, gained nationwide attention and lasted for two weeks.

As during the current prison strike, the Texas prisoners had few illusions of immediate victories. But in 1980, the Texas prison labor system was ruled unconstitutional, and no longer would they pick cotton under overseers for no money. This was one victory in a centuries-long struggle; yet Texas has continued to exploit its prisoners for poorly paid work.

Just as the public attention of the 1978 strike contributed to that 1980 decision, so might the current prison strike create changes to the current system of prison labor exploitation. That can happen if we make changes to prison labor systems a central demand of our politicians. The strike will continue until Sept. 9, and it is up to us on the outside to make our voices heard in support of these workers.

Too often, we treat prisoners at outcasts instead of fellow workers. Not only are they stripped of their constitutional rights, but even labor activists do not take their needs seriously as workers. Ending prison labor exploitation — what strike organizers call “prison slavery” — should be at the top of the agenda for the American labor movement, as it is the defining feature of work for the lives of huge swaths of the American working class.

Slavery still has never ended in the United States. It continues every day in our prisons. We must wash ourselves of this moral stain on our society and treat prisoners with the human rights that every person deserves.”

Vox: We’re in the midst of the biggest prison strike in US history

“For the past couple of months (2016), prison inmates across the country have been striking and protesting, in what organizers have called the largest prison strike in US history.

The little-known protests were organized around September 9 in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. But the demonstrations have continued in potentially dozens of states since then, and there’s talk of more concerted protests beginning anew later in October.

The demonstrations have broadly targeted dismal prison conditions. But they have generally focused on a few specific issues — particularly prison labor practices in both public and private prisons that can force inmates to take jobs for little to no pay, which inmates have characterized as modern slavery.

“What you see is a lot of people who are being incarcerated sort of recognizing the broader social, political, and historical context in which they are positioned,” said Clint Smith, a doctoral candidate in Harvard focused on incarceration issues. “And [they are] fundamentally rejecting the idea that they are devoid of any agency, that they are not able to push back and protest against the conditions in which they live.”

He added, “So often in this broader conversation about mass incarceration that’s been happening more so in the last four, five, or six years, you rarely see people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated at the forefront of that conversation. And many people in prison are recognizing that their voices are being silenced — not only in the general population but also in the conversation around them.”

The protests, however, have been varied in their approach. So far, they have taken place in as many as 50 prisons in at least 12 states, involving at least 24,000 people in these facilities. As John Washington explained for the Nation, the hard numbers are hard to come by, in large part because prisons are so secretive. But we do have some details of what’s going on.

Protests have broken out in at least 12 states

A National Park Service ranger walks down the main cell block of Alcatraz Island. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

So far, the protests have taken a few forms. There have been work stoppages in which inmates refuse to take part in prison labor. There have also been hunger strikes, which mostly came about among inmates who don’t have jobs in prison. In some cases, there have also been bouts of violence — in which inmates take over parts of the prison and destroy property.

Here are some of the bigger protests, based on the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s tracker, the Nation’s breakdown, and other news reports:

  • Alabama: Starting on September 9, inmates went on strike as part of the Free Alabama Movement, an advocacy group for prisoners. Some reports suggested that prison guards also joined the strikes to speak out against unsafe conditions, but higher-ups deny it. Perhaps in response, the US Department of Justice on October 6 announced that it will investigate Alabama’s prisons for men.
  • California: At least 100 inmates in Merced County Jail went on a hunger strike starting on September 9, with inmates in Santa Clara County Jail planning to join on October 1.
  • Florida: Hundreds of inmates rose up in at least five state prisons in early September, refusing orders while taking over dorms and cellblocks. The Miami Herald has found deplorable conditions in Florida prisons for years: understaffing, violence, and lack of air conditioning in scorching hot weather.
  • Michigan: Inmates began striking in Kinross Correctional Facility on September 9. But after discussing their demands with the warden, a tactical team used guns, rifles, tear gas, and shields to subdue and handcuff around 150 inmates, leaving them in the rain for five to six hours. Prison officials told the Detroit Free Press that inmates started a fire and damaged several buildings during the demonstrations.
  • South Carolina: There were several weeks of work stoppages in state facilities. After one inmate died in the McCormick Correctional Institution, some inmates also rose up in what one prisoner described to the Nation as an “active rebellion.”
  • Texas: Although prison officials have denied strike activity, multiple prisons in Texas have reportedly gone on lockdown in the past few months due to inmates refusing to work.
  • Wisconsin: Before September 9, prisoners were already on hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement. Some inmates were force-fed through a nasal tube throughout the protests, but the strikes were reportedly still going on as of September 23.

There have been protests in other facilities within these seven states and prisons in up to 17 other states. But the details are scarce, because prison officials refuse to provide them — after all, it’s in their interest to make it seem like their prisons are run with few or no problems.

And more protests are likely coming: Some inmates plan to organize another round of renewed protests October 15 to 22.

According to Emma Grey Ellis at Wired, inmates have organized, with help from family, friends, and outside groups like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, using contraband cellphones and social media. Inmates aren’t technically supposed to have access to these, but they have long managed to smuggle the necessary devices into prisons. And now they’ve used them to put together protests.

The protests are about broad criminal justice issues

So what’s connected this scattered network of prisoners? Organizers and inmates have given purposely broad answers when asked about their goals, so prisoners at different facilities can set their own demands as part of the demonstrations.

“Part of the reason we don’t have an [international] list of demands is because it’s not possible for the prisoners to all get together and say what their demands are going to be,” said Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair at the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. “So the demands do vary from unit to unit and state to state.”

Some have protested the US keeping the world’s largest prison population, which has led to overcrowding and other abuses against the incarcerated population.

Others have taken issue with terrible living conditions — including violence, unhygienic situations, inadequate health care, lack of air conditioning in dangerously hot weather, and scarce, unhealthy food. Some have targeted solitary confinement, when inmates are isolated in tiny cells as punishment or, supposedly, for their own safety — which can lead to such bad mental and physical health consequences that a United Nations report concluded it’s torture after 15 days.

And some have demanded that guards and police stop brutalizing inmates and turning a blind eye to violence among inmates.

Prison labor exploitation is a major rallying point

A prison fence. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

If there’s one issue the inmates seem somewhat united on, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for literally cents an hour. In Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia, inmates can be forced to work for free. This is explicitly allowed after the abolishment of slavery through the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Approximately 700,000 inmates have daily jobs, such as kitchen work, cleaning, and GED tutoring. Sometimes the jobs will take inmates outside of prison, although more frequently they merely mimic real-world jobs or involve menial chores that need to be done around the prison. The average pay in state prisons is 20 cents an hour, according to the Marshall Project.

Inmates compare the practice to modern slavery. With black people disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-paid labor. (It of course didn’t help that the Virginia Supreme Court said that prisoners are “slaves of the state” in 1871, six years after slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished by the 13th Amendment except as punishment for a crime.)

“Ultimately, the demand is abolishing prisons,” Crispino said. From inmates’ view, “the reason prisons exist is not to keep anyone safe — but because money gets made from prisons. So they’re saying, look, if the reason you have us locked up is because we make you a ton of money, then if we strike and you give us minimum wage, we won’t make you a ton of money anymore. And that will ultimately lead to reform for decarceration and prison abolition.”

Prison officials and other advocates argue, however, that prison labor can help inmates gain much-needed real-world working experience. Some research has backed this up: A study of federal prisoners found inmates who took part in UNICOR, the federal prison program, were 24 percent less likely to reoffend and 14 percent more likely to be employed a year after their release. And a study of a Florida program found significant increases in employment, but no changes in inmates’ likelihood to reoffend.

These studies aren’t definitive proof, since they have serious selection bias issues. It’s difficult to know whether the inmates participating in prison labor programs are those who are already less likely to reoffend and more likely to get and keep a job after prison — since they’re able and, in some cases, volunteering to work while they’re incarcerated. Some studies try to control for this, but it can never be fully ruled out.

There’s another benefit to the work: It gives people something to do. “A lot of inmates have told me, ‘Look, jobs make the time go faster, and we want to be productive,’” Crispino said. “One of the things that’s frustrating about being in prison and especially solitary confinement is the forced idleness.” (To that end, Crispino pointed out, strikes can actually make time in prison more dreadful, but inmates still say the protests are needed to voice discontent about what they see as abuses.)

But even if prison labor gives inmates something to do and improves their chances of reoffending and sustaining employment, there are still moral and ethical questions behind the practice. So the benefits may not justify paying prisoners pennies or nothing at all, but rather make a case for increasing the spending on these programs so everyone can participate and get at least minimum wage for their work.

Prison officials say they couldn’t afford to pay inmates more. They also argue there are other costs that have to be considered that make this labor particularly expensive, such as the chance of lockdowns and costs of security — meaning, they say, that prison labor will never be able to be treated like a regular job in the free world.

Still, for the prisoner, this setup certainly doesn’t feel like a fair deal. So many of them have taken to striking across the US.

Vox: America’s prisoners are going on strike in at least 17 states

Incarcerated Americans are often forced to work for cents an hour. So they’re launching what could be their biggest protest ever.

“America’s prisoners are going on strike.

The demonstrations are planned to take place from August 21 to September 9, which marks the anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. During this time, inmates across the US plan to refuse to work and, in some cases, refuse to eat to draw attention to poor prison conditions and what many view as exploitative labor practices in American correctional facilities.

“Prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told me. “Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at. So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

Prison labor issues recently received attention in California, where inmates have been voluntarily recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires — for the paltry pay of just $1 an hour plus $2 per day. But the practice of using prison inmates for cheap or free labor is fairly widespread in the US, due to an exemption in the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery but allows involuntary servitude as part of a punishment for a crime.

For Sawari and the inmates participating in the protests, the sometimes forced labor and poor pay is effectively “modern slavery.” That, along with poor prison conditions that inmates blame for a deadly South Carolina prison riot earlier this year, have led to protests.

For prisons, though, fixing the problems raised by the demonstrations will require money — something that cash-strapped state governments may not be willing to put up. That raises real questions about whether the inmates’ demands can or will be heard.

The demonstrations come two years after what was then the largest prison strike in US history, with protests breaking out in at least 12 states in 2016. The new demonstrations could end up even larger than those previous protests.

Protests are planned in at least 17 states

There’s no hard estimate for how many inmates and prisons are taking part in the protests, as organizers continue to recruit more and more inmates and word of mouth spreads. But demonstrations are expected across at least 17 states.

The inmates will take part in work strikes, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. They are also calling for boycotts against agencies and companies that benefit from prisons and prison labor.

“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” Sawari said. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

While 2016’s protests were largely planned for just September 9 (then the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising), they ended up taking part over weeks or months as prison officials tried to tamp down the demonstrations and mitigate the effects of the protests. This year, the protests are spread out over three weeks to make it more difficult for prison officials to crack down.

The inmates have outlined 10 national demands. They include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They also target federal laws that boosted mass incarceration and have made it harder for inmates to sue officials for potential rights violations. And they call for an end to racial disparities in the criminal justice system and an increase to rehabilitation programs in prisons.

The demands are on top of specific local and regional asks that prisoners are making. For example, Sawari said, in South Carolina they’re also focused on getting prisoners the right to vote — and, of course, improving conditions in the state that helped inspire this year’s protests.

The strikes are in part a response to South Carolina’s recent prison riots

One reason for this year’s demonstrations is the prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in April, which was described as a “mass casualty” event by state officials.

“After that violent incident happened, South Carolina prisoners and the jailhouse lawyers group out of Lee County came out with the strike demands and really wanted to do something to draw attention to the dehumanizing environment of prisons in general,” Sawari said.

In total, seven inmates were killed and at least 17 were seriously injured, according to the Associated Press. An inmate told the AP that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” claiming that prison guards did little to stop the violence between inmates. Most of the fatal injuries appeared to be a result of stabbing or slashing, although some inmates may have been beaten to death. No prison guards were hurt.

The riot was the worst in a US prison in a quarter-century, according to the AP.

Based on reports following the riot, it seems some of the major causes, besides personal and potentially gang-related disputes, were poor prison conditions and understaffing — which meant there weren’t enough guards to stop the fighting.

This appears to be part of a growing problem. An investigation by John Monk for the State, a South Carolina newspaper, found that the number of inmates killed in the state’s prisons “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.”

John Bacon and Tim Smith at USA Today in April reported on other incidents at Lee Correctional:

The prison, which opened 25 years ago and holds about 1,700 of some of South Carolina’s most violent offenders, is no stranger to violence. Three weeks ago, inmates overpowered a guard, holding him hostage and taking control of part of a dorm for about 90 minutes. The guard was released uninjured.

In February, one inmate fatally stabbed another. …

The prison is about 50 miles east of Columbia. The state capital is home to the Kirkland Correctional Institution, where four inmates were fatally strangled a year ago. One of the two inmates accused of the crime said he killed them so he would be moved to death row.

Violence is generally a big problem in US prisons. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Correctional Health Care, about 21 percent of male prison inmates during a six-month period are physically assaulted, and between 2 and 5 percent are sexually assaulted.

But the problem appears to be particularly acute in South Carolina facilities in recent years. One potential reason: understaffing. Lee County Coroner Larry Logan told the AP that most South Carolina prisons have struggled to find enough workers, indicating that understaffing is making it difficult to keep these places under control. South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling previously acknowledged the understaffing problem — and the dangers it causes — as well.

Sawari cited poor conditions in the prison as another cause of the riots. “Prisoners were placed in some really aggravated conditions,” she said. “They were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.”

For the state, a big problem is costs. Hiring more guards — and paying guards more to make the job more attractive to more people — costs money. So does improving prison conditions in general. All of that is cash that could be spent elsewhere.

For inmates, the situation poses a question: If South Carolina can’t properly staff its prisons and keep prisoners in safe, humane conditions, should so many people be locked up in the first place?

A big issue: prison labor exploitation

If there’s one issue inmate protesters are united on, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for cents an hour or even for free. This is allowed after the abolishment of slavery through the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Hundreds of thousands of inmates across the US have jobs — not just firefighting, but also more typical jobs like kitchen work, cleaning, and GED tutoring. Sometimes the jobs will take inmates outside of prison, although more frequently they merely mimic real-world jobs or involve menial chores that need to be done around the prison. The average pay in state prisons is 20 cents an hour, according to the Marshall Project.

During the 2016 prison strikes, protesters characterized the practice as modern slavery. And with black people disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-paid labor.

The 2018 protesters are taking a similar approach.

“Prison slavery exists,” Sawari argued. “The 13th Amendment didn’t abolish slavery. It wrote slavery into the Constitution. There’s a general knowledge that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but if you read it, there’s an exception clause in the abolishing of it. That’s really contradictory — that something would be abolished and there would be an exception to that.”

She pointed to companies that have taken advantage of prison labor in the past, including Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks — arguing they need to be called out for what amounts to, in some inmates’ view, exploitation.

Prison officials and other advocates argue, however, that prison labor can help inmates gain much-needed real-world working experience. Some research has backed this up: A study of federal prisoners found inmates who took part in UNICOR, the federal prison work program, were 24 percent less likely to reoffend and 14 percent more likely to be employed a year after their release. And a study of a Florida program found significant increases in employment after release, but no changes in inmates’ likelihood to reoffend.

These studies aren’t definitive proof, because they have serious selection bias issues. It’s difficult to know whether the inmates participating in prison labor programs are those who are already less likely to reoffend and more likely to get and keep a job after prison — since they’re able and, in some cases, volunteering to work while they’re incarcerated. Some studies try to control for this, but it can never be fully ruled out.

There’s also a moral argument against prison labor as it’s done today: Even if prison work helps some inmates, that doesn’t justify paying prisoners pennies or nothing at all. Under this view, if the prison work programs are beneficial, spending on them should be increased so everyone can participate and get more pay for their work.

Of course, these are also people in prison — a place they are in as punishment for their crimes. So why do they deserve to be paid a higher wage? Sawari countered that these inmates are still often the primary breadwinners for their families and expected to meet some financial obligations even before their release.

“Prisoners do like having the opportunity to earn, because they do have to support themselves financially in a lot of ways,” Sawari said. “Prisoners have to provide for their health care, their dental care. They have to buy food if they want to eat outside the three times a day most prisons serve. … They have to buy clothes like jackets and boots, hygiene products, cosmetics, books, study materials, paper, tape, scissors. Any little thing they need, they have to buy that. So they want to be able to.”

Prison officials say they couldn’t afford to pay inmates more. They point out that there are many extra costs tied to prison labor — such as the chance of lockdowns, security needs, and the costs of inmates’ housing, food, and health care. As California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Jeffrey Callison told me, “The per capita cost of one inmate in our prison system now exceeds $80,000.” Those are expenses employers in the free world don’t typically have to carry.

But for many inmates, the poor pay still feels unfair. So they’re protesting for three weeks.


New Yorker: Learning from the Slaughter in Attica

“Prisons are the bad conscience of the liberal imagination, a truth that tends to be most obvious to their most interested observers. Once, I got a letter from a death-row inmate in Texas, complaining that, in writing about incarceration, I had been insufficiently attentive to the French historian and theorist Michel Foucault. My correspondent seemed intimately familiar with Foucault’s argument that prisons are where the liberal state’s claim to superior humanity is at its most vulnerable. The eighteenth century’s pretensions to Enlightenment ended at the Tyburn scaffold, where wretches were publicly hanged for stealing a purse. The twentieth century’s pretensions to humanity end in mass incarceration and solitary confinement, where men are kept alive for years and subjected to procedural niceties while the state waits for the morning when it can paralyze and poison them. No “social contract” or “natural rights”: nothing but power relations, brutally enforced. We’re told that it is the sleep of reason that begets monsters, but what if reason, wide awake, is monstrous already?

Perhaps at some uneasy, half-conscious level, this sense that our moral self-definition is at stake when we talk about prisons explains why the riot at the Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, in September, 1971, remains imprinted in public memory. Having previously inspired a Morgan Freeman movie, it has now inspired a long, memorable chronicle, “Blood in the Water” (Pantheon), by Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan. Her book is dense with new information: much from survivors of the assault; much from assembled firsthand testimony, some of the most startling from recently released Nixon White House tapes. Though her sympathies are entirely with the prisoners, she extends humanity and individual witness to the guards, who were also, in their way, victims of the uprising and its suppression. And she extends the story past the killings: more than half the book is taken up with the exhausting but ultimately successful struggle, on the part of guards and inmates both, for compensation from the judicial system for their suffering.

As with so many academic historians, Thompson’s capacity for close observation and her honesty, which are impressive, are occasionally undermined by a desiccated political vocabulary that bears little relation to the reality of American life, then or now. Fifty years on, the glamour of sixties revolutionaries remains, while the messes they made seem forgotten. The Weather Underground, one of whose members, Sam Melville, was a leader in the Attica uprising and then died there, were not simply part of a “revolutionary organization committed to fighting racism and imperialism,” as she writes; they were violent, self-infatuated fools, who, as Hendrik Hertzberg wrote when they were at their height, in 1970, offered only “a huge, unearned windfall for the forces of repression.” Nor were the Black Panthers, whose co-founder, Bobby Seale, made a brief, insipid intervention at Attica, quite the virtuous militants her account suggests. Malevolently and homicidally persecuted though they were by the F.B.I., the Panthers had become, under Huey Newton, mindlessly cruel and misogynistic gangsters, capable of acts of torture and murder that still haunt the memory of those who witnessed them.

What happened at Attica in September, 1971? A series of accidents in a creakingly worn-out prison turned a modest petition for decency into a full-fledged takeover—one as surprising to the inmates as to anyone else—that, after four days, ended in a reprisal riot by guards and state police that left thirty-nine people dead. Attica was a hellhole. The largest industry in a forsaken and impoverished upstate town, it was a place where urban blacks were locked up in bathroom-size cells to be guarded by rural whites. Although Attica was a high-security prison, predating the great incarceration crisis of the next decades, the population was the usual mixture of small-time thieves and mid-level drug dealers, mixed in with a handful of violent offenders and some imports from earlier prison riots.

It wasn’t that conditions in the Depression-era prison were, by prison standards, uniquely horrible. It was that they were systematically horrible; procedures designed to instill a minimal humanity had been allowed to degrade in ways that made every day a trial. The medical care, for instance, was so bad that the civilian staff of one of the cell blocks tried to take action against the indifference of the long-term doctors, one of whom was responsible for a prisoner’s death. These employees “debated a couple of options, including picketing the doctor’s private practice,” Thompson writes. As in any prison, the conditions often depended on the individual character of the keepers. Many of the younger correctional officers were broadly sympathetic to the prisoners’ plight. The twenty-two-year-old Mike Smith, for instance, was shocked by the practice of strip-searching the convicts. “He was fairly certain that he would have considered suicide had he been forced to undergo this ritual,” Thompson tells us. In July of the fatal year, a prisoner named Don Noble led a group that, with Smith’s active approval, drew up a petition of protest, whose “demands” were, for the most part, piteously simple and human—changes like providing showers in hot weather.

Then, on the morning of September 9th, a company of prisoners, being led back to their cells, sleepless and uneasy over a rumor that a prisoner had been killed by guards the night before, found themselves locked in one of the tunnels that connected their cell block to “Times Square,” the bleak central yard. Attica’s security depended on an aging, easily overwhelmed set of mechanical locks and levers, of a kind that one sees in Alcatraz movies. Thinking they had been deliberately trapped in the crowded tunnel so that the guards—the “goon squad”—would be free to retaliate against some of their number, the prisoners quickly found that the gate keeping them out of the yard could be broken with a homemade battering ram. It was an act propelled more by panic than by premeditation. Within minutes, a chain reaction of improvised insurrections and parallel mishaps—the antiquated phones made it impossible for the overwhelmed guards to make more than one call at a time; other inmates came into possession of a set of master keys to the other cell blocks—allowed about twelve hundred inmates to take possession of Times Square and the D cell block and yard. The prisoners armed themselves with knives and clubs and, within an hour, were in control of the prison in which they had been confined in fear the night before.

What’s striking about the uprising is not the collisions of intractable ideological positions but, rather, the sheer confusion, missed opportunities, personal squabbles, and absurd procedural wrangles that governed it. The saddest irony is that the New York State Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, though later treated as one of the villains of the episode, was largely responsible for extending the occupation and allowing the prisoners the media megaphone that makes their voices still heard today. Oswald is a kind of caricature of the sixties liberal who infuriated conservatives (and often other liberals), someone so determined to do good that he can’t see past his own folly. He was a committed prison reformer—shortly after accepting the job, he had written a memo to Governor Rockefeller saying that having men locked “twelve or more hours a day in their cells is unacceptable to them and me.” And yet he managed, in four days, to enrage the inmates, exasperate his colleagues, and, probably, prevent the forces of order from taking back the prison when it still could have been done in a more or less orderly way. Since any imaginable modern state in any imaginable circumstance was always going to feel duty-bound to retake a prison after a mutiny, a forcible reconquest needed to be done either quickly or not at all: had it happened the next morning, when state troopers stood ready and the prisoners hadn’t yet dug in, it might have been much less violent. Trying to placate everyone, he only exacerbated everything.

Still, Oswald emerges as a genuinely tragic figure, a man of good will and integrity overcome by events. He had, Thompson says, rejected proposals to launch an assault, committing himself instead to talks with prisoners. He arranged for members of the press to come to D Yard and record the negotiations. It is odd to think that, with all the increase in media attention, we are actually far more media resistant now than we were then: no one would let a camera crew inside a yard during a prison hostage-taking today

The prisoners, meanwhile, tried to impose order using whatever small means they had, and, to an impressive degree, they succeeded. There were some genuine Hectors, reluctant heroes, who knew that taking part in a mutiny would be bad for their own long-term interests—i.e., getting out of jail—but who felt compelled to head off what threatened to become mere anarchic violence in the yard. One was Roger Champen, a former drug addict serving twenty years for armed robbery, who had managed to teach himself (and then other inmates) criminal law. At first, he wanted no part of the rebellion, but then, Thompson says, he “realized that order had to be established soon or else this situation was going to escalate into something scary.” Among the many ironies of Attica is that the spokesmen for the prisoners were often not the leaders of the uprising but those trying to minimize its costs to their fellows.

Nobody knew at the time that the worst and most paranoid elements in the national government were hysterically focussed on what was, after all, a small rebellion in a remote rural prison, one where the inmates had no guns and every conceivable long-term advantage lay with the authorities. The F.B.I., under the ever-crazier J. Edgar Hoover, worried that Oswald’s reluctance to order an assault meant that the State of New York had, in the words of an internal memo, “capitulated to the unreasonable demands of the prisoners,” the majority of whom, it took pains to note, “are black.” The Nixon White House, addicts of toughness as only timid men can be, became inflamed with the desire for a “tough” solution.

Thompson’s book demonstrates one thing for certain: no matter how badly you think of Richard Nixon, you have not thought badly enough. Here is the President of the United States, on the released tapes, muttering alcohol-fuelled racial imprecations to his yes-men. “You see, it’s the black business,” he says of Attica. And then, after the bloody end, confides, “I think this is going to have a hell of a salutary effect on future prison riots. . . . Just like Kent State”—where four protesting students were gunned down by the National Guard a year earlier—“had a hell of a salutary effect.” What got passed from White House to statehouse to the Big House was the Nixon Administration’s conviction that an insurgency was afoot, and that the Attica takeover was part of a large, well-organized movement toward armed rebellion. Why, given that the great majority of Americans were not merely hostile but vengeful toward the militants, Nixon and his followers came to believe that the country was on the brink of chaos is one of the mysteries of the period. (The most potent reflection of this belief lay in the Watergate affair, where the paranoia of the Nixon White House was so extreme that it launched a campaign of criminal sabotage and espionage against an opposition party already unpopular and divided.)

Inevitably, the paranoia of the powerful met the manic fantasies of the militants. Despite having neither a base nor a popular program, the militants indulged a revolutionary rhetoric of violence—Bernardine Dohrn actually endorsed the murders committed by the Manson family—and they should not have been surprised when the authorities took the rhetoric for reality. Most of the radicals took it for granted that their threat of armed revolution was no more serious than Mick Jagger’s dream of being a street-fighting man. For the prisoners, though, the rhetoric of sixties revolution rang with a special pathos, given the extremity of their situation, as when the inmate orator Herbert Blyden promised the other prisoners that “the world is hearing us! The world is seeing our struggle. . . . And we are the vanguard! . . . Standing here for all the oppressed peoples of the world.” It was still bravado, but in this case brave.

After the early violence—there were incidents of rape and even three murders among the prisoners—the inmates organized themselves into surprisingly efficient security and administrative units, with inmate members of the Nation of Islam essential to this enterprise. (They took specific responsibility for the welfare of the forty-two hostages.) The prisoners also asked, and Oswald quickly agreed, that a committee of “observers” be assembled to witness any negotiations and, presumably, endorse an agreement. This turned out to be the worst possible solution, since the observers, predictably, became the negotiating team, but one that lacked authority to negotiate, experience in negotiation, internal unity, or any procedure to follow. Though made up mainly of prominent radical names of the time, it included Tom Wicker, the Times columnist, apparently because he had written sympathetically about the activist George Jackson, shot dead in a California prison a month earlier.

To get a sense of what was at stake at Attica in fully realized detail, Wicker’s extraordinary account of his four days among the observers, “A Time to Die,” is indispensable. With its intermingling of personal confession and public significance, it is a real masterpiece of the first wave of the nonfiction novel, as good, in its more sober way, as Mailer’s “Armies of the Night.” Wicker turns himself into a character in the drama, seen from the outside as “Tom Wicker”: an archetypal Southern liberal, whose career, superficially in support of civil rights, has involved a steady resistance to racial fact. He becomes every decent liberal who is forced to confront the foundations of his own society—violence directed by whites against a black underclass. The drama of Attica becomes the culminating point in the protagonist’s experience of racial division, expressed with an unsparing detachment that the conventional first person might not have allowed.

In a searching and prescient passage, he suggests that at the heart of the rebellion and the violence it provoked was a whole history of diabolized “blackness.” White fear was the key: “White fear fixed itself upon the literal presence of black human beings. Black people, to whites, were the symbolic representation of the evil in man and thus were also the handy instruments by which white people could hold themselves symbolically innocent of that evil.” Wicker concludes, “The heart of the matter was the fear of blackness.” [cartoon id=”a20175″]

Negotiations tend to be remarkably consistent in form, whether the subject is Iranian nukes or prisoners’ rights. Both sides arrive with obviously ridiculous demands; the act of meeting marks the rejection of those demands but also shows that there is enough good will for a deal to be made; the shape of the agreement swiftly appears; and then, often, the two sides get trapped in tiny details pointing to the tribal instincts that brought the conflict on in the first place. Certainly the negotiations at Attica took this shape. After the clear nonstarters were off the table—in their first manifesto, the prisoners had asked for mass transportation to a “non-imperialistic” country—the potential deal at Attica was arrived at quite quickly: amnesty for the mutineers and a promise to look into their previous petition in exchange for an end to the uprising. But the meta issues of perception remained unsolved: both sides had to give; neither could be seen to fold. The authorities could not be seen to offer an amnesty, even if they were, in effect, offering an amnesty. They offered not to “initiate any criminal complaint . . . of any kind or nature relating to property.” In theory, this left the prisoners liable for crimes that didn’t relate to property, but, as all present believed, this could be taken as a merely linguistic distinction—“something close to amnesty without men like Oswald having to admit that it was amnesty,” as Wicker writes.

At that point, on the third day of the takeover, two bad things happened. One of the guards who had been injured in the original takeover died of his wounds; and the radical lawyer William Kunstler, one of the observers, let the prisoners know that this had happened, which persuaded them, probably wrongly, that any amnesty offer wouldn’t be honored. (A conviction for the killing, given the mob scene at the start, would have been perilously difficult to achieve—trying later, the state failed—and the authorities must have known this perfectly well.) At the same time, the outside pressure to storm the prison was growing, not only from the Rockefeller statehouse but from the families of the correction officers being held hostage. Wicker recalls how, trying to convey information about the hostages to their families and the press, he was, understandably, met by rage. “What about my son?” Steven Smith, the father of Mike Smith, who had been taken hostage in D Yard, said. “We have to go in and bring those people out. Wet-nursing those convicts won’t do it!”

During the night of September 12th, the authorities decided to act. Oswald, still convinced that he could have negotiated a settlement had it not been for the presence of “Maoists” imported from elsewhere in the prison system, drafted a final offer to be read to the prisoners in D Yard, deliberately “not phrased as an ultimatum,” Thompson notes, though that is what it was. The prisoners were not fully aware that the state had come to the end of the line, and, having no chance to act on that understanding, voted down Oswald’s offer (“If they had said, ‘Either release the hostages or we’re coming in shooting,’ ” one inmate observed afterward, the vote might have gone the other way.)

Then the prisoners, sensing a crisis, blindfolded several of the guards and forced them up onto the catwalks, knives visible at their throats. Wicker and Thompson both insist that the blindfolded guards were in little real danger, that the prisoners were bluffing, and that there was no way that they would, in fact, have murdered their hostages. Yet it wasn’t clear that the authorities could have known this, or, really, that the prisoners themselves could have known. To insist that it was mere theatre is to be more certain than anyone can be about how men with knives pressed to the throats of men they have long had reason to hate would act in extremis. Thompson does establish that, on the fateful catwalk, Mike Smith and Don Noble, the guard and the prisoner who had tacitly collaborated on the July petition, “made a solemn pact that if anything happened to either of them they would find the other’s family members and make sure they knew how much they were loved.”

There are sins of omission but there are also virtues of patience. Many of the wisest things we do, in life and in politics, are the things we don’t. Affairs not started, advice not given, distant lands left uninvaded—the null class of non-events is often more blessed than the enumerated class of actions, though less dramatic. One of the things that the Obama Administration gets too little credit for not doing is not intervening when militia types occupied a federal building in Oregon—even though it was a clear case of the government ceding to violent seditionists. It looked weak. But the powerful waited out the powerless, and the affair ended with minimal violence. Time, in such cases, is almost always on the side of the state. Avoiding Atticas and Wacos is not that hard when you are more worried about losing lives than about losing face.

The evidence suggests that neither Rockefeller nor Oswald anticipated that the retaking of the prison would be as brutal as it was—more brutal than anyone could have imagined. Just before ten in the morning, on September 13th, a National Guard helicopter dropped tear gas into the prison yard. Then some five hundred and fifty New York State Police troopers, augmented by more than two hundred sheriff’s deputies—and with the Attica correction officers unconscionably mixed in—entered the prison and mounted the catwalks. Armed with shotguns deliberately loaded with wide-arc buckshot and .270 rifles loaded with unjacketed bullets, of a kind banned by the Geneva Conventions, they started shooting, firing at everything they saw. “The bullets were coming like rain,” one hostage recalled.

The firing was at first mostly indiscriminate, striking hostages and inmates alike. Sometime afterward, it turned into a manhunt: the enraged correction officers and troopers sought out those whom they thought of as ringleaders and executed them. Several of the dead among the leaders were seen alive well after the prison had been retaken. Some were shot as many as twelve times, at close range. One prisoner, William Maynard, told Thompson about trying to carry his friend Jomo, who had been shot several times, to safety. A correction officer ordered him to stop and raise his hands. As Maynard struggled to do so, the officer shot him in his forearms. Then, Maynard recounts, he “loaded up his gun and shot Jomo six times right on top of me and kicked me in the face and says both the niggers are dead and went on.” Even the thirty-nine dead did not end the violence, as the guards forced the inmates to strip naked and then tortured them for most of the rest of the day and night. “Any prisoner who troopers or CO’s considered to be a leader was chalked across the back with a large white X,” Thompson writes. As each one was made to run a gantlet of clubs, the officers would call out, “You want your amnesty? Well, come and get it.” The vengeful officers played Russian roulette with the inmates, and then forced them to drink the guards’ urine. One inmate, Frank (Big Black) Smith, who had been visible in the uprising, lay wounded on a table for many hours, made to clutch a football beneath his chin, and warned that if it dropped he would be killed. When he was released, he collapsed and the guards battered him repeatedly in the groin and anal region as he pleaded for mercy. Mike Smith and Don Noble, hostage and mutineer, were both shot and severely wounded in the takeover, though both survived.

In a curious way, the psychology of the (almost exclusively white) troopers and guards, more than the ideology of the inmates, seems most haunting now, as part of the permanent picture of American fixations. The inmates were doing what anyone would do in their situation: having seen a protest turn unexpectedly into a revolt that was sure to be short-lived, they desperately improvised a way to keep their dignity and be heard, to avoid the worst punishment and get some small reforms. Their occasionally overblown rhetoric was the act of men who, stripped of dignity, try to reclaim it. But the troopers and guards retaking the prison were indulging an orgy of racist violence neither ordered nor wholly explicable. There was no need for them to conduct a massacre to reassert their authority. They had all the firepower; the prisoners were armed only with homemade knives; the guards had control of the yard within minutes. Nor were they, so far as anyone can detect, under direct commands to kill. In an American tale already known fully to Mark Twain, a white ethnic proletariat could distinguish itself as superior only by its ability to be brutal to a still more subordinate class of color. When its members were denied their exercise of this “right,” they turned crazy and violent.

In social terms, what separated the guards from the prisoners was simply skin color and a gun. But pure racial assertion seems to have burned alongside something still more visceral. The horror story repeated most urgently among troopers and guards to justify the violence was that the prisoners had castrated one of the hostages. (They hadn’t.) This phantasm of emasculation was at the heart of the violence. A vast insult had been made to their masculinity, and the only way to avenge it was to kill, shame, and torment the helpless.

Thompson devotes the second half of her book to the efforts of the surviving inmates—and, indeed, some of the surviving hostages—to use the courts to get some recompense for what had been allowed to happen. The system “worked” only late, and lamely, but it eventually recognized that a wrong had been done and damages were owed. Attempts by the state to blame the inmates for the massacre failed in the courts; Big Black Smith eventually got a settlement. It should be said that it took thirty years. It should also be said that, in the history of mankind, only liberal democracies have ever done such things—held conscientious post-hoc court proceedings in which the state arraigns itself for its own injustices. The Tiananmen Square protesters are still waiting for their day in court, much less their recompense.

The uprising at Attica was, in the not very long run, one of the things that stopped prison reform dead in its tracks. The fear that Attica generated among prison administrators and the American public pointed the way to the supermax and permanent solitary, emboldening the most reactionary forces in the government to begin the program of mass incarceration that remains the moral scandal of our country. Prison reform doesn’t happen in response to violence in prisons. It happens in response to awakened consciences about the violence of imprisonment.

In broadly democratic countries, violence frightens the “masses” as they really are—i.e., the majority of citizens—much faster than reformers can persuade them to change. Nonviolent episodes of protest are extraordinarily efficient in creating social change in democratic states; violent episodes undo the good work of change with astonishing rapidity. As the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow has shown, in an important new empirical study, the spectacle of urban violence probably did get Richard Nixon elected. (“In public opinion polls between 1950 and 1980, a majority of subjects identified ‘civil rights’ as the most important problem facing America at the same time that nonviolent black protest activity peaked,” he observes, “and, likewise, responded with ‘law and order’ when black-led violent protests were most active.”)

Impassioned liberals are not “centrists.” They are the radicals of reality, who believe in reason and reform not because they are too timid for revolution but because they are too ambitious for change. The notion that you need both a violent wing and a moderate one to bring about social change is the truly timid, “centrist” argument, designed to appease all the forces on “your” side rather than confront the facts about what works and what does not. We have seen in recent weeks how isolated anti-police incidents can, among the easily panicked, obliterate the memory of decades of dwindling violent crime. The panicked people will almost always be the majority—they are, in effect, the guards and their families, waiting outside the prison—and we cannot rhetoric them away. The Rockefellers, the “one per cent,” may indeed be served by fear and panic, but they are served because there are fifty-one per cent ready to let panic persuade them.

Evil exists. Prisons, punishment, segregation, exile: even the most enlightened state needs some way of sorting the truly dangerous from the sadly criminal and the sadly criminal from the merely unlucky. I eventually discovered that the erudite inmate who arraigned me for not attending to my Foucault had committed the most horrible crime of which I ever hope to hear. (In the midst of a custody battle with his estranged wife, he called her on the phone, had her hold the line, and then murdered their two daughters while she listened and they pleaded.) No sane society can survive if the state, however fair, however free, cannot enforce order and hold a monopoly on legitimate violence.

Prisons are the bad conscience of the liberal imagination not because they show the true, oppressive face of the liberal state but because they expose how fragile liberal proceduralism can be. The liberal democratic state sublimates revenge, just as it does heroism and altruism, into the integrity of institutions. No one is expected to be Jesus; no one is asked to be. If you do your job—at the D.M.V. or as a C.O. or a pfc.—equity and fairness are, achingly, protected. These institutional safeguards seem robust when they are in place, so much so that we mock them as “bureaucracy.” When the institutional integrity breaks down, catastrophes happen. Almost unknown to themselves, the inmates at Attica had heartbreaking, unstated confidence in the integrity of the institution: they knew that they would lose, and that they would have to go back to their cells, but they never thought that the officers of the state would come in with shotguns and explosive bullets to kill as many of them as they could. The line from the politician Herman Badillo that Wicker took for his title, “A time to die,” became unsought prophesy.

At moments of crisis, the integrity of our institutions turns out to depend, to an alarming degree, on the fragile integrity of individuals. Prisons are our vulnerable point because they reveal, under pressure, that procedures designed to insure justice have to be constantly reanimated by human will. The strangest and most gruesome scene in Thompson’s book is among the most heroic. On the day after the killings, the local medical examiners, John Edland and Richard Abbott, overworked at the best of times, had the nightmarish task of autopsying the bodies of dead inmates and hostages alike. They had directions, more or less explicit, to stick with the official story and tell the set tale—that the inmates, in a maximally brutal fashion, had killed the hostages. And yet they did their job. At 3 p.m., Edland stepped forward and told the world the truth: that all the dead had been killed by the gunfire of the advancing troopers and guards. It is an act of historical imagination to have recovered their unostentatious courage. It also requires, for us to see such acts as heroic, getting past the language of masculinity and assertion that had entrapped both the prisoners who took hostages and then the guards who would kill them. To call men of smaller official obligations, carried out in the face of intimidation, heroes is, perhaps, to change the meaning of what we mean by heroism. It may be time for that, too. ”

The Guardian: New Attica documents reveal inmate accounts of torture after 1971 prison riot

Newly unsealed documents about the retaking of New York’s Attica prison in the aftermath of a 1971 riot reveal witness and inmate accounts of torture, burns and sexual abuse by prison officials.

Police and guards regained control of the prison on 13 September 1971, ending a five-day riot that left 43 inmates, officers and civilians dead.

The documents, released on Thursday after a two-year appeal by the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, amount to 46 pages of a multi-volume 1975 report by Judge Bernard Meyer, who was appointed to investigate whether there was a cover-up of what happened at the prison.

In the unsealed documents, Meyer wrote that investigators failed to interview people who could have described horrific abuses, and who could have identified the perpetrators if they had been contacted promptly. Abuses continued against inmates, witnesses said, after police and guards regained control.

“Today, we are shining new light on one of the darkest chapters of our history,” said Marty Mack, executive deputy attorney general. “We hope that, with the release of the Meyer report, we can bring the families of Attica uprising victims closer to closure and help future generations of Americans learn from this tragic event.”

According to Meyer, one national guardsman who helped treat inmates after the riot “saw stretchers deliberately tilted, saw guards beat inmates on medical carts with clubs, saw a prison doctor pull an inmate off a cart and kick him in the stomach”.

The soldier witnessed “inmates beaten while running a gauntlet” and also heard a civilian refuse to allow a national guard field hospital on prison grounds. Federal investigators never tried to contact the man, Meyers wrote.

James Watson, another national guardsman, said he saw inmates beaten on stretchers, “poked in the groin and rectum with nightsticks, [and] beaten while running through gauntlets”. Watson said on one occasion he saw an inmate beaten by seven prison officers.

Robert Jenks, a staff physician at a nearby hospital, reported seeing “an inmate with large wounds around his rectum which were not from gunshot and which, he later heard, had been caused by a broken bottle”. Jenks said he was refused permission to evacuate “an inmate who had suffered severe brain damage” and saw people with untreated fractures and who had not received blood transfusions.

Inmates also reported brutality, even as some faced criminal charges for their part in the riots. The documents include the account of inmate Jacques Roberts, who said that he was “beaten with clubs” and forced to run a gauntlet, during which his teeth were knocked out and he was “beaten with rifle butts while lying prone”.

Then a shot went off in the yard, and Roberts said he heard “an officer in an orange raincoat [say] ‘[He] ain’t dead yet’,” using a racial slur. Roberts said he had “a lit cigarette shoved by a trooper into his rectum”, a finger broken during a second gauntlet, and that troopers subsequently assaulted him in the hospital.

Attica state prison in September 1971. Photograph: AP

Inmates Frank Lott and Roger Champen also described beatings, being marked with Xs and having matches thrown at them.

Clarence Jones, co-chair of the investigatory Goldman Panel, also reported seeing numerous injuries on inmates, including cigarette burns. The panel told the police that they believed there had been “post-riot brutality”, but Meyers notes that investigators’ primary concerns were with what happened before the riot.

In some cases, as with the account of a US army observer, entire testimonies remain redacted.

Former prisoners and their families have alleged abuses by prison guards; overcrowding, poor living conditions and guard brutality have been cited as some of the reasons for prisoners revolting with clubs and knives and threatening to kill hostages. Meyer noted that while 62 prisoners were indicted for their roles in the riot, only one state trooper was indicted for his actions, and that the grand jury declined to indict four others.

Prisoners killed three inmates and one guard during the riot and subsequent siege. Police and guards shot dead 29 inmates and 10 hostages as they retook the prison.

Meyer also noted that reports of the panel members did not reach the investigation until as long as four years afterward.

Meyer concluded that there was no “intentional cover-up”, but wrote that serious errors, omissions and delays tainted the investigation: “The decision to conduct the investigation sequentially or chronologically rather than topically was a serious error of judgment.”

His findings have been public for decades, but the hundreds of pages of factual evidence he used remain sealed in two other volumes of the report. Of particular concern to Meyer was whether investigators had a conflict of interest as they interviewed inmates, who might face criminal charges over the riot, about what guards did afterwards.

Michael Smith, a corrections officer taken hostage in the riot and shot when the prison was stormed by police, told the Associated Press a huge amount of information was still being suppressed.

“The truth will all come out someday but I don’t know if anybody’s going to be alive who was involved in the event,” he said.

Schneiderman originally attempted to have the entire report unsealed, redacting the names of grand jury witnesses, but a New York court declined to release the full findings. In 2000, the state settled a lawsuit brought by 1,280 inmates for $8m.

“Attica is not going to go away until the whole truth of it is told,” Jonathan Gradess, an attorney who has assisted a group called the Forgotten Victims of Attica, told the Democrat and Chronicle. “The whole truth is going to be every line on every piece of paper.”


Learn More

The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?

How Prison Labor is the New American Slavery and Most of Us Unknowingly Support it

Atlantic: American Slavery, Reinvented

The Intercept: The Largest Prison Strike in U.S. History Enters Its Second Week

The Guardian: Inmates strike in prisons nationwide over ‘slave labor’ working conditions

NPR: Pa. Judge Sentenced To 28 Years In Massive Juvenile Justice Bribery Scandal

Washington Post: DOJ to End Private Prisons?

Time: Jeff Sessions Reverses Government’s Stance on Private Prison Use

Washington Post: DOJ to End Private Prisons?

Business Insider: 11 facts about private prisons

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Private Prisons

Daily Beast: Detainees Sue Private Prison for ‘Forced Labor’

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Campaign kicks off to remove “slavery” from the Colorado constitution

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History of Bail Bonds

Vera: From Bondage to Bail Bonds: Putting a Price on Freedom in New Orleans

Putting a Price on People’s Freedom

Bail in Louisiana was once a system that enforced a constitutional right to be free after arrest and before a determination of guilt or innocence. Over time, it has been transformed into a money bail system in which that freedom is conditioned on the ability to pay money up front. What was originally designed as a right to pretrial freedom has become a means of control and extracting money from people who are arrested, and jailing those who cannot pay.

The money bail system takes $6.4 million from New Orleans families each year, with over $1 million going to the court, $227,000 to each of three other agencies (the sheriff, district attorney, and public defender offices), and $4.7 million to commercial bail bond companies.¹ For those whose families cannot afford to pay the price of pretrial freedom, the non-financial costs are even greater. Many poor and low-income people stay in jail until their cases are resolved, regardless of the seriousness of the charges or the likely outcome of the case. In fact, most arrests and detention do not lead to a conviction with a sentence of incarceration; most plead guilty and are sentenced to probation or to the time they’ve already served before conviction. As a result, the only incarceration most people end up serving is the pretrial detention they suffer because of the requirement that they pay to gain their freedom, despite being legally innocent. Once their cases are resolved, most are released.²

The length of this money-based detention can be devastating. Those who cannot afford to pay bail stay in jail nearly four months while facing a felony charge and nearly one month for a municipal or state misdemeanor charge until their case is resolved. Even those who were able to pay bail were jailed an average of 11 days for a felony and three days for a misdemeanor before being freed.³ More than 500 people were in jail on any given day in 2015 for no other reason than that they could not afford to pay cash or purchase a bail bond.⁴ There are also enormous costs to the city’s taxpayers, who pay more than $6 million each year to subsidize the cost of unnecessarily jailing these 500 people.⁵

People who are arrested in New Orleans are often poor — 85 percent are too poor to hire a lawyer.⁶ They are also disproportionately black; black people are arrested at two and a half times the rate of white people.⁷

Fully 84 percent of the $6.3 million paid in money bail is paid by black people.⁸

Worse yet, black people are less likely to be able to pay the price set for their freedom; average income for black households is $25,324 while for white households it is $67,884.⁹ Consequently, most of the people in the jail — 87 percent — are black. The money bail system intrinsically harms those least able to afford it, whether by extracting scarce dollars or jailing those with insufficient dollars to pay. Black people, whether subject to implicit biases or by virtue of being economically disadvantaged, suffer the greatest harm.¹⁰

New Orleans has led all U.S. cities in jailing its people.¹¹ Why does a majority-black city pursue policies and practices that lead to the jailing of black people at starkly higher rates than people of other races? Why does this city — 300 years old, half of that post-emancipation — continue to exact the heavy human toll of conditioning freedom on the ability to pay the price set? One place to look for answers is in the historical practices of exploitation of people of color, driven or sanctioned by the state, that trade on the fiction of black dangerousness and criminality to extract revenue and exert control.

This essay examines the extent to which money bail in New Orleans is a descendant of slavery and subsequent practices of racial exploitation. It describes bail and related practices across the city’s 300-year history, identifying echoes in the present-day regime of money bail. It then explains the processes and costs of modern money bail. Finally, it presents some ways in which the city has been moving to a less harmful criminal legal system and offers models from jurisdictions that have rejected money-based detention as inconsistent with the core principle of innocent until proven guilty.

The Antecedents of Money Bail in New Orleans

Tracing the history of money bail requires that one examine the connections between money and notions of risk, alongside institutions that ensured freedom for some and degrees of unfreedom and bondage for others. The modern day system of money bail in New Orleans has roots in the city’s history as a center of the slave economy. Although the legal right to bail was not originally intended to apply to enslaved people, the institution of slavery shaped the financial relationship between the city’s property owners and the use of jail, eroded the presumption of innocence, and created a market for man-hunting. Slaveholders developed a set of ideas about black people as inherently dangerous and criminal that, while changing over time, remained disturbingly durable.¹²

In colonial and antebellum Louisiana, bail worked as a mechanism to ensure pretrial freedom for propertied white men. The city of New Orleans was shaped by the distinctive overlapping of French and Spanish civil law and British common law traditions.¹³ By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the formal right to be “admitted to bail” was a core principle of English common law, and had been recently codified in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.¹⁴ Indeed, when President Thomas Jefferson instructed Governor William C. Claiborne to establish the Court of Pleas in New Orleans in 1804, a right to pretrial freedom was enshrined in state constitutions and in laws governing the territories.¹⁵ The rules of those first courts provided that defendants be “set at large” by giving “good and sufficient security.”¹⁶ But that security did not necessarily have to come in the form of an upfront payment.

The earliest Louisiana Constitution (1812) provided a right to bail, understood as release on a promise to pay if one did not return to face charges.¹⁷ The required security generally was the signature of a property owner who acted as personal surety. As Edward Livingston, Louisiana’s foremost nineteenth century legal thinker, put it: “As it would be oppressive in most cases to deprive the accused of his liberty before trial, if he can give sufficient pledge for his appearance at the trial, the law restores him his liberty on his giving such a pledge. This pledge is called bail.”¹⁸ Such a pledge was formalized when the person being detained and the person acting as surety signed a “recognizance” promising to appear in court. “When bail is given,” Livingston reasoned, “the prisoner must be discharged without extracting from him the payment of any fees.” The amount of bail, however, “must not render the privilege useless to the poor,” he concluded. Poor white people were generally required to be released on bail without paying money so long as the person acting as surety was a holder of property in an amount double the sum he was posting as security.¹⁹

The antebellum system of bail was distinctively shaped by slavery. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Louisiana, enslaved people not only performed the labor that built massive fortunes, but were used as financial instruments: bought, sold, and mortgaged. In New Orleans, the value of enslaved people was capital, the collateral and security upon which much of the local, national, and global economy depended.²⁰ The slave economy bred fear of rebellion among those who depended on it, which gave rise to financial markets based in white fear. Private citizens made money, for instance, from capturing, accusing, and eventually returning enslaved people to slaveholders. Indeed,

slave patrols and bounty hunters were deputized to perform police functions, such as stopping, searching, seizing, and detaining anyone they suspected might be a fugitive.

These private agents worked together with local police and federal marshals who enforced the Fugitive Slave Act when alleged runaways crossed state lines.²¹

Over time, the relationship between slaveholders and the use of the jail in New Orleans became entrenched. Because slave owners could have slaves detained for “safe keeping,” money changed hands when certain people, for whatever reason, were deemed suspect or potentially dangerous. The police brought enslaved people to jailors who collected money as a condition of returning them to slaveholders. The officer collecting these “discharge fees” deposited the money with the city Treasurer.²² Those who were not claimed within three days were forced to do manual labor on public works until their owner paid to get them back. By using discharge fees and forcing enslaved people held in the jail to work, the city extracted value as a form of punishment and as payment for police involvement in slave-catching.

List of Slaves remaining in the Police Jail, 1846. Xavier University of Louisiana, Archives and Special Collections, Charles Heartman Manuscripts of Slavery Digital Collection.

In a world that already put a price on human beings, it was a short step to normalize monetary payment as a condition of release. The development of money bail was linked to the legal and financial instruments of slavery. The institution of slavery shaped the concept of bail beyond its original meaning as a source of pretrial freedom for propertied white men. It built a financial market based on white fear, empowered private actors to capture people alleged to be criminal, and eroded the presumption of innocence.


After the Civil War, the meaning of bail became contested in new ways as formerly enslaved men gained political rights. During Reconstruction, black politicians pushed for racial equity in defining the right to bail.²³ The 1868 state constitution resolved that all persons of every race and color, without regard to previous condition, shall have the same rights and be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties. While maintaining the original right to bail with sufficient sureties of the 1812 Constitution, it laid out, as in the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, that excessive bail shall not be required. Every person is entitled to the “remedy of the law,” wrote members of the convention, “he ought to obtain justice freely and without being obliged to purchase it.”²⁴

Despite legislators’ intention to use the new state constitution’s bill of rights to ensure racial equity in the use of bail, it was soon ap­plied according to a racial double standard as white supremacists fought to control how justice would be administered in parish courts. When black Union Army veteran Jacob Burgest was arrested for opposing a white Vigilance Committee in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1866, the local judge set his bail at $150. When a friend came to bail out Burgest, however, the Sheriff would not accept him as a per­sonal surety, tripled the amount, and required upfront payment instead. In an open letter to the newspaper, Burgest decried the judge’s actions, lamenting the way the law was being “administered wholly in the interest of the white man and the colored people have no justice whatsoever.”²⁵ At the same time, federal authorities, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau, were outraged at the way bail was used to ensure detention for black people while being used to release certain white men. In the records documenting white killings of black people in towns across Louisiana, for example, Freedmen’s Bureau officials were shocked that white men who admitted to the murders were released on low bail.²⁶

Following the end of Reconstruction, white politicians across the South enacted a host of racially-targeted laws aimed at re-enslaving black people through the convict leasing system.²⁷ Black-owned newspapers were especially attuned to how money bail was used unfairly to detain people of color. Some papers ran daily columns that publicly listed bail amounts set by the courts, in order to provide some measure of public accountability. Eyeing changes in the criminal justice system across the South, the Weekly Louisianan ran a story denouncing an inmate leasing bill in Texas that would make anyone who was arrested work before their trial.

“On the surface it makes no discrimination between blacks and whites,” the article explained, yet “is clearly intended to operate against blacks.”

The right to bail was supposed to protect black people from being arrested for some “trifling offense,” detained, and immediately hired out to their former owners until trial. In contrast, the Texas bill, like others pushed by white racist “Redeemer” politicians in Southern states, would “bring the negro into bondage … by keeping him in debt,” the article concluded. As with this attempt to generate revenue from pretrial detention — the period a person is jailed between arrest and trial — many aspects of the criminal legal system were being used to extract value from the formerly enslaved: “It is a shrewd device of the ex-slaveholders to get compensation for the loss of their slaves.”²⁸

During the convict leasing era, the power of bail sureties grew to mirror the power of slave catchers. In the 1872 case of Taylor vs. Taintor, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that sureties may seize and deliver up a bailed person and, “if that cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another State; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose.”²⁹ Sureties could exercise these powers through agents, known as bounty hunters, continuing the commerce begun with slave hunting. By this time in the nineteenth century, the shift from personal guarantees to money bail set the United States on course to be the only common law country in the world to employ a system of commercial bail bonding.³⁰


During the long Civil Rights era, predatory arrests and abuses of pretrial detention again became a flashpoint in struggles for racial equality and justice. As black activists had before them, members of New Orleans’ civil rights groups called out the use of jail deten­tion as the continuation of past oppression and violence. According to leaders like Ronnie Moore, Louisiana’s field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality, the arrests, beatings, and court trials that characterized southern “justice” amounted to little more than legal lynching.³¹

For many activists and organizers in the 1960s and 1970s, bail reform was seen as important to the push for justice. Policy makers and government actors also recognized the need for reform. The Release on Recognizance program launched in 1968, for example, sought to counteract inequities in people’s ability to purchase their constitutional right to pretrial freedom. Endorsed by all of the Criminal District Court judges, the program was given an office in the jail and tasked with reviewing all charges and making recommendations to the magistrates as to which people arrested should be released without being made to pay money.³²

However, in New Orleans and around the country, the fight for criminal justice reform faced more durable opposition than the push for equal political rights.³³ After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a political consensus emerged during the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty” to encourage local police forces, by providing block grants and military style equipment, to root out anything they feared might turn into urban rebellion.³⁴

The over-use of policing, like the justifications for keeping people locked up before their trial, continued to be fueled by racist myths about black people as inherently dangerous and criminal.

With the surge in hyper incarceration beginning in the 1970’s, bail bondsmen and government agencies reaped ever-increasing profit from a market not unlike its historic predecessors, one that routinely set a price for freedom and traded on imaginary fears of black criminality. State bail laws and practices, described below, further widened the floodgates to local mass jailing. As civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson put it: “Though it was the most insidious engine of the subordination of black people throughout the era of racial terror and its aftermath, the criminal justice system remains the institution in American life least affected by the civil rights movement.”³⁵

Hank Willis Thomas’s bronze statue “Raise Up” at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Photo: Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures.
Plaque below Hank Willis Thomas’s bronze statue “Raise Up” at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Photo: Benjamin Weber. See also, Reckoning with America’s History of Lynching and Racial Terrorism.

The Modern Money Bail System in New Orleans

The intent to re-define bail as a tool to extract money for government entities and the commercial bail bond industry, with jail as the leverage, is evident in current law.


Louisiana statutes mandate that judges set a monetary bail amount for every charge the police officer cites when arresting a person.³⁶ Judges are explicitly barred from releasing people without their paying up front to purchase their freedom for a range of offenses that cover more than half of people arrested for a felony in New Orleans.³⁷ Even when not barred, judges generally require payment. Re­gardless of the reason, when made to pay up front, the statutes require that a person either pay 100 percent of the total bail amount in cash or purchase a commercial bail bond for the state-mandated “premium” of 12 percent of the bail amount.³⁸ The 100 percent cash bail is refundable. The commercial bail bond premium is not. Most people can only afford to pay the non-refundable 12 percent, if they can pay bail at all. Ninety-seven percent of people arrested for a felony charge and 69 percent for a misdemeanor who are able to pay bail do so by purchasing a commercial bail bond.³⁹ The current legislative scheme drives a revenue stream from defendants and their friends and families to commercial bail bondsmen and government agencies.

Unlike when paying cash bail, 3 percent of the 12 percent the bail bondsman charges is passed on to the court, the sheriff, the district attorney, and the public defender (the bondsman retains the other 9 percent).⁴⁰ State law also singles out the court in Orleans Parish as a special beneficiary of the money bail system. Fully 1.8 percent of the aggregate bail amount goes to the court in New Orleans, more than three times greater than to the courts in other parishes in the state.⁴¹ The neutrality required of the court to make appropriate decisions about defendants’ pretrial freedom is regularly challenged by this financial conflict of interest.⁴²

Beyond limiting defendants’ freedom and costing them money, these revenue streams present an obstacle to reforming the system.

Because the legislature has built a system that benefits powerful government and commercial institutions, the money bail system is entrenched. This perpetuates the harm to those subject to the system and, indeed, to all taxpayers, who must pay for the unnecessary incarceration that results.


This money bail system uses jail to coerce payment to government and for-profit bail bondsmen. Black New Orleanians bear the great bulk of the burdens of over-incarceration and wealth extraction. Black people make up more than 80 percent of those who are incarcerated for their inability to pay bail and pay 84 percent of all the money paid in bail and bail fees to bondsmen and government agencies.⁴³ Given the city’s history of slavery and race-based economic exploitation (including through policing and jailing), it is easy to see connections between past and present.

Money bail ensnares people in a system in which one’s freedom hangs on the ability to pay and removes people who are important to their families and communities. The money paid to secure a person’s freedom is not available for other essentials, thus over-burdening family and community support structures. Those who can’t pay, or stay in jail even a few days before they can gather the money, are put at increased risk of losing their employment and housing and of being re-arrested than if they had not been detained.44 They are subject to the degradation, violence, and trauma (including serious physical injury and death), of New Orleans’ jail — a jail in which conditions fall below bare constitutional standards.⁴⁵ Indeed, even when people purchase their freedom through a commercial bail bond they live in fear because the bondsman has the power to seize and surrender them at will.⁴⁶

The centuries-old right to release on bail was turned on its head and replaced with a system that conditions release on the upfront payment of money bail, funding the system on the backs of poor New Orleanians, most of whom are black. But, it’s not only the people who are arrested and their friends and families who pay the cost; every taxpayer pays to subsidize this money bail system.

The excess incarceration caused by jailing those who cannot pay money bail costs the city more than $6 million each year.

That taxpayer money is spent unnecessarily — in fact, harmfully — and is not available to be used on efforts to promote community safety and prosperity.

Notably, money bail is part of an even broader systemic problem that links freedom with the ability to pay and disproportionately harms black and low-income people. Government agencies extract money from defendants and their families at multiple points, for example by charging to apply for a public defender, to make a phone call from the jail, for drug testing as a condition of pretrial release, for services supporting diversion from prosecution, for numerous fees tied to a criminal conviction, for working in a prison work-release program, and for being on probation or parole. These fees force an enormous transfer of wealth from struggling communities to criminal justice agencies and commercial bondsmen and, as with money bail, lead to unnecessary incarceration.

The Maintenance and Jail Fees of Parish Prisoners, 1820” Xavier University of Louisiana, Archives and Special Collections, Charles F. Heartman Manuscripts of Slavery Digital Collection.

Toward a Society where Freedom is Free

It is possible for New Orleans to have a system of pretrial release and detention that promotes both community safety and the commitment to freedom for people who are presumed innocent and does so in a way that does not target poor black people. It cannot be done, however, under a system of money bail.


Before turning to the future, it is important to recognize that progress has been made to move away from money bail as the determinant of pretrial release or detention in New Orleans. First, the city has adopted a system that provides research-based, objective information to guide judges’ decision-making at the initial detention/release hearing within 24 hours of arrest. The pretrial services program, begun in 2011, provides an assessment of the likelihood of pretrial success (appearing in court and not being re-arrested while on release) of everyone arrested for a felony charge. And it offers supervisory services as an alternative to money-based release or detention for those whom judges determine need support to successfully return to court or not be re-arrested. This is an important step toward the ultimate goal of ensuring that everyone enjoys the same right to pretrial freedom regardless of their ability to pay.

Second, beginning in 2016, the Landrieu administration, in partnership with the city’s criminal justice agencies, embraced the Safety and Justice Challenge to reduce the use of jail incarceration and to reduce racial disparities in its system of detention.⁴⁷ One of the Challenge’s initiatives is the adoption of a new pretrial decision-making framework that is intended to avoid using money as the determinant of pretrial release or detention. That framework will guide the application of a new risk-assessment tool that distinguishes projected risk of re-arrest from that of not appearing in court, and that is designed to minimize the inherent racial disparities of pretrial risk assessments that rely on factors such as prior convictions.⁴⁸ Through another initiative, the judges have committed to maximize their use of release on recognizance for all arrested people who are assessed in the lowest two of four risk levels, an application of risk assessment that is explicitly directed at reducing money-based detention and its accompanying racial disparities. Similar to the original concept of bail,

release on recognizance in Louisiana is essentially an unsecured personal bond, a promise to pay if the person fails to meet the conditions of release.

It requires no payment up front, and none at all if one meets the conditions of release.

Finally, in early 2017, the City Council responded to calls by community and policy leaders for a new approach to bail that bars the use of money-based pretrial detention in the Municipal Court, a significant step in moving away from money bail altogether.⁴⁹ The Council enacted an ordinance directing the Municipal Court to establish a bail schedule that does not use money as a factor, instead requiring the Sheriff’s office to release most people immediately upon being booked into the jail with a directive to appear in court on their own volition. Only people who have been arrested for the five offenses deemed most serious are to be detained until they are brought be­fore a judge within 24 hours. At that point, the ordinance directs that no pretrial defendants “after the initial appearance hearing, shall be detained only because they do not have enough money to post bond.”⁵⁰

These achievements lay a good path to a better future. But, money bail and its stark racially disparate impacts continue to dominate. What would that better future look like if New Orleans summoned the will to reach for it?


It starts with a return to the principle of innocent until proven guilty, made real through a presumption of pretrial freedom. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited excep­tion.”⁵¹ No one should be caught in that carefully limited exception simply because they do not have the means to pay for the liberty to which they are entitled. This echoes Livingston’s point that, “When bail is given, the prisoner must be discharged without extracting from him the payment of any fees.”⁵² New Orleans could commit to a pretrial detention and release system that focuses on keeping communities safe, not jailing people because they are poor. Detaining those who are poor and releasing those who can pay does not make New Orleans communities safe. Rather, it is inherently unfair and divides communities along lines of class and race.

As the city commemorates its 300th year of existence, it has the opportunity to take stock of this unfair practice and stop putting a price on the freedom of its people.

This will require that government actors stop using the justice system to extract money from the families and friends of people who are arrested, detained, and convicted of crimes. To do so requires that all aspects of the user-funded justice system be replaced with a sta­ble revenue stream toward which all New Orleanians contribute. New Orleanians then could hold their elected officials accountable for supporting a system that provides rather than impedes justice, from how police and prosecutors are deployed to how the courts and jail function.

New Orleans would not be the first to do away with money-based detention; it has models to follow. Money-based detention has been unlawful in the entire federal criminal justice system for decades and Washington, D.C. has long followed that approach. In both, money bail may be set but may not result in detention. More recently, New Mexico adopted a state constitutional amendment barring money-based detention following a ruling of its supreme court. New Jersey enacted statutes and court rules that prioritize all other alternatives to upfront payment of money bail as a means of ensuring return to court and avoiding re-arrest. California, Connecticut, and New York are moving in similar directions. And, four states outlaw commercial bail bonds as a form of money bail.⁵³ Nor should New Orleans be bound by other models. It could grow its own participatory process for imagining alternatives to the costly money bail system. New Orleans could go from being a national leader in jail incarceration to being a leader in a growing movement away from money-based detention and the race-based harms that result.


The city’s tricentennial offers an opportunity to examine history, reflect on where we stand, and commit to a better future. It is an opportunity to confront systems that produce harmful racially disparate outcomes, systems grounded in the city’s history of racial exploitation and poor investment of public dollars, and to lift up rather than hold down those among us who are struggling. We can make a complete break from practices rooted in past abuses — especially practices carried out by government in the people’s name — that put a price on the freedom of human beings.

Vera: Beyond Money Bail

“As momentum to end the use of money bail continues to mount across the country our co-authored report, From Bondage to Bail Bonds: Putting a Price on Freedom in New Orleans, asks what we can learn from the past to inform alternatives to money bail now and in the future.

The foundational right to pretrial liberty hasn’t changed. We know that people deserve to be presumed innocent until they are proven guilty. Yet, because of the money bail system, it has become a right reserved only for those who can afford to purchase their freedom. As our report shows, however, bail did not always mean a set amount of money. In most circumstances, it was simply a pledge to return to court.

In New Orleans–and across the country–the institution of slavery cast a long shadow over the development of money bail. Slavery created entire financial markets based on fear arising from racist fictions about black people as inherently dangerous and criminal. The private industry of man-hunting, for instance, grew because there was money to be made from capturing and jailing black people who were alleged to be fugitives, called dangerous, or appeared out of place. The city’s archival records show that profits flowed to government and private actors when enslaved people were booked and released, hired out, or caged for “safe-keeping.”

In short, slavery eroded the presumption of innocence for whole swaths of people, created a bad set of financial incentives around the use of jail, delegated police powers to slave patrols and bounty hunters, and normalized paying money in exchange for human freedom.

Just as the impact of slavery on money bail extended across state lines far beyond the South, myths about black criminality carried forward in time. During the Convict Leasing and Jim Crow eras, the “condemnation of blackness” not only appeared in racial stereotypes, overt anti-black laws, and racial terror lynchings, but was embedded in the very fabric of social scientific discourse, in things like crime statistics. As former slaveholders sought to use the prison system to extract compensation for the loss of wealth in the form of enslaved humanity, city and town officials used jail detention to drain financial resources, curb black political power, and structure racial hierarchy across urban America. The modern day money bail system continues to reap millions of dollars in New Orleans, and billions of dollars nationally, from a market based largely in racial fictions of danger.

The system of wealth-based pretrial detention is rooted in the history of racial and economic exploitation, and extracts scarce dollars from families who can least afford it.

As our report shows, 85 percent of those arrested in New Orleans are unable to afford a lawyer. Still, fully 84 percent of the $6.3 million paid in money bail in New Orleans in 2015 was paid by low income people of color. The human and financial costs of the current system destabilize communities, trap people in crippling cycles of debt, and make everyone less safe.

For the more than 500 people who are locked in the New Orleans jail on any given day merely due to their inability to pay bail, it is a matter of life and death. As the recent death of Dennis Edwards in New Orleans and the renewed outcry over the deaths of Kalief Browder in New York and Sandra Bland in Texas reminds us, they should never have had to endure those horrible conditions in the first place.

In “From Bondage to Bail Bonds,” co-published by the Data Center, we urge New Orleans to become a leader in the movement to end money bail. The city’s 300th anniversary offers the opportunity to reckon with its legacy of racial oppression and inequality, and commit to a better future. With the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery and the upcoming chance for voters to strike down Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law, it is clear that momentum is also mounting around historical truth-telling as a path toward collective healing.

So what would reckoning with the history of money bail do? It would urge us not only to avoid making mistakes of the past, but to summon the courage to undo them.”

New York Times: Illegal Globally, Bail for Profit Remains in U.S.

“FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Wayne Spath is a bail bondsman, which means he is an insurance salesman, a social worker, a lightly regulated law enforcement agent, a real estate appraiser — and a for-profit wing of the American justice system.

What he does, which is posting bail for people accused of crimes in exchange for a fee, is all but unknown in the rest of the world. In England, Canada and other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant’s bond in exchange for money is a crime akin to witness tampering or bribing a juror — a form of obstruction of justice.

Mr. Spath, who is burly, gregarious and intense, owns Brandy Bail Bonds, and he sees his clients in a pleasant and sterile office building just down the street from the courthouse here. But for the handcuffs on the sign out front, it could be a dentist’s office.

“I’ve got to run, but I’ll never leave you in jail,” Mr. Spath said, greeting a frequent customer in his reception area one morning a couple of weeks ago. He turned to a second man and said, “Now, don’t you miss court on me.”

Other countries almost universally reject and condemn Mr. Spath’s trade, in which defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot make bail on their own pay an outsider a nonrefundable fee for their freedom.

“It’s a very American invention,” John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. “It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.”

Although the system is remarkably effective at what it does, four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished commercial bail bonds, relying instead on systems that require deposits to courts instead of payments to private businesses, or that simply trust defendants to return for trial.

Most of the legal establishment, including the American Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association, hates the bail bond business, saying it discriminates against poor and middle-class defendants, does nothing for public safety, and usurps decisions that ought to be made by the justice system.

Here as in many other areas of the law, the United States goes it alone. American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. From the central role played by juries in civil cases to the election of judges to punitive damages to the disproportionate number of people in prison, the United States has charted a distinctive and idiosyncratic legal path.

Bail is meant to make sure defendants show up for trial. It has ancient roots in English common law, which relied on sworn promises and on pledges of land or property from the defendants or their relatives to make sure they did not flee.

America’s open frontier and entrepreneurial spirit injected an innovation into the process: by the early 1800s, private businesses were allowed to post bail in exchange for payments from the defendants and the promise that they would hunt down the defendants and return them if they failed to appear.

Commercial bail bond companies dominate the pretrial release systems of only two nations, the United States and the Philippines.

The flaw in the system most often cited by critics is that defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and who turn up for every court appearance are nonetheless required to pay a nonrefundable fee to a private business, assuming they do not want to remain in jail.

“Life is not fair, and I probably would feel the same way if I were a defendant,” said Bill Kreins, a spokesman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a trade group. “But the system is the best in world.”

The system costs taxpayers nothing, Mr. Kreins said, and it is exceptionally effective at ensuring that defendants appear for court.

Mr. Spath’s experience confirms that.

If Mr. Spath considers a potential client a good risk, he will post bail in exchange for a nonrefundable 10 percent fee. In a 35-month period ending in November, his records show, Mr. Spath posted about $37 million in bonds — 7,934 of them. That would suggest revenues of about $1.3 million a year, given his fee.

Mr. Spath, who is 62, has seven bail agents working for him, including his daughters Tia and Mia. “It probably costs me 50 grand a month to run this business,” he said.

Mr. Spath hounds his clients relentlessly to make sure they appear for court. If they do not, he must pay the court the full amount unless he can find them and bring them back in short order.

Only 434 of his clients failed to appear for a court date over that period, and Mr. Spath straightened out 338 of those cases within the 60 days allowed by Florida law. In the end, he had to pay up only 76 times.

That is a failure rate of less than 1 percent.

But he had just taken a $100,000 hit. “Everything I worked for this year, I lost because of that one guy,” he said. “If I write a bad bond, it takes me 17 to make it right.”

Mr. Spath had thought the defendant, accused of drug trafficking, was a good bet because he had been cooperating with the government. The defendant is in Brazil now, but Mr. Spath is very good at finding people, and he is not giving up. He is working travel records, phone companies and a former girlfriend, and he is getting closer.

He sometimes requires collateral in addition to his fee, and has accepted rugs, an airplane and a winning Rhode Island lottery ticket. But mostly he is interested in houses.

“In this business, you have to understand real estate,” Mr. Spath said. When the real estate market goes south, he said, bail bondsmen get hurt.

According to the Justice Department and academic studies, the clients of commercial bail bond agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they flee than those released under other forms of supervision.

That may be because bail bond companies have financial incentives and choose their clients carefully. They also have more power. In many states, bond enforcement agents, sometimes called bounty hunters, may break into homes of defendants without a warrant, temporarily imprison them and move them across state lines without entering into the extradition process.

Still, critics say, efficiency and business considerations should not trump the evenhanded application of justice.

The experiences in states that have abolished commercial bail bonds, prosecutors say, have been mixed.

“The bail bond system is rife with corruption,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore. Since bond companies do not compete on price, they have every incentive to collude with lawyers, the police, jail officials and even judges to make sure that bail is high and that attractive clients are funneled to them.

Mr. Kreins, the industry spokesman, acknowledged scandals in Illinois, where “basically all the agents were in collusion with the judges,” and in Louisiana, where sheriffs were also in the mix.

“We have acted responsibly every time an incident has occurred to seek stronger legislation,” Mr. Kreins said. Mr. Marquis, the Oregon prosecutor, said doing away with commercial bonds had affected the justice system in a negative way as well. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “that in states like Oregon the failure-to-appear rate has skyrocketed.” Oregon uses a combination of court deposits, promises to appear and restrictions on where defendants can live and work.

The rest of the world considers the American system a warning of how not to set up a pretrial release system, F. E. Devine wrote in “Commercial Bail Bonding,” a 1991 book that remains the only comprehensive international survey of the subject.

He said that courts in Australia, India and South Africa had disciplined lawyers for professional misconduct for setting up commercial bail arrangements.

Other countries use a mix of methods to ensure that defendants appear for trial.

Some simply keep defendants in jail until trial. Others ask defendants to promise to turn up for trial. Some make failure to appear a separate crime. Some impose strict conditions on release, like reporting to the police frequently. Some make defendants liable for a given sum should they fail to appear but do not collect it up front. Others require a deposit in cash from the defendant, family members or friends, which is returned when the defendant appears.

But injecting money into the equation, even without the bond company’s fee, is the exception. “Even purged of commercialism, most countries avoid a bail system based chiefly on financial security deposits,” Mr. Devine wrote.

In the United States, the use of commercial bail bonds is rising, and they became the most popular form of pretrial release in 1998. More than 40 percent of felony defendants released before trial paid a bail bond company in 2004, up from 24 percent a decade earlier, according to the Justice Department.

Forty percent of people released on bail are eventually acquitted or have the charges against them dropped. Quite a few of them paid a substantial and nonrefundable fee to remain free in the meantime.

Kate Santana, a 20-year-old waitress, had spent eight days in jail when she found her way to Mr. Spath.

“Me and my husband got into a fight,” Ms. Santana explained, “and the cops were called and I was arrested because there was a bite mark on his shoulder.”

Mr. Spath took her $200 and posted her $2,000 bail. “I checked her criminal history out,” he said. “I found out she was a mother and really she shouldn’t be in jail.”

But when a friend of a man accused of identity theft and perjury turned up seeking a $16,000 bond, Mr. Spath took a different attitude. “You bet your fanny I’m going to take collateral,” he said. “I’ll take his firstborn.”

Mr. Spath is not much concerned with how the rest of the world views commercial bail bonds, but he was worked up about recent talk of a greater government role in pretrial release here in Broward County.

“Here’s what everybody forgets,” he said. “The taxpayers have to pay for these programs. Why should they pay for them? Why should they? When we can provide the same service for free. I’d rather see the money spent in parks, mental health issues, the homeless. Let the private sector do it. We do it better.””

The Atlantic: Who Really Makes Money Off of Bail Bonds?

Forcing people awaiting trial to pay bail in order to get out jail is, to say the least, a flawed way of pursuing justice. The accused or their family can be required to put down money in order to return home as they await a trial (which can take months, years, or never even happen)—which in practice has disproportionately hurt communities that are low-income (because they struggle to come up with the necessary funds) and black (who see higher rates of jail time, like other communities of color). The deaths of Sandra Bland, Jeffrey Pendleton, and Kalief Browder—all of whom were black and remained unable to post bail after being arrested—have publicized how so many Americans are unable to get out of jail because of bail requirements. And yet, despite the well-documented inequalities and flaws in the system, and the increasing pressure to change it, “money bail,” as the practice is called, remains the norm in the American legal system, propping up a thriving for-profit bail-bonds industry.

It’s no wonder that so many low-income people awaiting trial have to turn to a bail-bonds operation. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, black men and women ages 23 to 39 who were being held in local jails had median earnings of between $568 and $900 the month prior to their arrest. The median bail for a felony arrest, meanwhile, is $10,000, a sum most arrested individuals and their families would simply be unable to pay. On top of that, black defendants between the ages of 18 and 29 years old were asked to pay, on average, higher sums for bail and were less likely to be released on their own recognizance, meaning no bail payment was required.

A new report from the nonprofit Color of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sheds further light on the country’s bail system. The report finds that around 70 percent of those currently in jail have yet to be convicted of a crime. Not unrelated: Between 1990 and 2009, the share of people arrested who were required to post money bail grew from 37 percent to 61 percent, according to the report.

This means that families who can’t afford bail face a difficult choice: either leave a loved one behind bars—something that’s been shown to threaten their physical and mental health, and increase the likelihood of conviction—or enter into financial agreements with bail-bonds corporations. Given that these are the usual choices, it’s no surprise that the share of releases that depended on for-profit bail bonds outfits has climbed along with the share of arrests requiring money bail for release, growing to 49 percent in 2009 from only 24 percent in 1990.

In a standard bail agreement, families that have enough money to post bail give it directly to the court and get their money returned once a case is over. But it’s different for families that rely on private bail bonds: Instead of paying a refundable amount to the court, they pay a non-refundable portion of the total bail (usually 10 percent) to a bail-bonds company, which then writes a bond for the full bail amount promising that it will be paid if the person doesn’t appear for court. That 10-percent payment is money that customers will never get back, even if there’s no conviction. In addition to losing the money they’ve put down, bail bonds also often leave families paying loan installments and fees even after a case is resolved, the study finds. And bail-bond agreements often include additional terms, which can bring on additional fees, surveillance, and/or property loss, if a house or other asset was put up as collateral.

The sums that families lose in the for-profit bail system is striking. Over a five year period just in the state of Maryland, families of people who were accused of crimes and went on to be cleared of any wrongdoing parted with around $75 million in non-refundable bail-bond payments, according to the report. Looking at discrepancies by race makes the findings even bleaker. In 2015, fewer than 5,000 families in New Orleans together paid $4.7 million in non-refundable premiums, and black families paid 84 percent of bail premiums and fees city-wide that year.

The study also illuminates the structure of the bail-bond industry, and where it gets its capital. For-profit bail businesses are, it should be noted, not part of the country’s legal apparatus. (In fact, the only two countries that allow companies to operate for-profit bail operations are the United States and the Philippines.) And it’s not just bondsmen who are making money off of bail bonds. While bail-bond services are often associated with the myriad small storefronts that can be found in poor communities across the country, many of them, the report finds, are actually run by large global insurance companies.

The bail system, in theory, is supposed to minimize the risk that an arrested party will inhibit the legal process, usually by failing to show up for court or fleeing the area. The threat of losing the money posted for bail is supposed to deter such evasive tactics.When people rely on bail bonds, they become involved in a complex transfer of money and risk, such that families generally wind up on the hook, the study finds. That’s because bail involves what are known as “surety” bonds, which are increasingly backed by large global insurers. When a family pays a bail-bonds agent, the bail-bonds company then pays an insurance company a portion of that money to back the bond they’ve issued. The company also pays into what is called a “build-up fund,” which ensures that money is available if needed. But unlike insurance one might take out on a car or home, surety bonds place the risk and requirement for full payment on the person who takes out the bond. If the bonded individual doesn’t show up for their court appearance, which would trigger a need for the full bail amount to be paid, the insurer only has to pay up as a last resort.According to Color of Change and the ACLU, it rarely comes to that. In essence, families wind up taking on debt and risk while bond companies and insurers mostly just get the profit of the bail premiums, fees, and fines that families pay. In a fairer world, people wouldn’t be penalized by the legal system for not having, say, $10,000 in liquid cash: Either there wouldn’t be money bail, or money bail would at least be more affordable, or the bond companies and insurers would actually shoulder significant risk after taking a non-refundable payment of $1,000, which is a fee that people with enough funds ultimately don’t have to pay.

Overall, the industry is a profitable and fairly concentrated one. Though there are more than 25,000 bail-bonds companies across the U.S., only about 10 insurers are responsible for underwriting the bulk of the $14 billion in bonds that are issued each year. The industry as a whole brings in around $2 billion in profit a year. Surprisingly, it’s not even clear which companies are actually involved. The report finds that private-equity firms play a role, but their holdings are often murky because global insurers build in several layers of opaque corporate structures between their corporate brand, bond-insurance operations, and bail-bonds storefronts.

Because insurance is largely regulated on a state-by-state basis, oversight of insurers participating in for-profit bail operations can vary widely and get lost in the scope of an insurer’s larger business operations. And these insurers make serious lobbying efforts to keep things this way, making reform even harder. The result is a system in which the poor often wind up even further in debt after getting arrested, whether they’re guilty or not.”

Wikipedia: Bail in the United States

History of bail in the United States

Colonial and early America

In pre-independence America, bail law was based on English law. Some of the colonies simply guaranteed their subjects the protections of that law. In 1776, after the Declaration of Independence, those that had not already done so enacted their own versions of bail law.[3]

Section 9 of Virginia‘s 1776 Constitution states “excessive bail ought not to be required…” In 1785, the following was added, “Those shall be let to bail who are apprehended for any crime not punishable in life or limb…But if a crime be punishable by life or limb, or if it be manslaughter and there be good cause to believe the party guilty thereof, he shall not be admitted to bail.” Section 29 of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states that “Excessive bail shall not be exacted for bailable offences: And all fines shall be moderate.”[4]

The prohibition against excessive bail in the Eighth Amendment is derived from the Virginia Constitution, on which Samuel Livermore commented, “The clause seems to have no meaning to it, I do not think it necessary. What is meant by the term excessive bail…?”[5] As of 2009, the Supreme Court has not decided whether the constitutional prohibition on excessive bail applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.[6]

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, like the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, requires that a suspect must “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” and thus enabling a suspect to demand bail if accused of a bailable offense.

In 1789, the same year that the United States Bill of Rights was introduced, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789. This specified which types of crimes were bailable and set bounds on a judge‘s discretion in setting bail. The Act states that all non-capital crimes are bailable and that in capital cases the decision to detain a suspect, prior to trial, was to be left to the judge.[7]

The Judiciary Act states, “Upon all arrests in criminal cases, bail shall be admitted, except where punishment may be by death, in which cases it shall not be admitted but by the supreme or a circuit court, or by a justice of the supreme court, or a judge of a district court, who shall exercise their discretion therein.”[7]

Bail Reform Act of 1966

Although the Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, there is no inherent Constitutional right for a defendant to be offered bail in the first place.[8] In 1966, Congress enacted the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which changes that by giving non-capital defendants a statutory right where a Constitutional right is lacking, to be released, pending trial, on his personal recognizance or on personal bond, unless the judicial officer determines that such incentives will not adequately assure his appearance at trial. In that case, the judge must select an alternative from a list of conditions, such as restrictions on travel. Individuals charged with a capital crime, or who have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing or appeal, are to be released unless the judicial officer has reason to believe that no conditions will reasonably assure that the person will not flee or pose a danger. In non-capital cases, the Act does not permit a judge to consider a suspect’s danger to the community, only in capital cases or after conviction is the judge authorized to do so.[9]

The Bail Reform Act of 1966 marked a major overhaul of the bail system in the United States, forcing courts to not needlessly detain defendants. It requires that decisions consider family and community ties, employment history, and past record of court appearances. However, for those defendants who are unable to raise the required money despite demonstrating they are a minimal flight risk, the Act provides little protection. It also mandates that judges not consider the perceived threat a defendant would be to his or her community if granted pretrial release. The 1966 Act also placed greater value on lawyers, because it required lawyers to produce more information about an arrestee in the same short amount of time before a bail hearing.[10]

The 1966 Act was particularly criticized within the District of Columbia,[11] where all crimes formerly fell under Federal bail law. In a number of instances, persons accused of violent crimes committed additional crimes when released on their personal recognizance. These individuals were often released yet again.[12]

The Judicial Council committee recommended that, even in non-capital cases, a person’s dangerousness should be considered in determining conditions for release. The District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 allowed judges to consider dangerousness and risk of flight when setting bail in noncapital cases.[13]

In 2008, the New York Times wrote “posting bail for people accused of crimes in exchange for a fee, is all but unknown in the rest of the world”.[11]

Bail bond programs

The 1960s saw the rise of volunteer bail reform projects that introduced new pretrial services programs. One of the most notable bail reform projects was the Manhattan Bail Project.

Formed in 1961, the project was led by the Vera Institute of Justice with the theory that defendants with prominent ties to the community, such as a stable occupation or long marriage, could be confidently released on the strength of their promise to return.[14] This concept was later termed release on recognizance (ROR). The New York city government eventually assumed oversight of the program, although the Vera Institute of Justice design new ROR systems after defendants failed to appear. Legal professional Jerome McElroy notes that today, the Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) continues to provide ROR recommendations and oversee the status of released defendants.[14]

Another successful program was the 1968 VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, bail bond program in Baltimore. One of the VISTA directors, Padraic Kennedy, commented that the program was successful because it used a mathematical system of personal recognizance so that defendants would reappear.[15] The system was organized around a point-based marker, where defendants earned points for positive merit and were deducted points for poor behavior. Kennedy noted that the program was capable of becoming permanent legislation, but the status of VISTA is unknown as of today.

One project with mixed results was a research program that tested the effects of a pretrial release agency and deposit bail in New York City. Researchers Roy Flemming and Thomas Uhlman analyzed the program and commented that reform is defined by a supportive constituency and the oversight of court judges.[16] The two noted that in the case of the New York City project, the judges poorly executed deposit bail and the constituency misinterpreted bail reform as a type of preventative detention. Flemming and Uhlman concluded in a joint article that the initiative highlighted an important dilemma in that reformers need to solve the fundamental structures behind bail as opposed to specific parameters of bail law.

Current federal law

In 1984 Congress replaced the Bail Reform Act of 1966 with new bail law, codified at United States Code, Title 18, Sections 3141-3150. The main innovation of the new law is that it allows pre-trial detention of individuals based upon their danger to the community; under prior law and traditional bail statutes in the U.S., pre-trial detention was to be based solely upon the risk of flight.[17]

18 U.S.C. § 3142(f) provides that only persons who fit into certain categories are subject to detention without bail: persons charged with a crime of violence, an offense for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment or death, certain drug offenses for which the maximum offense is greater than 10 years, repeat felony offenders, or if the defendant poses a serious risk of flight, obstruction of justice, or witness tampering. There is a special hearing held to determine whether the defendant fits within these categories; anyone not within them must be admitted to bail.

The Bail Reform Act of 1984 is the most recent landmark piece of legislation passed on bail reform, an issue often unnoticed. This act served as direct refutation and override to the previous Bail Reform Act of 1966, which decreed that judges must not consider the perceived threat a defendant may be to his or her community in the determination of bail. This faced much criticism because defendants would sometimes commit crimes while waiting for trial, and many fought for the reversal of this piece of legislation. The 1984 Bail Reform Act did exactly that, stating that a judge must order pretrial detention if a defendant was deemed a risk to his or her community.[18]

The impacts of the Bail Reform Act of 1984 have been largely debated and often difficult to precisely measure. One study on the Eastern Federal District of California found that average detention length and the overall detention rate has remained relatively unchanged before and after 1984, the group most affected by the law are repeated drug offenders, and the rates of pretrial crime and failure to appear on the trial date have stayed relatively low since the law’s passing.[19]

In 1987, the Supreme Court upheld the 1984 Act’s provision providing for pretrial detention based on community-danger in United States v. Salerno.[20] United States v. Salerno serves as precedent that pretrial detention without bail on the grounds of an arrestee’s “dangerousness” is constitutional.[21]

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Amendments (AWA) to the Bail Reform Act of 1984 was passed, in response to a highly publicized case of sexual abuse and murder of a minor. The amendments state that any persons accused of a crime involving a minor must be confined, under curfew, and must report regularly to a law enforcement agency. The AWA are regarded as an attempt by the federal government to curb sexual abuse, though its efficacy is debated. The AWA created mandatory pretrial release conditions, which many district courts have found to be unconstitutional. Critics argue that Congress should change the amendments so that the defendant has at least a chance for rebuttal against release conditions that include tracking and monitoring.[22] The critics’ arguments are based on the idea that the amendments violate defendants’ constitutional rights and go against the Bail Reform Act of 1984’s original intentions and principles by stripping defendants of their rights without significantly benefitting the public. Critics instead propose that the mandatory pretrial release requirements of the AWA amendments are revised to become rebuttable, rather than obligatory, in a court of law so that a defendant may argue and attempt to prove that the strict pretrial release conditions are unnecessary for his/her case.[23]

Bail may also be denied if the funds used to post the bail likely came from an illegal source. If the source of the funds is illegal, it is deemed less likely that the posting of such funds as bail will ensure the defendant’s appearance in court, and hence bail may be denied. The court may order a hearing called a Nebbia hearing to determine the source of the prospective bail funds before making a decision on bail.[24]

State laws

Bail laws vary from state to state.[2] Generally, a person charged with a non-capital crime can be expected to be granted bail. Some states have enacted statutes modeled on federal law that permit pretrial detention of persons charged with serious violent offenses, if it can be demonstrated that the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to the community.[25] Since 2014, New Jersey and Alaska have enacted reforms that have abolished cash bail for the majority of cases. These states now give defendants a supervised release or mandatory detention, with the conditions determined with a risk assessment.[26][27] California plans to eliminate cash bail entirely as of October 1st, 2019, replacing it with a court-determined risk assessment of the individual defendant.[28]

As of 2008, only four states, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin, had abolished commercial/for-profit bail bonds by bail bondsmen and required deposits to courts instead.[11] As of 2012 Nebraska and Maine in addition to the aforementioned Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin prohibited surety bail bonds.[29][not in citation given]

Some states have very strict guidelines for judges to follow; these are usually provided in the form of a published bail schedule.[30] These schedules list every single crime defined by state law and prescribe a presumptive dollar value of bail for each one. Judges who wish to depart from the schedule must state specific reasons on the record for doing so. For example, California uses a bail schedule system, and judges in state court are directed to refer to the bail schedule while also taking into account the defendant’s criminal record and whether the defendant poses a danger to the community.[31] Some states go so far as to require certain forfeitures, bail, and fines for certain crimes.[32]

In Texas, bail is automatically granted after conviction if an appeal is lodged, but only if the sentence is fifteen years imprisonment or less.[33] In Tennessee, all offenses are bailable, but bail may be denied to those accused of capital crimes.[34]

Some scholars have questioned why certain states do not implement certain bail reforms, but chose to enforce others. Kyle Rohrer of the University of Oregon School of Law answers this question in his paper published in the Oregon Law Review. He finds that bail reform is difficult to put into place because many judicial officers do not want to take the risk of releasing an arrestee pretrial because the defendant may never show up for his trial or, even worse, commit an additional crime while on pretrial leave. If this were to happen, the public would blame the judiciary officer, thus making judiciary officers reluctant to spearhead bail reform. Rohrer furthers; however, that the need to create vacancy in overcrowded prisons outweigh the flight risks of arrestees out on bail, he believes that states should work to employ bail reform to create a more efficient prison system.[35]

Types of bail

In the United States there are several forms of bail used, which vary from jurisdiction. “The dominant forms of release are by surety bond, i.e. release on bail that is lent to the accused by a bond dealer, and non-financial release.”[36]:2

  1. Surety Bond: By a surety bond, a third party agrees to be responsible for the debt or obligation of the defendant. In many jurisdictions this service is provided commercially by a bail bondsman, where the agent will receive 10% of the bail amount up front and will keep that amount regardless of whether the defendant appears in court. The court in many jurisdictions, especially states that as of 2012 prohibited surety bail bondsmen – Oregon, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Maine[29] – may demand a certain amount of the total bail (typically 10%) be given to the court, which is known as surety on the bond and unlike with bail bondsmen, is returned if the defendant does not violate the conditions of bail. The bail agent guarantees to the court that they will pay the forfeited bond if a defendant fails to appear for their scheduled court appearances, so the third party must have adequate assets to satisfy the face value of the bond.[37] In turn, the Bond Agency charges a premium for this service and usually requires collateral from a guarantor. The bail agent then posts a bond for the amount of the bail, to guarantee the arrestee’s return to court.[29]
  2. Recognizance (ROR): When an accused is released on recognizance, he or she promises to the court to attend all required judicial proceedings and will not engage in illegal activity or other prohibited conduct as set by the court. Typically a monetary amount is set by the court, but is not paid by the defendant unless the court orders it forfeited. This is called an “unsecured appearance bond” or release on one’s own recognizance.[29]
  3. Unsecured bail. This is a release without a deposit but it differs from ROR in that the defendant must pay a fee upon breaching the terms of the bail.[38]
  4. Percentage bail. The defendant deposits only a percentage of the bail’s amount (usually 10%) with the court clerk.[38]
  5. Citation Release also known as Cite Out. This procedure involves the issuance of a citation by the arresting officer to the arrestee, informing the arrestee that he or she must appear at an appointed court date. Cite Outs usually occur immediately after an individual is arrested and no financial security is taken.[29]
  6. Property Bond – the accused or a person acting on his behalf pledges real property having a value at least equal to the amount of the bail. If the principal fails to appear for trial the state can levy or institute foreclosure proceedings against the property to recover the bail. Used in rare cases and in certain jurisdictions. Often, the equity of the property must be twice the amount of the bail set.[29]
  7. Immigration Bond – used when the defendant that been arrested is an illegal immigrant. This is a federal bond and not a state bond. The defendant deals directly with either the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).[39]
  8. Cash – typically “cash-only,” where the only form of bail that the Court will accept is cash. Court-ordered cash bonds require the total amount of bail to be posted in cash. The court holds this money until the case is concluded. Cash bonds are typically ordered by the Court for the following reasons: when the Court believes the defendant is a flight risk, when the Court issues a warrant for unpaid fines, and when a defendant has failed to appear for a prior hearing. Cash bonds provide a powerful incentive for defendants to appear for their hearings. If the defendant does not appear as instructed, the cash bond is forfeited and a bench warrant is issued. If the defendant shows up for their scheduled court appearances, the cash is returned to the person who posted the bond. Anyone including the defendant can post a cash bond. If the defendant posts his own bond, the Court will deduct fines and costs from the bond before returning any balance.[40]
  9. Pretrial Services – a defendant is released to the supervision of a pretrial services officer, similar to a probation officer. In most cases defendants have no financial obligation to be supervised. The Pretrial Services Programs can include phone or in-person check-ins, drug testing, court date reminders, and any other condition the judges deems necessary.
  10. Combinations – courts often allow defendants to post cash bail or surety bond, and then impose further conditions, as mentioned below, to protect the community or ensure attendance.
  11. Conditions of release – many varied non-monetary conditions and restrictions on liberty can be imposed by a court to ensure that a person released into the community will appear in court and not commit any more crimes. Common examples include: mandatory calls to the police, regular check-ins with a Pretrial Services Program, surrendering passports, home detention, electronic monitoring, drug testing, alcohol counseling, surrendering firearms.[41]
  12. Protective order, also called an ‘order of protection’ or restraining order – one very common feature of any conditional release, whether on bail, bond or condition, is a court order requiring the defendant to refrain from criminal activity against the alleged crime victim, or stay away from and have no contact with the alleged crime victim. The former is a limited order, the latter a full order. Violation of the order can subject the defendant to automatic forfeiture of bail and further fine or imprisonment.[24][42]

Criticisms of bail

Bail Reform is the concept arguing that current bail policies and legislature need to be revised and reevaluated due to its discriminatory and ambiguous nature.[43] Current bail policies tend to be discriminatory towards defendants who come from a low socioeconomic background. Current bail policies tend to be ambiguous because laws are open to interpretation thus allowing for many unjust exceptions where economic privilege overrides policy even when a defendant has a high perceived flight risk.[44] Today, the bail system relies on the security of money instead of people. Although the bail system is supposed to be based on a defendant’s possibility of flight, its discriminatory and ambiguous nature proves that it is not the most effective nor just system. The recognition of these inconsistencies in the system invoke consideration for alternative solutions.[45]

Some argue that while the original purpose of bail was to ensure an arrestee’s appearance in court, it currently does not fulfill that purpose, and that the main result of the flawed implementation of bail in modern society is increased incarceration rates of inexperienced and first-time offenders. In order to solve these issues, reformists argue that the bail system must be revised so that those who are known to be able to appear voluntarily at their trial are released regardless of their financial situation, and that additional steps should be taken to decrease the flight risk of arrestees out on bail.[46]

Moreover, a court’s decision to grant or deny bail has a direct impact on the outcome of a criminal case. Incarcerated defendants are significantly less able to help in his/her defense for freedom in comparison to someone on bail who is unrestricted or perhaps conditionally restricted to home confinement. They are also unable to arrange meetings with suspected witnesses, and/or provide their attorney with important information about the case, thus creating logistical barriers. Furthermore, the paper finds that because more defendants are now less likely to be allowed a pretrial release, the prosecution’s bargaining position is enhanced in plea negotiations, where incarcerated defendants are promised time off in exchange for their cooperation or plea of guilty.[47] People that are denied bail are more likely to plead guilty in thoughts that they will lose at trial. Those denied bail are often sentenced to longer amounts of time than those who are granted pretrial release.[47] Additionally, incarceration already has adverse effects resulting in many defendants’ inability to maintain employment, access mental and physical healthcare, and engage in constant communication with their family and friends.[43]

Bail Reform is also grounded on the current state of commercial bail establishments in which there exists both benefits and limitations. Some benefits include protecting the presumption of innocence, relieve jail overcrowding, helps the courts manage case overloads, and providing some (very little) cost-saving benefits for taxpayers. Some limitations include discrimination against the economically disadvantaged, abuse of power, and a rising risk of wrongful imprisonment. Despite various reform effort, the commercial bail industry continues to thrive, making profits of $20 million in surplus profit.[48] But, the bail bonds industry has not survived because it is socially efficient, rather because the people who are making public policy decisions are heavily influenced by those profiting from the bail bonds industry. The bail bonds industry prioritizes capitalism and privatization over justice and support for defendants.

Many critics propose that the prison-industrial complex should switch to a more strict and fair system that is based upon the risk of pre-trial release, instead of being based upon resources. Current bail policies fall short of maintaining individualized and equal judicial determination of bail, are very costly to the defendant, and, in general, are of little benefit to the greater public.[49] Some critics believe that the entire monetary bail system should be replaced with release of recognizance, which allows the accused to be released after a signed promise to return and be present at trial.[50]

Samuel Wiseman, a J.D from Yale Law School and a critic of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, argues in a paper published by the Fordham Urban Law Journal that the Excessive Bail Clause of the Eighth Amendment protects criminal defendants from governmental discrimination and coercion and that the Bail Reform Act of 1984 removes these protections. Wiseman continues by stating that the Bail Reform Act of 1984 is unconstitutional because it allows judicial officer to consider certain individual characteristics of a defendant which the Eighth Amendment asks not to consider. Wiseman concludes his article with a statistical analysis of arrestees out on bail before and during the passing of the Bail Reform Act of 1984. He finds that since the passing of the Bail Reform Act, the number of pretrial detentions has risen nearly 40%.[51]

On the other hand, other critics call for a stricter enforcement of the Bail Reform Act of 1984. These critics are generally advocating for more mandatory detentions for arrestees awaiting trial. According to the Bail Reform Act of 1984, for serious crime offenders, detention is mandatory unless arrestees meet the exception of not being labeled a flight risk by a judiciary officer. In an analysis of the thirteen appellate courts that sit below the Supreme Court by Mani Walia published by St. John’s Law Review, Walia concluded that in eight of these courts decisions, judiciary officers take advantage of the exception clause and give more lenient pretrial releases than they should in an effort to promote their view of fair results over the law.[52]

Bail determination

Legally, bail determination is based on four factors: seriousness of the crime, ties to the community, the flight risk posed by the defendant, and the danger posed by the defendant to his or her community. California Penal Code section 1269b provides an example of the factors courts are directed to consider.[53]

In reality, bail determination may also take into account extraneous factors. Some studies have found judicial bias, where a defendant’s race, class, or gender affect bail.[54] A 1984 study found that when judges were given specific policy guidelines, people with similar convictions were given similar bail amounts.[55] There is concern that great variability across judges yields variability in decisions for identical candidates. The reason for such disparity is that different judges may assign different weights to factors such as flight risk or community ties.[56] This is an oft cited reason as to why bail reform is necessary, as ambiguity in the bail decision making process may lead to unfair and disparate outcomes.

Even for bail determination based on the danger posed by the defendant to his or her community, critics note that the government’s definition of “dangerous” defendants who may not be allowed to go on bail have a tendency not to be dangerous or avoid their hearings at all, suggesting that the definition is too wide and needs to be reformed.[55]

Discrimination in bail decisions

There is reason to believe that a correlation exists between class status and bail decisions. Recent analysis of data taken from Florida bail hearings revealed that indigent defendants with public defenders were more likely to be denied bail when compared to those with retained (hired) counsel, but that when they were awarded bail, it was set lower. Several suggested explanations for this result include higher skill level of retained counsel and prison overcrowding.[57] Many prison systems face overcrowding in the modern area of mass incarceration, and setting unusually low bails appear to be the judge’s way of relieving pressure for local prisons.

The current American bail system has also been accused of causing the mounting disparity between the treatment of white collar and blue collar criminals, most popularly seen in the widely publicized cases of Paul Manafort, Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier. Madoff and Dreier, despite being huge flight risks, were granted bail simply because they had the money to pay the court exorbitant sums. This is in accordance to the current interpretation of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which allows the wealthy to avoid pretrial detainment by paying for highly restrictive measures that ensure constant supervision. The result is that poorer citizens deemed even less of a flight risk are held in often terrible conditions, while high flight-risk white collar criminals are allowed to be confined in the comfort of their own homes. Bail reformists claim that this is a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which states that laws must be applied against all citizens equally.[58]

Moreover, bail policies and bail decisions have been demonstrated to be applied disproportionately harmfully against black and Latino defendants, particularly males.[59] This can be attributed to internalized racial prejudices among judges and bail officers, and also to how current bail policies fail to protect them from such discrimination. When combined with the bail system’s favor towards the wealthy, it is found that people of color of low socioeconomic backgrounds suffer most in the justice system, a further violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Test data from the bail bond market in New Haven, Connecticut, also shows the existence of discrimination based on race when bail is set for minority defendants. Specifically, black and Hispanic defendants generally received disproportionately high bail charges. In order to fight against racial discrimination, some suggest a “color-blind” bail solution that sets bail based on the average offender, regardless of race or gender.[60]

Furthermore, many advocates for placing harsher restrictions on bail enforcement and decreasing the amount of detainees out on pretrial release point to the argument that allowing bail greatly increases the risk of allowing arrestees out on bail to skip their trial. This tendency for skipping trail is known as a flight risk. However, a study conducted by Gerald R. Wheeler and Carol L. Wheeler published by the Review of Policy Research finds that this is hardly the case. The article focuses on bail reform in the United States and specifically targets the relationship between being released on bail and the flight risk of arrestees not showing up to their trial. Since many opponents of bail reform during the time believed that allowing bail would result in a decrease of arrestees showing up for their trial dates, this article tests that belief by analyzing randomly selected felony cases in Houston, Texas. The paper concluded that the flight risk of arrestees out on bail was extremely minimal, as only 2% of all defendants on pretrial leave avoided their trial date. The study also concluded that the effect of pretrial status, whether a criminal was detained or not before their trial, did not have an effect on the ultimate conviction.[61]

Bail and conviction

Attorney access

An attorney’s ability to defend their client is greatly hampered when their client is placed in pretrial detainment. Jailed defendants are difficult to work with due to restricted access and visiting hours, and have minimal time with their attorneys when compared to those who are granted pretrial release. This lack of coordination between the attorney and defendant makes it impossible to craft a strong defense, given that the defendant will often lack witness coaching.[57] Defense attorneys that specialize in criminal trial have gone as far as to say that pretrial detention limits a defendant’s ability to exercise his or her constitutional rights.[62]

Juror bias

In 2014, a study done over 975 New Jersey cases tracked a defendant’s ability to set bail and the final outcome of their trial, and concluded that pretrial detention adversely impacts the length of sentencing in cases of conviction. That is to say, within the same offense type, those unable to post bail received longer sentences than those able to.[54] There have also been other studies that indicate that pretrial detainment sets the odds against the defendant, reducing their chance of acquittal. Attorneys attest that jurors are almost always aware of defendants’ bail status, which creates an implicit bias against their client.[62]

Domino effect

Bail’s purpose is to ensure that a defendant does not abscond, and it was never intended to influence the outcome of the trial or be an indicator of the defendant’s guilt. It has been argued that bail decision outcomes’ clear influence on the trial outcome is a perversion of the justice system, creating a domino effect that negatively impacts those that are poor and powerless. Lacking resources leads to pretrial detainment, which in turn can lead to a guilty conviction.[63]

Long-term impact


Pretrial release conditions placed on youth are largely ineffective, often increasing criminal behavior by means of violating those conditions. This means that bail conditions ultimately create a cycle of criminality, trapping juveniles into the prison system rather than helping them escape it.[64] This effect on the youth community is a large reason why activists lobby for bail reform, seeking to prevent the next generation from being trapped in the school-to-prison-pipeline.

However, in the VISTA bail bond program in Baltimore, success was achieved particularly within the demographic of adolescents and young adults ages sixteen to twenty.[15] This suggests that while youth are more susceptible to negative consequences of pretrial release conditions, they are also more receptive to positive bail reform programs.

Monetizing justice

The problem of the widest scope and currently the most pressing is the monetizing of the justice system, where the growing integration of the justice and free market systems will have far ranging effects. Academics have predicted that the current commercial bail system will eventually expand to probation and parole. Under this framework, inmates would be granted early release/parole in the same manner as bail, by putting up collateral as insurance for their good behavior. For example, the conservative, powerful, yet secretive organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has already managed to push these changes into existence in several states across the America. The tight industry based network between bondsmen, courts, and law enforcement has already bred much corruption in the bail system, and the inclusion of parole would render the justice system entirely commercialized, leaving it rife with inequality.[65]

Commercializing justice also opens the door toward exploitation of those dealing with the court system, and bail bondsmen have become the prime example of this. Having created an extremely lucrative business based on the indigent’s desperation and inability to pay bail, they are a consequence of the free market merging with the judiciary branch.[59]

Economic perspectives

Another way to approach the issue of bail reform is to look at not from a humanitarian but economic perspective. Using data from the 1981 Philadelphia Bail Experiment, a mathematically rigorous cost-benefit analysis of bail-setting was conducted, to approximate the probabilities of defendants committing crimes or absconding while on pretrial release. This study used the economic definition of socially optimal, defined to be the outcome which results in the minimum incurred cost by society. The result of the analysis revealed that the socially optimum value at which to set bail is much higher than the current average.[66] In fact, the value is closer to what average bail was before the Bail Reform Acts of 1966 and 1984, which means that the best course of bail reform would actually be regressive in nature, reverting to older bail policies. Additionally, the Adam Walsh Amendments to the Bail Reform Act of 1984 have been considered excessive in terms of both the way they treat defendants and the cost they burden the government with.[22]


The alternatives to cash bail include:

  • Release without bail: Sometimes known as “release on recognizance” (ROR). The defendant is released with a pledge to appear in court. However, the defendant is required by law to appear in court and to not interfere with the judicial process.
  • Pretrial supervision: The defendant is released but subject to restrictions (such as electronic monitoring or house arrest).
  • Compulsory detention: The abolition of cash bail has led to more (but not most) defendants being detained without an offer of release through posting bail (if they could afford it). This is reserved for serious crimes, which would normally result in bail being too high for the defendant to pay unless they were wealthy.

Abolition of cash bail

As of August 2018, two states have abolished cash bail for the majority of court cases. In 2014, New Jersey enacted reforms that took effect on January 1, 2017. All criminal defendants are now assessed with a point-based system to determine whether they should be released from custody, held in jail until trial, or subjected to alternative procedures (including house arrest, electronic monitoring, and, in limited cases, cash bail) to ensure public safety and the defendant’s appearance in court.[26] Alaska adopted a similar reform in 2016, which took effect in 2018.[27]

Other proposals

Some reform proposals focus on not abolishing cash bail but reforming it. These include giving guidelines to judges or mandatory instructions to make sure cash bail is set in a more consistent way.[56] Mandeep Dhami The second solution, however, presents a problem in that it reduces the justice system’s flexibility, and loses humanity. Many reformists prefer a more individualized bail procedure, citing the importance of considering circumstances and how no set of guidelines can adequately and fairly address every possible scenario.[22] Fixing outcome disparity while retaining judicial flexibility remains a paradox that bail reformists have yet to solve, and is a point where many activists diverge. Another solution is to pass federal laws. This would mean amending the Bail Reform Act of 1984 to explicitly require courts to take into account a defendant’s economic status.[58]

In states where no reform has yet been acted, some organizations provide not-for-profit bail bonds to allow poor defendants to be released pre-trial.

A more radical proposal is to abolish pretrial detention and restrictions entirely. This proposal is closely tied to the prison abolition movement.”

Washington Post: When it comes to pretrial release, few other jurisdictions do it D.C.’s way

“On the ground floor of Washington’s busiest courthouse, it is hard to hear the judge over chains and shackles clanking to the floor. But the message resounds: On a typical afternoon the court will release about 90 percent of the people who have been arrested and held overnight in the nation’s capital.

They are released without leaving behind any money — on a promise to return to court and meet conditions such as checking in with a pretrial officer or reporting for drug testing.

This is not how the system works for those charged in almost every other local and state court in the country. But it is how the District has run its rough-and-tumble courthouse for more than two decades.

Nationally, about 47 percent of felony defendants with bonds remain jailed before their cases are heard because they cannot make bail. At the D.C. jail on 19th Street SE, no one is locked up on a criminal charge because of an inability to pay.

“We’ve proven it can work without money, but the whole country continues as if in a trance to do what we know does not work,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison. The new way of thinking he promotes tracks the federal system, which bars judges from setting financial barriers to keep someone locked up.

Thousands of people across the nation sit in jail — not convicted, but awaiting their day in court — because they cannot afford to post money for release. Others, charged with the same crime but able to pay, go free.

Efforts to eliminate or reduce use of money bonds and fixed bail payments — through legislatures in New Jersey and Colorado, and class-action lawsuits in eight states — have become part of a national movement to overhaul the criminal-justice system because of the impact on poor defendants. Officials in Jackson, Miss., agreed last month to stop using money bail in misdemeanor cases as part of a legal settlement. Several other cities in Mississippi have done the same.

“There is no evidence you need money to get people back to court,” said Morrison, a judge since 1979. “It’s irrational, ineffective, unsafe and profoundly unfair.”

The system in the District has experienced some high-profile lapses.

In late May, police arrested a man in a fatal shooting and said he had bypassed a court-ordered monitoring device that had been attached to his prosthetic leg — which the suspect left at home. The tracker was in place for a previous gun arrest, police said in court files.

Last year, a man released from court on a misdemeanor charge of assaulting a police officer was charged in a fatal stabbing two days later on a Metro train. If convicted, Jasper Spires, 19, faces life in prison.

“It just seems like judicial malfeasance,” said Joseph Sutherland, an uncle of the stabbing victim, 24-year-old Kevin Sutherland. “It led to a direct line to my nephew’s death. . . . This shouldn’t happen.”

Cliff Keenan, head of the city’s pretrial system, said, “we will accept blame and responsibility” when there are failures. But when it comes to human beings, he said, “you can’t stop people from making bad decisions.” In the case involving the prosthetic leg, Keenan said his office is reviewing “human error” by the company that fits GPS devices on defendants.

Keenan’s agency supervises about 14,000 people a year in D.C. Superior and U.S. District courts — a figure that does not include juveniles.

In the past five years, about 90 percent of defendants released were not arrested again before their cases were resolved, according to data collected by the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency. Of the roughly 10 percent who did get in trouble again, the vast majority are not rearrested for violent crimes.


Keenan frequently faces questions from residents who ask why people taken away in handcuffs one day are back in neighborhoods the next.

“The truly dangerous people are being held,” he said. “Most of the time we get it right.”

Rights arguments

A push for pretrial justice has gained momentum and attention in part because of recent prominent cases, including the $500,000 bail set for a Baltimore protester after the death of Freddie Gray and the detention of a teenage boy, held at Rikers Island for three years on robbery charges that eventually were dismissed. He killed himself last year, two years after being released.

Separately, civil rights lawsuits, brought by the D.C.-based nonprofit Equal Justice Under the Law, have challenged bail practices as unconstitutional. The Justice Department has signed on in an Alabama case, saying preset bail, without an inquiry into a person’s ability to pay, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses.

“It’s movement like we’ve never seen,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

But it is a movement that still meets powerful pockets of resistance.

In Maryland, Montgomery County courts use a form of risk assessment, although judges still set bail. Legislation to overhaul the system statewide has never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee in the face of opposition from the bail industry, which says pledging cash or bonds is necessary to pull people back to court.

Advocates who successfully pushed last year to roll back mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in Maryland have vowed to make pretrial reform their next target.

Changing the system

In 1964, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy decried as unjust a bail system in which wealth — not guilt, innocence or type of crime — was the main factor that determined whether a person was locked up before trial.

Two decades later, a 1987 Supreme Court decision expressly allowed prosecutors in the federal system to detain people without bail before trial when the government could prove the person arrested posed a significant threat.

Building on that ruling, D.C. Council members passed a law in 1991, at the height of the city’s crack wars, that expanded the crimes for which a person could be held before trial.


But the then-head of pretrial services, John A. “Jay” Carver, added a pivotal sentence that prohibited imposing a “financial condition” that a person could not pay — in effect, doing away with the bail-bond business in the District.

“I thought there would be mayhem on the streets, but it wasn’t simply opening up the doors and letting all of these dangerous people go free,” said former D.C. attorney general Bob Spagnoletti, now a criminal-defense lawyer. “The world doesn’t come to an end when all of these people charged with low-level offenses are released.”

Reform advocates say converting to a risk-based system can be less expensive because jails house fewer people. Nationally, the average cost to hold someone in jail before trial is $75 a day, compared with about $7 a day to supervise a person in the community, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.

When District judges talk about the system, they almost always encounter skepticism about how other jurisdictions could replicate it. Federal prosecutors handle most local criminal cases in the District. The federal government entirely funds the independent pre-trial agency whose $62 million budget pays for about 350 employees and includes a drug-testing lab, treatment services and mental-health and drug courts.

Calculating the risk

On a typical day, more than a dozen pretrial officers pull together background on what can be more than 100 people prosecutors have decided to “paper,” or charge. The operation runs 24 hours a day, with officers checking criminal records, outstanding warrants and probation violations. Already, most arrested for crimes such as drinking in public or disorderly conduct have paid a small fee to avoid going to court or received a citation to appear later.

Those who remain are locked up nearby.

Pretrial officers jockey for space with defense attorneys to learn more about the people arrested before they see a judge. Defendants in street clothes lean against white cinderblock walls.

Sitting in small booths, officers strain over noise to interview people they call clients: How long have you lived in Washington? Are you married? Children? Are you employed? Are you being treated for mental health or substance abuse?

Seventy factors go into a database that calculates the risk that the person would commit another crime or not return to court.

In all but the most serious cases, the presumption is release.

The court clerk talks quickly, the judge acts fast and in less than five minutes, the decision is made.

About two-thirds of defendants are released with terms that include drug testing, stay-away orders or weekly phone or in-person reporting. About 10 percent get tighter monitoring, such as GPS ankle bracelets and home confinement.

In the highest-risk cases, the recommendation to the court is blunt: There are “no conditions or combination of conditions that can reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance or safety to the community.”

Elsewhere, advocates for reform say, state and county judges often hide behind steep bail to hold someone they merely suspect may be dangerous.

“Here we are transparent,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin, who will take over as chief judge in October. “We say that the evidence at this time demonstrates you are dangerous, and therefore you are to be detained. Judges from other jurisdictions who visit are surprised when there is no mention of a money bond.”


Free to go

On a Friday last year, 85 people were on the lockup list. Courtroom seats filled with friends and relatives waiting for the judge’s decision — in or out.

The clerk called for defendant No. 3. A 24-year-old from Northeast shuffled to face the bench. He was charged with second-degree theft and unlawful entry. Prosecutors did not ask to have him detained.

Judge William W. Nooter admonished the man for failing to regularly check in with pretrial officers as he was required to in a separate pending misdemeanor case.

“You have to report to pretrial if you want to stay on the streets,” Nooter told him. “If you fail to do this, you could end up locked up before your trial.”

The judge ordered the marshals to unlock the man’s chains. The clerk set a new court date. He was free to go.”

NY Times: Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide

“Kalief Browder was sent to Rikers Island when he was 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack. Though he never stood trial or was found guilty of any crime, he spent three years at the New York City jail complex, nearly two of them in solitary confinement.

In October 2014, after he was written about in The New Yorker, his case became a symbol of what many saw as a broken criminal justice system. Mayor Bill de Blasio cited the article this spring when he announced an effort to clear the backlogs in state courts and reduce the inmate population at Rikers.

For a while, it appeared Mr. Browder was putting his life back together: He earned a high school equivalency diploma and started community college. But he continued to struggle with life after Rikers.

On Saturday, he committed suicide at his parents’ home in the Bronx.

Jennifer Gonnerman, the author of the article in The New Yorker, said in an interview on Monday that it appeared he was never able to recover from the years he spent locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day

Once out of jail, Ms. Gonnerman said, “he almost recreated the conditions of solitary,” shutting himself in his bedroom for long periods. “He was very uncomfortable being around people, especially in large groups,” she said.

Mr. de Blasio’s administration in December did away with solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds, citing the damaging effects that prolonged isolation can have on their mental stability.

In a statement released on Monday, the mayor said that “Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts” at Rikers.

“There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal,” he added, “and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need.”

Kalief Browder, 22, hanged himself at his parents’ home in the Bronx over the weekend.CreditZach Gross

Ms. Gonnerman said she was drawn to Mr. Browder because he was able to speak about what he had been through with unusual insight. She said before he agreed to go public with his story, he insisted on finishing his high school equivalency diploma. “He wanted to show that he had accomplished something before he entered the spotlight,” she said.

In jail he had tried to commit suicide several times. He told Ms. Gonnerman that he was repeatedly beaten by correction officers and fellow inmates, but she said she did not realize the extent of the abuse until she watched security videos showing him being knocked to the ground by an officer and attacked by inmates.

Throughout, he insisted on his innocence, refusing several offers from prosecutors to take a plea deal, including one that would have allowed him to be released immediately.

Ultimately, prosecutors dropped the charges. In the course of the three years Mr. Browder was being held, they lost contact with their only witness.

At the end of the article, Mr. Browder, who was the youngest of seven children and nicknamed Peanut by his family, described being unable to rid himself of the fears that had consumed him in jail. He said he was afraid of being attacked on the subway. And before going to sleep at night, he checked to make sure every window in the house was locked.

There were some good moments in the two years after he was released. An anonymous donor offered to pay his community college tuition. His story attracted the attention of celebrities like Jay Z and Rosie O’Donnell, who invited him onto “The View” and gave him a MacBook Air laptop computer. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, talked about him in campaign speeches. (Mr. Paul, who is running for president, expressed condolences to Mr. Browder’s family on Twitter on Monday.)

But Mr. Browder’s mental health deteriorated, Ms. Gonnerman said. He became paranoid and last Christmas was hospitalized on a psychiatric ward at Harlem Hospital Center. She wrote in an article on The New Yorker’s website on Sunday that he had thrown out his television because he said he feared it was watching him.”

Now This: Reforming The Cash Bail System In This Country


NPR: What Changed After D.C. Ended Cash Bail (2018)

“California recently ended its current money bail system. Washington, D.C. largely did away with cash bail back in the 1990s. NPR’s Melissa Block speaks with D.C. Judge Truman Morrison.


California has abolished the system of cash bail. That’s the money defendants have to post to be released from custody before trial. Bail is designed to ensure they will appear in court. In signing the legislation this past week, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, said that now rich and poor alike will be treated fairly. He has called bail a tax on poor people. A few other states have recently moved away from cash bail. Washington, D.C., did so way back in 1992. And to hear how that’s worked, I’m joined now by Truman Morrison, senior judge on the D.C. Superior Court. Welcome to the program.

TRUMAN MORRISON: Happy to be here.

BLOCK: Do you agree with what Governor Jerry Brown has said in California – that cash bail is essentially a tax on poor people?


BLOCK: Is that what motivates you here?

MORRISON: Well, what motivates me is that there’s nothing – if you think about our goals in the pretrial realm of our criminal-legal system, which are to ensure community safety and to ensure a court appearance and to get as many people to remain at liberty without their lives being destroyed as possible. If you think about those goals, money bail is a joke.

We have so much research now that shows the collateral consequences of needlessly incarcerating people pretrial. It increases the likelihood they’ll be recidivists. It destroys their families, the economies of their community, costs us billions of dollars a year to needlessly warehouse people. And we are not some sleepy village here on North Capitol Street where you and I are talking. This is a big criminal justice system. And if we have managed for more than twenty years to be successful without using money, how can we contend that we need money?

BLOCK: Why don’t you explain how the system works in Washington without cash bail?


BLOCK: For example, how do you, as a judge, decide who gets released without paying bail?

MORRISON: We use a risk assessment to try and gauge your likelihood of succeeding, which is whether you’ll come back to court and be law-abiding until your court date. Last year, we released 94 percent of all the people that we arrested without using money. Eighty-eight percent made every single court appearance, and 86 percent were never arrested for any criminal offense of any kind. And of the very small percent of people that were arrested in D.C. that we released, less than 2 percent were rearrested for a crime of violence.

BLOCK: When you’re doing the risk assessment of who should be released before trial, does that involve some sort of algorithm, some sort of calculation? How does that work?

MORRISON: It does. We have a scientific risk assessment that relies in some measure on algorithm. Our – the way we do it here also involves interviews with the person. That is but one factor that judges consider. And there’s a lot of controversy, as I’m sure you know, about the use of risk assessments.

BLOCK: Controversy because people say that there can be inherent bias in them…

MORRISON: Correct.

BLOCK: …That it’s biased especially against people of color.

MORRISON: Correct. And to be sure, we need to take great care to be refining our use of risk assessments as much as we can. But the alternative is to do it the way we’ve always done it, which is to rely on judicial hunch and money, which, of course, makes no sense.

BLOCK: Judge Morrison, you’ve been on the bench here in D.C. for 40-some years?

MORRISON: Almost 40 years.

BLOCK: Almost 40 years. I imagine there must be a case in there, in the time since D.C. eliminated cash bail, where you did free somebody before trial who you determined was not a risky person, would not reoffend, and they did – and maybe in a violent way.

MORRISON: Certainly.

BLOCK: Yeah? Does that give you pause?

MORRISON: So that happens. Of course, it gives me pause. But I would say to you a couple of things. You know, we are never going to reach the point where we can perfectly predict human behavior. And many, many, many of the people who we read about – in New Jersey, for example, whenever anybody is released under their new system that is alleged to have committed a new crime – would have bought their way out of jail…

BLOCK: Anyway.

MORRISON: …And committed the same crime anyway. So Justice Jackson in the Supreme Court in a case called Stack v. Boyle – to paraphrase him – that there is always an element of risk in making a release decision before a trial. That’s the price of our ordered system of liberty and justice. The only way to get a complete assurance of safety is, of course, to incarcerate everyone, which is not the American way.

BLOCK: That’s Truman Morrison, a senior judge on the D.C. Superior Court. Judge Morrison, thanks so much for coming in.

MORRISON: My pleasure.”

Konbini: This App Lets You Bail Out Black Prison Inmates with Your Spare Change

“The function of the app is simple: In lessthan 60 seconds, connect the account you use to make everyday purchases. Here, your purchases will be rounded up to the nearest dollar to automatically donate each time you reach at least $2 in spare change. Users can pause and resume their contributions at any time”

Back to Top

 Felon Voter Disenfranchisement


Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 9.48.31 PM.png  Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 9.51.39 PM.png

More info at: Sentencing Project: Felony Disenfranchisement

  • More than 6 million American citizens are unable to vote because of a past criminal conviction.
  • These laws, deeply rooted in our troubled racial history, have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
  • Across the country, one in every 13 voting-age African Americans have lost their right to vote, which is four times the rate for all other Americans.
  • State approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously.
    • In In Maine, Vermont, California, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.
    • In Florida, Iowa and Virginia, felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote.
      • (exception for Governor pardons)
    • In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence.
    • n Florida roughly 1.5 million Florida residents (almost 2.5 percent of the state’s population) are disenfranchised because of the law
  • Clinton lost Florida by just 119,770 votes
  • white lawmakers designed this in the years after the Civil War in a deliberate attempt to dilute the voting power of freed slaves.
  • In 2016 one in four of Florida’s black residents could not cast a ballot.

Barred from the Ballot Box: Felon Disenfranchisement in America

Source: The Sentencing Project

Six million American adults are legally ineligible to vote, members of a group whose ranks have roughly quintupled over the past 40 years. In Kentucky and Tennessee, this group now comprises more than a fifth of the African American population; in Florida, this group composes more than 10 percent of the adult population. But these states merely dramatize a larger phenomenon: nationwide, 48 states prevent certain citizens from voting. Why? They have felony convictions.

Lately, rulings and ballot measures — including Florida’s upcoming Amendment 4, which would constitutionally restore the franchise for life to hundreds of thousands of felons — reflect the growing consensus the states’ felon disenfranchisement laws have gone too far: according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “the U.S. justice system controls more than 7 million people,” most of whom are on probation. In states where the franchise can be restored by the governor’s personal pardon, the New York Times reports that “in the last few years, Terry McAuliffe, as Virginia’s governor, restored voting rights to more than 168,000 people, and the governors in Kentucky and Iowa granted roughly 9 in 10 of the restoration requests they received in the first half of the decade.” These executive actions reflect a growing movement to correct the overreach of our criminal justice system.

Felon disenfranchisement is old news in America — laws barring some felons from the polls have existed for 150 years. Historically, challenges to state felon disenfranchisement laws have foundered at the Supreme Court, but the legal basis for the fight is unusually ambiguous because the constitutional basis for felon disenfranchisement, Section II of 14th Amendment, performs an odd legal trick: for the purposes of Congressional representation, Section II says that anyone denied the right to vote based on “participation in rebellion, or other crime” shall be nonetheless counted. So the Constitution implicitly condones felon disenfranchisement without explicitly legislating anything. The “constitutional” defense of felon disenfranchisement laws is certainly clear given the technical, precedent-oriented nature of jurisprudence.

But even if such technicalities suffice in a legal sense, the real question is not about what the Constitution establishes, for the Constitution can be amended (indeed, felon disenfranchisement appears to be an afterthought in one such amendment). The real question is whether America should exclude any of its citizens from the democratic process; the quandary is moral, not technical.

And felon disenfranchisement laws have only gotten worse in recent years, with increasingly profound consequences for certain populations; indeed, some felons can vote, but those who cannot are disproportionately people of color and the poor. And that’s no accident. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, after the Civil War, “two interconnected trends combined to make disenfranchisement a major obstacle for newly enfranchised black voters. First, lawmakers — especially in the South — implemented a slew of criminal laws designed to target black citizens. And nearly simultaneously, many states enacted broad disenfranchisement laws that revoked voting rights from anyone convicted of any felony.” As the documentary, The 13th and efforts like The Sentencing Project observe, targeting felony convictions as a proxy for a race gives political cover to politicians seeking to disenfranchise Latinos or African Americans.

Source: The Sentencing Project


The racial implications of felon disenfranchisement have obvious political overtones: People of color lopsidedly favor Democrats, and many states who limit felons’ voting rights are in deep-red Appalachia and the Deep South. But the issue isn’t neatly partisan. Massachusetts voters (not famed for conservatism) amended the state constitution in 2000 to disenfranchise incarcerated felons, and in 1997, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush signed a law “eliminating the two-year waiting period after completion of sentence before individuals can regain their right to vote.”

But partisan or not, the issue is absolutely political — politicians across the country and on both sides of the aisle have for decades campaigned to appear “tough on crime,” although the issue has certainly waned as crime has plummeted from its peak in the mid-1990s. We are, however, witnessing a resurgence of anti-crime posturing, albeit with vintage language: the president campaigned during the 2016 cycle about restoring “law and order” — a perhaps unwitting use of rhetoric favored by Richard Nixon in the late 1960s — rather than regurgitating the Reagan/Clinton era lexicon. Much of the impetus for felon disenfranchisement policies has involved political calculations that being “tough on crime” had good optics, and disenfranchising felons offered politicians a way to appear grave and resolute about punishing criminals without escalating the already draconian mandatory minimums and exceptionally long sentences increasingly being enacted.

Irrespective of politics, however, states’ handling of felon voting rights is, from a legal perspective, exceptionally arbitrary and somewhat constitutionally dubious. Alabama, for instance, includes sodomy and possession of marijuana under its definition of “moral turpitude” for which felons are disenfranchised. But it also includes murder, manslaughter, and rape. Implicitly, Alabama law conflates the severity of minor drug convictions with first-degree murder, an absurd equivalency which highlights pervasive arbitrariness in such laws.

In contemporary debate, defenders of felon disenfranchisement laws will note that in some states (albeit mostly those with the smallest black populations), the felon population largely comprises older white men — a largely conservative demographic. They argue that if some states are disenfranchising likely Republican voters — and moreover, predominantly white voters – that the system cannot possibly be racist or biased against Democrats. By contrast, liberals respond that voters of color are nonetheless disproportionately incarcerated, even if they represent a minority of disenfranchised voters. And progressives also contend that in addition to being anti-Democratic, felon disenfranchisement is also deeply anti-democratic.

Perhaps some convicted of felonies — those guilty of extremely violent crimes, for instance — have truly gone beyond the pale. But most of those people will walk free again. They will hope to lead normal lives. They will hope to atone and be forgiven. And they will want to be part of a society that now appears to want no part of them. In short, they will be at the mercy of a merciless nation – one which favors punishment over restraint, where the “justice” system has reinvented injustice.

If America is to remain the land of the free — the birthplace of modern democracy — it behooves us to choose rehabilitation rather than retribution. If they have served their time, people deserve to participate. If they have not harmed others, former felons should regain the franchise. Certain crimes — murder, terrorism, treason — may trespass too severely on our morals. But most Americans who are locked up should not be locked out of democracy — especially not its most profound and precious civic duty.”


Sentencin Project: Democracy Imprisoned: The Prevalence and Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States

This report has been authored by a coalition of non-profit organizations working on civil rights and criminal justice issues in the United States.

The following organizations contributed to this report: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, the Hip Hop Caucus, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and The Sentencing Project (collectively, the “Reporting Organizations”). Descriptions of each organization are attached as Appendix A.

Introduction and Issue Summary

Some of the Reporting Organizations made List of Issues Submissions to the Human Rights Committee (the “Committee”) in December 2012. This report updates items from those submissions and provides additional information to aid in the Committee’s review of the United States’ (“U.S.” or “Government”) felony disenfranchisement practices.1) As a supplement to those Submissions, this report includes an overview of the history of and rationale for felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States, considers the U.S.’ disenfranchisement practices in the context of other nations, and discusses recent state law developments.

After its review of the United States’ second and third periodic report, the Committee expressed concern that the country’s felony disenfranchisement practices have “significant racial implications.” It also  noted  that “general  deprivation  of  the right to vote  for persons  who  have received  a  felony conviction, and in particular for those who are no longer deprived of liberty, do not meet the requirements of articles 25 and 26 of the Covenant, nor serves the rehabilitation goals of article 10(3).”2) The Reporting Organizations are encouraged by the Committee’s interest in felony disenfranchisement practices in the United States and share the Committee’s concerns about the extent to which these laws and their impact are consistent with the critical human rights protections enshrined in the Convention.

The United States continues to lead the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. The reach of the American correctional system has expanded over the course of the past half-century. In 1980, fewer than two million individuals were either incarcerated or on probation or parole; in 2011, that number was over seven million.3)  Despite a decrease in the prison population over the past three years and substantial reform efforts in some states, the overall disenfranchisement rate has increased dramatically in conjunction with the growing U.S. corrections population, rising from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million by 2010.4) The growing incarceration rate has been mirrored by the disenfranchisement rate, which has increased by about 500% since 1980.5) The fact that felony disenfranchisement is so wide reaching is deeply  disturbing,  and  indicates  that these  laws undermine  the open, participatory  nature  of  our democratic process.

Disproportionate Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws on Minorities

There  is clear evidence  that state felony  disenfranchisement  laws have a disparate impact  on African  Americans   and  other  minority  groups.  At  present, 7.7%  of  the adult  African-American population, or one out of every thirteen, is disenfranchised. This rate is four times greater than the non- African-  American population  rate  of  1.8%.6) In  three  states,  at  least  one  out  of  every five African- American adults is disenfranchised:  Florida (23%), Kentucky (22%), and Virginia (20%).7) Nationwide, 2.2 million African-Americans are disenfranchised on the basis of involvement with the criminal justice system, more than 40% of whom have completed the terms of their sentences.8)

Information on the disenfranchisement  rates of other groups is extremely limited, but the available data suggests felony disenfranchisement laws may also disproportionately impact individuals of Hispanic origin  and  others.  Hispanics  are incarcerated  in  state  and  federal  prisons  at  higher rates  than non- Hispanics: about  2.4  times  greater  for Hispanic  men  and  1.5  times  for Hispanic  women 9) If  current incarceration trends hold, 17% of Hispanic men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes, in contrast to less  than 6%  of  non-Hispanic white  men.10)  Given these disparities, it  is  reasonable  to assume  that individuals of Hispanic origin are likely to be barred from voting under felony disenfranchisement laws at disproportionate rates.

History and Rationale of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

In one form or another, laws that disenfranchise individuals with felony convictions have existed in the United States since its founding. In fact, twenty-nine states had such laws on the books at the time of the ratification of the Constitution 11)  These laws were borne out of the concept of a punitive criminal justice system  –  those convicted  of  a  crime  had  violated  social  norms,  and, therefore, had proven themselves unfit to participate in the political process. Beginning around the end of Reconstruction  – about 1870 – many southern states significantly broadened felony disenfranchisement and began focusing on crimes believed to be disproportionately committed by African Americans.12)  It was used along with a bevy of other measures as a means to circumvent the requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment,13) which prohibited  states  from  preventing  individuals from voting on  the basis  of  “race,  color,  or  previous condition of servitude.”14)  The justifications for disenfranchising individuals with felony convictions were ostensibly based on fears over the “purity of the ballot box” and concern that allowing certain current or even former inmates to vote would “pervert” the political process.15) These laws were often upheld by reference to an exemption for felony disenfranchisement in Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment  – “participation  in rebellion,  or other crime.”16) Rather than punitive focusing  on the individual–  these laws were deemed by the Supreme Court to be regulatory – focusing on the ballot and election itself.17)

Over the course of the twentieth century, attitudes towards criminality have gradually come to include  recognition  of  the possibility  of  the rehabilitation  and reintegration  of  former  prisoners into society  upon  their  release.18)  However, there  has  not  been  a  corresponding  realignment of felony disenfranchisement laws to make them consistent with more contemporary goals of the criminal justice system – increasing public safety and reducing reoffending.

Proponents  of  felony  disenfranchisement   argue  that such  laws  may  deter crime,19)  though disenfranchisement has not been shown to actually accomplish the goal of deterrence. One commentator, for example,  has observed  that, “[r]ecent research  suggests  a negative  correlation between  voting and subsequent criminal activity among those with and without prior criminal history.”20) Disenfranchisement, on the other hand, is likely to have the opposite effect by further marginalizing and alienating formerly incarcerated individuals from civil society. Other arguments in support of felony disenfranchisement are unpersuasive,  as  well.  For example,  some  suggest that, if  allowed  to vote,  individuals  with  felony convictions would constitute a cohesive voting bloc, which would distort criminal law.21) However, the fear  that individuals  with  felony  convictions  may “distort” the law through  voting  is unfounded and certainly not an acceptable ground to prevent them from exercising that right.22) The Supreme Court, for example, has previously held – although not in a felony disenfranchisement case – that “‘[f]encing out’ from the franchise a sector of the population because of the way they may vote is constitutionally impermissible.”23).))  In addition, little  evidence exists to suggest  that former  inmates  of any  sort would cohere into a constituency, or that, if they did, any viable candidate would specifically court their votes.24)

The arguments against felony disenfranchisement are strong. Felony disenfranchisement operates contrary to the goals of ensuring public safety and reducing reoffending by alienating from society those individuals that the criminal justice system is simultaneously attempting to reintegrate. Further, as the Committee has noted, state disenfranchisement laws are problematic not only due to the vast numbers of potential  voters  they affect,  but  also  their  disproportionate  impact on racial minorities,  particularly African Americans and Hispanics. Further, many of these laws extend punishment beyond the walls of the prison by continuing to disenfranchise  individuals who are on probation, parole or have completed their full sentences. For this reason, it is particularly important that the Committee urge the United States to provide its rationale for continuing to deprive individuals with felony convictions of the right to vote after they are no longer incarcerated.

The United States in International Context

Not only does the sheer number of individuals the United States imprisons set it apart from most nations, the United States has further distinguished  itself from other countries through the widespread practice of depriving individuals  with felony convictions  of the right to vote. Disenfranchisement  is a rarity in the democratic world, both for the incarcerated and for those released.25) Under article 25, governments  may  impose reasonable  restrictions  on  the right  to vote,  such  as  prohibiting  voting  by inmates. However, permanent disenfranchisement for a felony conviction—the policy in Florida, for example—fails to meet the requirements of article 25 of the ICCPR. Lifetime disenfranchisement  does not  satisfy  the requirement  that the grounds for the deprivation  of  voting  rights be  “objective and reasonable”  or  that the suspension  of  rights be  “proportionate”  to the offense  and  sentence.26)  This conclusion is consistent with the Committee’s 2006 Concluding Observations after the U.S.’ review.

The United States’ status as an outlier is further affirmed  by the growing  reluctance of other nations to accept felony disenfranchisement.  Even when such laws have been promulgated,  they have often been struck down in the courts.27) For example, in 1999, the South African high court struck down legislation  disenfranchising  all prisoners,  noting  that a  republic  is “founded on…universal  adult suffrage” which is “one of the fundamental values of the constitutional order.”28) Likewise, the European Court  of  Human  Rights has  struck down  similar  laws  in  both  the United Kingdom  and  Austria  as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.29) This approach has been echoed by the Canadian  Supreme  Court, as  well.  Striking down  a law providing  for blanket  disenfranchisement  of prisoners, the Court held that the “universal franchise has become . . . an essential part of democracy.”30)  It continued, “if we accept that governmental power in a democracy flows from the citizens, it is difficult to see  how that power  can legitimately be  used  to disenfranchise  the very  citizens  from  whom  the government’s power flows.”31) Yet despite growing international consensus around the elimination or even limitation of felony disenfranchisement laws, these antiquated practices continue in the United States.

State Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

Currently, individuals with felony convictions in the United States are subject to a patchwork of state laws governing their right to vote. The scope and severity of these laws varies widely, ranging from the uninterrupted right to vote to lifetime disenfranchisement,  despite completion of one’s full sentence. The Table in Appendix B provides an overview of the various state laws.

While  some  states  provide  only  for the disenfranchisement  of  those  currently serving  their sentence,  the vast  majority  of disenfranchised  individuals  have completed  their  prison  term.32) Of  the estimated 5.85 million American adults barred from voting, only 25% are in prison. By contrast, 75% of disenfranchised individuals reside in their communities while on probation or parole or after having completed their sentences.33) Approximately 2.6 million individuals who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised  due to restrictive  state laws.34) Although voting rights restoration  is possible in many states, it is frequently a difficult process that varies widely across states.  Individuals with felony convictions are typically unaware of their restoration rights or how to exercise them. Further, confusion among  elections  officials  about  state  law contributes  to the disenfranchisement  of  eligible  voters.35)

Reliable information on the rate and number of individuals whose rights have been restored is difficult to obtain, but preliminary data suggests that in states that continue to disenfranchise after the completion of an individual’s  sentence,  the percentage  of restoration  ranges  from  less  than 1%  to 16%.   This  data indicates that the vast majority of individuals in these states remain disenfranchised.36)

Recent Developments in State Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

In the past fifteen years there has been a general trend toward liberalization of felony disenfranchisement laws. Since 1997, twenty-three states have changed their felony disenfranchisement policies with the goal of expanding voter eligibility and reducing the restrictiveness  of these laws.37) In some states, this momentum has continued in recent years, while in others, lawmakers have moved in a more restrictive direction.

One of the most recent developments  was in Virginia, which, historically,  has had one of the most restrictive felony disenfranchisement  laws in the country: persons convicted of felonies are barred from voting for life. Voting rights can be restored to individuals  on a case-by-case  basis, but this has required application to and affirmative intervention by the governor.38)  Virginia also has an extraordinarily high rate of disenfranchisement  among adult African-Americans—at  least 20%.39) Given this historically restrictive policy and its disparate impact on communities of color, it is notable that Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell  announced  positive changes to the voting rights restoration procedure. As of July 15, 2013,  Virginia  started automatically  (albeit  individually) restoring  the voting  rights of  any  person convicted of a non-violent felony who is no longer under state supervision, does not have pending felony charges, and has paid off any financial obligations imposed by the court.40)  As many as 100,000 people could be eligible to have their voting rights restored under Governor McDonnell’s new policy.41) While Virginia’s new procedure will restore voting rights to a substantial number of people, the fact that the change was achieved through a gubernatorial policy means it may be revoked or revised by future administrations.

In April 2013, Delaware amended the state constitution to repeal a voter disenfranchisement provision. As a result, individuals convicted of most felonies will no longer have to wait five years after completion of their full sentences (including probation and parole) to regain their voting rights. Instead, they will be automatically eligible  to vote.  However,  some  other  felony  convictions  will result  in permanent disqualification from voting, unless a pardon is secured from the governor.42)

Other states have also relaxed felony disenfranchisement restrictions, but have seen the policy reversed by subsequent administrations. For example, in 2005 Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order that changed Iowa’s felony disenfranchisement  policy from lifetime disenfranchisement with  the possibility  of individualized  gubernatorial  pardon  to a  more moderate  policy  of automatic restoration of voting rights upon completion of a criminal sentence.43)  Governor Vilsack’s action led to an 81% reduction in the number of people disenfranchised in Iowa and an estimated 100,000 individuals regained the right to vote.44) In 2011, however, a new governor, Terry Branstad, reversed this policy and reinstated the former process of individualized  executive review. Two years later, the Associated Press reported  that although 8,000 individuals  had completed  their sentences  since Governor Branstad  took office, less than a dozen had successfully regained their voting rights.45)

The state of Florida has also experienced both advances and setbacks in its felony disenfranchisement  policy  during  the course  of the last  two  decades.  However,  the net  result  is that Florida’s disenfranchisement  rate remains the highest and most racially disparate in the United States. Florida  permanently  disenfranchises   all  individuals  with  a  felony  conviction,  unless they receive discretionary executive clemency.  As described in the ACLU of Florida’s List of Issues Submission, the United States singled out Florida’s record on felony disenfranchisement as one of the most restrictive in the nation.   As of 2010, Florida has disenfranchised 1,541,602 citizens due to a felony conviction. This amounts to the disenfranchisement of 10.42% of the state’s voting age population and 23.3% of Florida’s African-American  voting  age population.  Compare  that to the U.S. rates  of 2.4%  of the 238 million voting  age  Americans  disenfranchised,   and  7.7%  of  the nation’s  29  million  voting  age  African Americans, disenfranchised.   As this data demonstrates, Florida’s status as an outlier among the states is particularly pronounced in terms of the absolute number of disenfranchised citizens and racial disparities in rates of disenfranchisement.

Following a felony conviction, the clemency process provides the only route to rights restoration in Florida.  Citizens’ eligibility to apply for voting rights restoration ebbs and flows with changes in the state administration,  leaving Floridians  susceptible  to political manipulation.   For example,  soon after Charlie  Crist  became  governor  in 2007,  he  amended  the Clemency  Board  rules  such  that citizens convicted of non-violent offenses became eligible for voting rights restoration following release from incarceration.   From the 2007 amendments through the end of Crist’s term in 2010, 155,312 people had their rights restored. When Florida’s next Governor, Rick Scott, took office in 2011, he amended the Clemency  Board  rules  to severely restrict  eligibility  for rights restoration. The impact  of  Governor Scott’s rollbacks has been striking.  In 2011, Florida’s Board of Executive Clemency restored the voting rights of only seventy-eight people, while in 2012 the voting rights of just 342 people were restored.46)

Legal Challenges to Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

Legal challenges to felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States have been mostly unsuccessful because courts have refused to apply the same legal principles regarding the fundamental right to vote to individuals with criminal convictions.  As a result, there has not been an adequate judicial response to the disproportionate racial impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on minorities or the unreasonableness  of  state  requirements  regarding  the restoration  of  voting rights – claims  which  fall squarely within the province of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment which ensures equal protection under the law for all people.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Richardson v. Ramirez, in which individuals with felony convictions who had completed their sentences argued that California’s felony disenfranchisement law violated their equal protection rights, cemented this dichotomy.47)  The Court held that “the exclusion of felons from the vote has an affirmative sanction in § 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment,” which was not present in other cases involving  restrictions  on the franchise.48)  This ruling is especially  difficult  to reconcile because the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause has been successfully used to challenge  laws  that appear  racially  neutral  on  their  face,  but  are racially  discriminatory  in  practice. Despite this grim legal landscape, civil rights attorneys have tried to fight these laws by focusing on the misapplication  of  felony  disenfranchisement  laws49), the ambiguity  which  exists  in  some  state  laws regarding which crimes are disenfranchising in the first place50) and the racial disparities inherent in the criminal justice system that result in minorities being disproportionately prosecuted, convicted and, consequently, disenfranchised.51)

Individuals with criminal convictions also have argued in court that state laws that condition the restoration of voting rights on the payment of legal financial obligations, namely court fines, fees and restitution, are  a  form   of  wealth-based discrimination in  violation   of  not   only   the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, but also the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibits Congress and states from denying voting rights based on one’s “failure  to pay  any  poll tax or other  tax.”52)  Unfortunately,  cases  with  this  specific  claim  have been unsuccessful as well.

Overall, courts should examine the actual practice and operation of felony disenfranchisement laws and the unequal treatment they exact.  However, until they do, federal legislation is still necessary to address the issue.


The last  few  decades  have been  a  time  of  movement  toward  relaxation  of  the restrictions surrounding felony disenfranchisement in many states. This is in keeping with American public opinion, as surveys show that eight of every ten Americans support the restoration  of voting rights to persons convicted  of  felonies  who  are no longer  under  state  supervision.53)  In  addition,  six  of  ten  Americans support the restoration of voting rights to individuals on probation or parole.54) There have been setbacks alongside  the victories,  however,  both  in  the courts and  at  the state level. Furthermore,  despite  the relaxation of restrictions in some states, disenfranchisement policies in the United States are extreme by international standards, and an estimated 5.85 million Americans are still disenfranchised.55) Additionally, the reforms to date have not eliminated the disparate impact that felony disenfranchisement policies have on minority communities.

Relevant Question in List of Issues

This report focuses on Question 26(a) in the Committee’s List of Issues, concerning felony disenfranchisement  laws and article 25 of the Convention  and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

U.S. Government Response56)

In  its  July  2013  response  to the Committee’s  List  of  Issues,  the U.S. Government  failed  to directly respond to the Committee’s inquiries on felony disenfranchisement in Question 26(a). The Government failed to directly address the Committee’s questions regarding the rationale for post- incarceration disenfranchisement, did not discuss steps it has taken to ensure states restore voting rights to individuals  who have completed  their sentences  or have been released on parole, and did not provide information on the discriminatory impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on minority populations.57)

The Government noted that under the U.S. Constitution, states generally determine eligibility to vote,  and,  while  it  recognized  Congress’  power  to regulate  elections for federal  office  and enact legislation under the anti-discrimination provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Government  did not express support for Congressional  legislation, such as the Democracy  Restoration Act of 2011, previously introduced in both houses.

The U.S. Government did note that the majority of the forty-eight states that restrict voting by individuals with felony convictions also have restoration processes for those that have completed their sentences  or  have been  released  on  parole.  However, it  failed  to acknowledge  how burdensome, confusing  and costly  the restoration process  can be in some  states.  Further,  the Government  did not mention what steps it plans to take to ensure that states are implementing  fair, uniform  processes for restoring voting rights.

Recommended Questions

The Reporting Organizations recommend that the Committee ask the U.S. Government the same questions posed in Question 26(a) on its List of Issues. These questions capture our major concerns, as well  as those  raised  in the U.S.  review in connection  with  its second  and third  periodic report. The Reporting Organizations do not believe that the U.S. Government has provided a satisfactory response to these questions.

Suggested Recommendations

We ask the Committee to recommend the following:

  1. That the U.S.  Government  publicly  support  the automatic  restoration  of voting  rights to citizens  upon  their  release  from  incarceration  for felony conviction  This  should  include urging Congress to reintroduce and pass the Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore voting rights in federal elections to disenfranchised individuals upon their release from incarceration.
  2. That the U.S.  Government   investigate   the disproportionate   impact  of felony disenfranchisement laws on minority populations and issue a report of its findings.
  3. That the U.S. Government encourage states to inform criminal defendants of the voting rights implications of their arrest or sentencing and to provide information on the voting rights restoration process upon release from prison and/or completion of criminal sent

CBS: Texas woman sentenced five years in prison for voting while on probation

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The Daily Beast: The FBI’s War on Civil Rights Leaders

“On March 8, 1971 an anti-war activist group, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania where they discovered a cache of classified documents, many bearing the cryptic code “COINTELPRO.”

They leaked the documents to the press and on March 24, 1971, The Washington Post ran a cover story on the vast program initiated by the FBI in 1956 to neutralize suspicious persons and organizations. Although initially formed to target the Communist Party U.S.A., it was quickly expanded to include a wide range of groups considered “subversive.” No segment had been as central to COINTELPRO operations as civil rights activists. A wider scope of the FBI’s actions, however, was not known until Congressional hearings five years later. What came to light was exceptionally chilling—seeped in its own racism, without any checks or balances, the FBI devoted more resources to harming the Civil Rights movement than any other task in its purview.

Fourteen years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Dr. T.R.M. Howard founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in Mississippi. An advocate of civil rights, Howard provided resources and assistance for Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old kidnapped and murdered in that state in August 1955. Since Till’s family had received death threats, Howard secured them with a safe haven during the trial. When an all-white jury acquitted two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in September, Howard denounced the verdict and widespread racial oppression and terror. Howard then traveled to other cities, including Montgomery, Alabama, where he spoke at the church of a 26-year-old new pastor, Dr. Martin L. King Jr. on Nov. 27, 1955. Like at other meetings, Howard detailed the great abuses, corruption and indignities regularly experienced by black people. And Howard openly criticized the FBI for doing nothing to protect black citizens in Mississippi. Local newspapers reported on these speeches and FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, incensed, wrote a rare open letter to Howard in 1956 denouncing him. Hoover also opened a file on Howard, putting him and the RCNL under COINTELPRO surveillance, along with communists groups (Howard was, however, virulently anti-communist). The FBI then recruited local black citizens to spy on Howard and others. One of these included Ernest C. Withers, a celebrated photographer of the black freedom movement who was granted access into intimate meetings and gatherings of civil rights leadership. He dutifully reported his observation back to the Bureau, where it developed schemes for disruption.

Hoover despised T.R.M. Howard, but the director’s contempt for the young minister whom Howard met in Montgomery would far surpass the contempt he held for almost any other public figure. Hoover’s special attention to King has been depicted in numerous movies, documentaries, books, and a wide array of articles—journalistic and scholarly. Hoover infamously claimed that the most prominent civil rights leader was the “most notorious liar in the country.” FBI agents were directed to spy on King’s personal life and professional life and disrupt both. Ultimately, the FBI, over the course of more than a decade, collected hundreds of pages of surveillance on King, hours of secret recordings, and a trove of his public work—writings, and speeches alike. It even attempted to tarnish his reputation months after he was assassinated. Under Hoover’s direction, in the months after the 1963 March on Washington and King’s most famous speech, FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan, head of the Intelligence Division, reported to Hoover that effective exploitation of the information gathered on King, “if handled properly, [could] take him off his pedestal… the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction.”

King was not alone. Every major advocate for black people in the country had been targeted by the Bureau. In fact, there was little differentiation between ideological lines and black leadership. In a meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Hoover said in reference to black nationalist Malcolm X and integrationist King, “we wouldn’t have any problem if we could get those two guys fighting, if we could get them to kill one another off…”

The campaign against King is best understood as a continuum of government policies that pre-date King by decades. The FBI had been, like other American institutions, inextricably tied to the ideology of white supremacy. In the 1930s, everything from the military to restaurants officially discriminated nationwide. Challenges to that archaic and endemic belief were almost always considered subversive. The predecessor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), targeted the Universal Negro Improvement Association and its leader Marcus Garvey. It also spied on Garvey’s ideological antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the NAACP.

Hoover’s behavior is often viewed as paranoid and even exceptional, but he operated with the full sanction of the wider state. During the civil rights movement, three U.S. presidents: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all supported Hoover’s efforts which were codified to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” targeted organizations. This would be achieved through various and sundry tools, including illegal activities. COINTELPRO used informants, agent provocateurs, infiltrators, legal and illegal wiretaps, break-ins, false correspondence, and “bad-jacketing,” which was the act of making a legitimate member of a group appear to be a collaborator with the state. Psychological warfare included calling the parents of young civil rights activists to inform them that their children had been murdered or kidnapped.

FBI agents worked with journalists to plant stories in order to discredit leadership and organizations. Across the country, the Bureau collaborated with local police to repress targeted groups. Sharing resources and intelligence, activists were arrested, fired from jobs, expelled from schools and lost business contracts. COINTELPRO even used switchboard operators and postal workers to spy on citizens, with or without court order.

Though there was a special interest in civil rights groups, the FBI used its extensive resources to spy on and antagonize a wide range of communities. The Bureau established categories for various targets, which included everything from the anti-war and women’s liberation movements, to socialists, black nationalists, student groups, journalists, intellectuals, non-violent integrations and revolutionary nationalists. They were separated into the “Agitator Index,” the “Rabble Rouser Index,” and the “Security Index.”

After King’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Freedom Movement took a turn toward the more radical permutations of Black Power, and no organization evoked Hoover’s rage and interest more than the Black Panther Party. Five months after the King assassination, Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” In internal memos, he encouraged “hard-hitting” ideas from agents to destroy the Party. The Bureau submitted anti-Panther ghost-written articles to the press, planted false correspondence between the Panthers and other organizations and used a classic “divide and conquer” tactic to foment hostility between the Panthers a black nationalist group, the US Organization, in Los Angeles. This last effort culminated in actual shoot-outs, multiple beatings, at least one bombing, and four Panthers dead in Southern California by 1969. With excitement over the violence, the San Diego FBI office submitted in a report:

“Shootings, beatings, and a, high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.”

Hundreds of Panthers were stopped, harassed and arrested by the police across the country. Hoover explained that the, “purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”

The effectiveness of COINTELPRO was overwhelming. Many organizations were destabilized with arrests, raids, break-ins, and killings. The most famous raid of the Panthers occurred in December 1969 in Chicago when a 14-man police raiding party killed two Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Several other Panthers were injured in the pre-dawn attack. Nationally, the Panthers insisted that the FBI and local police were involved in a conspiracy to destroy them. Hoover denied it. The magnitude of these coordinated activities, however, were not known until the 1976 congressional hearings.

Analysis of the COINTELPRO documents revealed that the overwhelming majority of targets were not tied to the Soviet Union or any foreign power. They included many non-violent black civil rights groups, but also organizations in other communities, including the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the National Lawyers Guild, and women’s liberation movement groups…

…The special attention to the Black Freedom movement is sobering. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan had files, but were significantly outnumbered by files on civil rights groups. There were only two files for right wing groups. For black nationalists, the Panthers represented 233 of 295, (79 percent) of all operations in that category. The Congressional hearings found that the FBI devoted less than 20 percent of its intelligence efforts to disrupt organized crime or to solve crimes related to bank robberies, murders, rapes and interstate theft. By contrast, more than half of all FBI targets were political organizations. The FBI was less concerned with actual criminal enterprises, like mob families, than with organizations and people who dared attempt to realize rights promised them legally.”

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“In the pre-dawn hours of December 4, 1969, Chicago police working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the Black Panther Party’s local headquarters. 388 Fred Hampton’s personal bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an FBI informant and gave officers a floor plan before the raid. 389 When the smoke cleared, Hampton and Mark Clark were dead and four others had been seriously wounded. 390

During the civil rights era, law enforcement targeted black leaders for arrest, surveillance, propaganda, and violence. Leaders of bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, were harassed, arrested, and fined. 391 That year, the FBI launched COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program focused on “domestic threats,” including civil rights activists. 392

Black leaders committed to racial justice represented a threat to white supremacy and became targets of law enforcement harassment and attack even when they advocated nonviolence. Beginning in 1963, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader” and destroy his image as a “potential messiah” to unify black activists. 393

When a younger generation began to steer the movement in a different direction, law enforcement repression intensified. 394
Malcolm X, who believed “[i]t is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks,” 395 was constantly surveilled by police up until he was assassinated in 1965. 396

In July 1966, 25-year-old SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael gave a speech invoking Malcolm X’s memory and advocating a self-determination policy of “Black Power.” 397

A few months later, two black men named Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California. 398 Spurning the tactics of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, the Panthers founded youth centers and free breakfast programs and organized legally armed patrols to prevent police brutality. 399 President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly condemned the concept of “Black Power” that the Panthers symbolized. 400

The rise of militant black activism and its rejection by white stakeholders emboldened law enforcement officials to employ controversial — and sometimes deadly — tactics. In August 1967, the FBI officially directed COINTELPRO to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” black nationalist groups. 401 In July 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” 402

Federal agents and local police engaged in harassment and raids that led to violent shootouts and the deadly ambush that killed 21-year-old Fred Hampton. An April 1970 poll, however, showed that 75 percent of Americans blamed the Panthers for this police violence. 403

“[M]any of the tactics employed by the FBI were indisputably degrading to a free society,” a Senate committee concluded in 1976, five years after COINTELPRO shut down. 404 The committee reported:

During 1967-1971, FBI headquarters approved 379 proposals for COINTELPRO actions against ‘black nationalists.’ These operations utilized dangerous and unsavory techniques which gave rise to the risk of death and often disregarded the personal rights and dignity of the victims. 405″

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War on Drugs

According to ACLU, “Drug arrests now account for a quarter of the people locked up in America, but drug use rates have remained steady. Over the last 40 years, we have spent trillions of dollars on the failed and ineffective War on Drugs. Drug use has not declined, while millions of people—disproportionately poor people and people of color—have been caged and then branded with criminal records that pose barriers to employment, housing, and stability.”

Drug Policy: A Brief History of the Drug War

Nixon and the Generation Gap

In the 1960s, as drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy. In June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer.

In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations. Between 1973 and 1977, however, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In January 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Within just a few years, though, the tide had shifted. Proposals to decriminalize marijuana were abandoned as parents became increasingly concerned about high rates of teen marijuana use. Marijuana was ultimately caught up in a broader cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s.

The 1980s and 90s: Drug Hysteria and Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates

The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

Public concern about illicit drug use built throughout the 1980s, largely due to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine dubbed “crack.” Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife, Nancy Reagan, began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.”

This set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. The increasingly harsh drug policies also blocked the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies to reduce the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.

In the late 1980s, a political hysteria about drugs led to the passage of draconian penalties in Congress and state legislatures that rapidly increased the prison population. In 1985, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” was just 2-6 percent. The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent – one of the most intense fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history. Within less than a year, however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. The draconian policies enacted during the hysteria remained, however, and continued to result in escalating levels of arrests and incarceration.

Although Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign, after his first few months in the White House he reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors by continuing to escalate the drug war. Notoriously, Clinton rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also rejected, with the encouragement of drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, Health Secretary Donna Shalala’s advice to end the federal ban on funding for syringe access programs. Yet, a month before leaving office, Clinton asserted in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of people who use drugs, and said that marijuana use “should be decriminalized.”

At the height of the drug war hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a movement emerged seeking a new approach to drug policy. In 1987, Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese founded the Drug Policy Foundation – describing it as the “loyal opposition to the war on drugs.” Prominent conservatives such as William Buckley and Milton Friedman had long advocated for ending drug prohibition, as had civil libertarians such as longtime ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser. In the late 1980s they were joined by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Federal Judge Robert Sweet, Princeton professor Ethan Nadelmann, and other activists, scholars and policymakers.

In 1994, Nadelmann founded The Lindesmith Center as the first U.S. project of George Soros’ Open Society Institute. In 2000, the growing Center merged with the Drug Policy Foundation to create the Drug Policy Alliance.

The New Millennium: The Pendulum Shifts – Slowly – Toward Sensible Drug Policy

George W. Bush arrived in the White House as the drug war was running out of steam – yet he allocated more money than ever to it. His drug czar, John Walters, zealously focused on marijuana and launched a major campaign to promote student drug testing. While rates of illicit drug use remained constant, overdose fatalities rose rapidly.

The era of George W. Bush also witnessed the rapid escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s term, there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year – mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses, often misdemeanors. While federal reform mostly stalled under Bush, state-level reforms finally began to slow the growth of the drug war.

Politicians now routinely admit to having used marijuana, and even cocaine, when they were younger. When Michael Bloomberg was questioned during his 2001 mayoral campaign about whether he had ever used marijuana, he said, “You bet I did – and I enjoyed it.” Barack Obama also candidly discussed his prior cocaine and marijuana use: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.”

Public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of sensible reforms that expand health-based approaches while reducing the role of criminalization in drug policy.

Marijuana reform has gained unprecedented momentum throughout the Americas. Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington State, and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for adults. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate marijuana. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans legalize marijuana for adults by 2018.

In response to a worsening overdose epidemic, dozens of U.S. states passed laws to increase access to the overdose antidote, naloxone, as well as “911 Good Samaritan” laws to encourage people to seek medical help in the event of an overdose.

Yet the assault on American citizens and others continues, with 700,000 people still arrested for marijuana offenses each year and almost 500,000 people still behind bars for nothing more than a drug law violation.

President Obama, despite supporting several successful policy changes – such as reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and ending federal interference with state medical marijuana laws – did not shift the majority of drug policy funding to a health-based approach.

Now, the new administration is threatening to take us backward toward a 1980s style drug war. President Trump is calling for a wall to keep drugs out of the country, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that he does not support the sovereignty of states to legalize marijuana, and believes “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Progress is inevitably slow, and even with an administration hostile to reform there is still unprecedented momentum behind drug policy reform in states and localities across the country. The Drug Policy Alliance and its allies will continue to advocate for health-based reforms such as marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, safe consumption sites, naloxone access, bail reform, and more.”

Jacobin: How a Democrat Killed Welfare

Bill Clinton gutted welfare and criminalized the poor, all while funneling more money into the carceral state.

“Bill Clinton’s 1992 election was meant to be a turning point in American politics. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief, believing him to be a much-needed break from the Reagan-Bush era of “small government” and social welfare cuts.But the optimism surrounding Clinton’s election — and favorable assessments of his time in office since — ignore the destruction his administration brought to poor and working people, especially African Americans, and mask not only the continuation but intensification of anti-poor policies. Rather than offering a reprieve from punitive austerity, Clinton took the Reagan-Bush agenda a step further. If his administration was a turning point, it turned us in the wrong direction.In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history, which allocated $10 billion for prison construction, expanded the death penalty, and eliminated federal funding for inmate education. The act intensified police surveillance and racial profiling, and locked up millions for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession. It helped usher in the era of mass incarceration that devastated communities of color (for which Clinton himself has recently apologized).Clinton’s simultaneous expansion of federal law enforcement and shrinking of the federal workforce to its lowest level in thirty years reallocated taxpayer dollars from employing people in social service jobs to putting more cops on the streets.The starkest example of the many racist and anti-poor measures directed at African Americans and passed during his administration was the 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed welfare from an exclusive and unequal cash assistance system that stigmatized its recipients into one that actually criminalized them.The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF established tougher mandates on poor single mothers and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare dollars (opening the door for increased discrimination against minorities).It prohibits anyone from receiving assistance for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over the course of their life. The act also requires aid recipients to be employed, in most cases, at least thirty hours a week to get their welfare checks, amounting to an hourly wage well below the legal minimum.Once recipients reach their program time limit, TANF forces them even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Many more are not even able to find work. A 2012 report by the Urban Institute concluded that for recipients with barriers to employment, TANF did little to help them find jobs.

Sweeping in scope, TANF contains clauses to bolster marriage, mandate job training, and offer parenting classes. The “flexibility” that was a hallmark of the welfare reform bill enabled states to shift welfare funds away from direct cash assistance toward child care programs or subsidies for companies hiring welfare recipients, meaning that a greater portion of public welfare dollars went to the private sector.

States were pressured to reduce welfare rolls — now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program — and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. They implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the “criminal element” — even though there was little evidence of widespread criminal activity among recipients.

The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals. Surveillance of low-income women punished black women in disproportionate numbers, resulting in more black children in foster care and black women in prison. Today, welfare and law enforcement work together to closely monitor the parenting of poor mothers.

These punitive policies were not new, but rather an extension of a long, racialized attack on welfare. AFDC was not controversial when it was instituted in the 1930s. Many people subscribed to traditional ideas about gender roles, believing that poor single mothers without a male breadwinner should be supported by the state in order to enable them to stay home and care for their children.

The overwhelming majority of recipients at the time, however, were white women. Women of color were considered less deserving of assistance. State and local social administrators of AFDC, especially in the South, systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which denied assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting.

As black migration to the North intensified, more women of color applied for assistance, resulting in opposition to the welfare program. Journalists wrote about welfare fraud and the “problem” of black migration, and there were growing calls to get people off the rolls. In 1967, the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to direct a portion of their welfare population to employment programs.

This landmark legislation shifted the role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of requiring those mothers to take paid employment outside the home. Although symbolically important because it signaled a new direction in federal policy, WIN was never adequately funded nor effectively enforced. The welfare rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s opposed the mandatory work rules and fought for higher monthly benefits, tempering some of these regressive policies. But only temporarily.

The punitive approach to addressing poverty was a result of the way race and poverty had become intertwined in the national debate. In the 1960s, urban social disorder, black demands for economic equality, and federal anti-poverty initiatives drew the nation’s attention to the persistent problem of black poverty. But the dominant liberal approach explained poverty as a product of black culture, reinforcing the notion that certain poor people were responsible for their own poverty.

Most notoriously articulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the culture of poverty argument suggested that a dysfunctional family structure — in particular single-parent families — was a primary reason for persistent African-American inequality.

The solution became one of attempting to instill proper values of work and marriage in black men and women. Poor black women were demonized as “welfare queens,” a trope popularized by Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, which implied that black women chose welfare over work and milked the system for all it was worth. This rhetoric was used to justify sweeping cuts in welfare spending.

Likewise, Clinton’s welfare reform bill was rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate.

Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.”

Clinton did not offer a departure from either earlier liberal policies that blamed the poor for their poverty or neoliberal economics. Instead, he turned what had been a few piecemeal reforms into a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor. He redirected state resources away from financial support for the needy and toward surveillance and criminalization.

In an era of market worship, those who couldn’t demonstrate self-reliance or independence were identified not only as unworthy of assistance, but as a potential threat to the core institutions of American society.

Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, couched in a language of personal responsibility and public policy correction, was the culmination of a trend among both Democrats and Republicans to deter and discourage poor women of color from applying for assistance. In this regard, there was little new about the “New Democrat.””

The Atlantic: Jeff Sessions Reinvigorates the Drug War

“Democratic and Republican officials alike took up the banner of criminal-justice reform over the past five years, hoping to reduce the nation’s unprecedented prison population and scale back the harshest punishments of the tough-on-crime era. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a major step toward rolling back their efforts.In a memo released Friday, Sessions instructed federal prosecutors nationwide to seek the strongest possible charges and sentences against defendants they target. “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” he wrote. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences.”Friday’s policy change effectively rescinds Obama-era guidelines for federal prosecutors that were designed to curtail the harshest sentences for defendants charged with low-level drug offenses. The previous memo, first promulgated by then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013, reserved the most severe options in the federal sentencing guidelines for “serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers” instead of defendants charged with lower-level offenses.Holder’s changes addressed longstanding criticisms of the federal posture toward drug crimes. “In some cases, mandatory-minimum and recidivist-enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution,” he wrote at the time. “Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
To that end, he instructed prosecutors not to list the quantity of drugs seized when charging a defendant unless he or she was “an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others within a criminal organization,” had used violence, or had a lengthy criminal history. Prosecutors should also consider, he said, if their charges “would create a gross sentencing disparity” compared with other defendants.Sessions’s new memo effectively rejects that stance, insisting on seeking the maximum punishments lawfully possible. “Prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory-minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors” prescribed by federal drug laws, he wrote. Any deviations from the policy require “supervisory approval” from the Justice Department…
…Rolling back Justice Department policies to a more draconian era wouldn’t be a surprising move for the former Alabama senator. As policing and justice issues rose to the forefront of the national conversation in recent years, Sessions became a frequent critic of reform efforts, including federal oversight of local law enforcement. He also played a prominent role in scuttling a bipartisan sentencing-reform bill in the Senate last year that had the support of figures ranging from Barack Obama to the Koch brothers.Framing the attorney general’s policy change is a one-year uptick in national crime rates after almost two decades of precipitous decline. “My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a ‘blip,’ but the start of a dangerous new trend,” he said during a speech in Richmond in March. “I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.” An immigration hardliner, Sessions has also tried to draw connections between immigrants and crime while criticizing sanctuary cities like New York City and San Francisco that don’t cooperate with federal immigration policy.
Sessions isn’t the administration’s only voice for a harsher criminal-justice stance. Trump has also cast the possible threat of higher crime in dramatic terms, portraying himself as its only solution. “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last year. During his inaugural address in January, he told the crowd that drugs, gangs, and crime “have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he added.Proponents of criminal-justice reform haven’t let the Trump administration’s portrayal of crime in American life go unchallenged. In a report analyzing crime trends from 1990 to 2016 published last month, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice concluded that the nationwide murder rate rose an estimated 7.8 percent last year. (A complete assessment of crime in 2016 won’t be available until the FBI releases its annual statistical report later this year.) But the Brennan Center noted that a large share of the increase could be attributed to a spike in homicides in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., instead of a nationwide surge.What’s behind the increase in homicides in those cities is also unclear. Chicago’s steady increase in gun violence has drawn the most scrutiny, including from Trump himself, who threatened to “send in the Feds” if necessary. (It’s unclear what that would entail.) Researchers studying the homicide rate in Chicago haven’t discerned any specific cause for the rise, even among factors usually blamed for rising crime.Friday’s memo is expected to be the first of many breaks the attorney general makes with Obama-era policies on high-profile criminal-justice matters. Sessions previously ordered a comprehensive review of the Justice Department’s consent decrees with local police departments. Those agreements were among the Obama Justice Department’s most valued tools in reforming troubled law-enforcement agencies. Sessions, however, has been a frequent critic of the decrees in general, describing them as unnecessary federal intrusion into the local policing practices.”

Jay Z – The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush

Jezebel: Nixon Policy Advisor Admits He Invented War On Drugs to Suppress ‘Anti-War Left and Black People’

“Dan Baum, writing in support of drug legalization at Harper’s, has unleashed a frank 1994 quote from former Nixon policy advisor John Ehrlichman, and as inadvertently salient an argument for legalizing drugs as any I’ve ever seen:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.

Bold mine.

That drugs have been used as a tactic to marginalize and imprison peoples who are inconvenient, so to speak, for conservatives and neo-cons doesn’t really come as a surprise—and not just because Nixon was a noted racist. The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but, as Baum explains, it’s been useful for every president thereafter, and its function as a suppressive tool didn’t exactly wane—recall the way it defined Reagan’s crack era, which was funneled into black neighborhoods by the CIA and then used to decimate an entire generation. Or the way relatively minor drug offenses are the main contributor to the current mass incarceration crisis, which disproportionately affects young black and brown men.

Adjacent to this, Baum lays out a clear and logical argument for the way legalization could work, using Portugal and the Netherlands as precedents, and advocating for it to remain in the control of the state—a “state-run monopoly”—rather than free markets, lest addiction become a market incentive the way it has with alcohol and cigarettes. (Of course, the deeper problem of racial prejudice remains strong in this scenario too—the legal weed market has already locked out people of color to a dramatic and unfair degree, and black people are much more likely to be arrested for pot-related offenses even in states where it’s legal.) Baum cites the way marijuana is regulated in his home state of Colorado (of course this dude is from Boulder), but also makes the case that weed is the path to killing the drug war, in its capacity as an admitted racist and antiliberal Nixonian tool:

The citizens of the U.S. jurisdictions that legalized marijuana may have set in motion more machinery than most of them had imagined. “Without marijuana prohibition, the government can’t sustain the drug war,” Ira Glasser, who ran the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001, told me. “Without marijuana, the use of drugs is negligible, and you can’t justify the law-enforcement and prison spending on the other drugs. Their use is vanishingly small. I always thought that if you could cut the marijuana head off the beast, the drug war couldn’t be sustained.”

Restorative Justice

Opioid Vs. Crack Addiction: A Racial Double Standard?

Huff Post: California Passes Bill To Expunge Old Marijuana Convictions

It’s estimated that more than 218,000 cases could be eligible if Gov. Jerry Brown signs it into law.

“California lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that provides a legal framework to wipe out previous marijuana convictions.

The state’s Senate passed AB 1793, a bill that would force California’s Department of Justice to review the records of cannabis convictions that are eligible for “recall or dismissal of sentence, dismissal and sealing, or re-designation” under current marijuana laws.

Advocates across the country have pushed to wipe away cannabis convictions as more states begin to legalize or decriminalize the drug.

Despite the state’s relatively permissive laws, a Drug Policy Alliance study found that nearly 500,000 Californians were arrested on marijuana charges between 2006 and 2015. California first legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996 and passed a proposition legalizing recreational use in 2016.

There are more than 218,000 convictions that could be potentially wiped out or downgraded under the new law, according to CNN.

If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs the bill into law, state officials will have until July 1, 2019, to complete a list of eligible cases for recall. Prosecutors will have a year from that date to decide which cases they will challenge.”

War of Drugs Stats

  • Blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and they make up only 14% of regular drug users, but they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • Black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white kids —even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs
  • What the War on Drugs has done is trap millions of people, especially black men, in poverty, and push them toward a life of crime. With black boys arrested 10 times more frequently than white boys, for a non-violent crime that they commit less frequently than white boys, black men are funneled into the criminal justice system from a young age. With felonies on their records, it is incredibly difficult for black men to get work. As a result, they are trapped in low-paying jobs, or worse, turning to crime. Finally, once they have a felony on their record, most states prohibit them from voting.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • In our federal prisons, 46% are incarcerated because of drug offenses. Yet a 2013 government survey of 67,500 people revealed that White and Black Americans use drugs at similar rates (9.5% and 10.5%, respectively).
    • Isolate heroin use, and the picture shifts dramatically. The New York Times reports that “nearly 90% of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were White.”

Source: Everyday Feminism: Here’s Your Proof That White Americans Don’t Face Systemic Racism

Prison (Mass Incarceration)

  • 1 in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106.
  • Minorities are less than 28% of the U.S. population, but they are nearly 60% of the prison population. Blacks in specific are less than 13% of the U.S. population, but they are 38% of the American prison population.
  • Black boys are five times as likely to go to jail as white boys; Latino boys are 3 times as likely.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • Blacks make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.

Mass Incarceration, Visualized

Criminal Justice/Courts

  • Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Blacks are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • A black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a better chance of being arrested. Once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people. And for many years, laws assigned much harsher sentences for using or possessing crack, for example, compared to cocaine. Finally, when black people are convicted, they are more likely to be sent to jail. And their sentences tend to be both harsher and longer than those for whites who were convicted of similar crimes. And as we know, a felony conviction means, in many states, that you lose your right to vote. Right now in America, as many as 13% of black men are not allowed to vote.

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real

Source: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real


Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality

Prison (Mass Incarceration)

  • 1 in every 15 black men (and 1 in every 36 Latino men) are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106.
  • Minorities are less than 28% of the U.S. population, but they are nearly 60% of the prison population. Blacks in specific are less than 13% of the U.S. population, but they are 38% of the American prison population.
  • Black boys are five times as likely to go to jail as white boys; Latino boys are 3 times as likely.

Source: The New Progressive: The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics & Data Post

  • Blacks make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.

Mass Incarceration, Visualized

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School-to-Prison Pipeline

American Kids & The School-To-Prison Pipeline

ACLU: School to Prison Pipeline

““school-to-prison pipeline,” (is) a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.

“Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”


American Kids & The School-To-Prison Pipeline

PBS: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

“The school-to-prison pipeline: an epidemic that is plaguing schools across the nation. Far too often, students are suspended, expelled or even arrested for minor offenses that leave visits to the principal’s office a thing of the past. Statistics reflect that these policies disproportionately target students of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty or learning disabilities.

Students who are forced out of school for disruptive behavior are usually sent back to the origin of their angst and unhappiness—their home environments or their neighborhoods, which are filled with negative influence. Those who are forced out for smaller offenses become hardened, confused, embittered. Those who are unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the school-to-prison pipeline. Many attribute it to the zero tolerance policies that took form after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Others blame educators, accusing them of pushing out students who score lower on standardized tests in order to improve the school’s overall test scores. And some blame overzealous policing efforts. The reasons are many, but the solutions are not as plentiful.”


Teen Vogue: How the School-to-Prison Pipeline Works

“Over the past 15 years, black girls have been increasingly subjected to harsh disciplinary policies, including excessive suspensions, expulsions, and arrests that push them out of school. In September, the Black Women’s Justice Institute released a report, based on U.S. Department of Education data from 2013–14, that found black girls were more than six times more likely than white girls to receive an out-of-school suspension. Though black girls made up only 16% of female students in U.S. public schools, they made up 43% of girls who were referred to law enforcement and 38% of those arrested.

The 2015 report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” presented Department of Education data that showed while black boys were suspended three times more often than white boys for the 2011–12 school year, black girls were suspended six times more than white girls. In other words, black girls were more disproportionately targeted by harsh disciplinary policies than were black boys.

Cops in schools (sometimes called “school resource officers”) play a critical role in this pipeline. Since the 1950s, some U.S. schools have had on-site police, and as late as 1975, only one percent of U.S. schools reported having police officers. But by the late 1990s, most urban schools had cops. In fact, New York City public schools currently boast a force of 5,200 school resource officers (including 200 uniformed police officers) — meaning schools in NYC employ more cops than counselors. Many schools also have metal detectors and surveillance cameras under the pretext of keeping students safe.

The presence of police officers in schools often leads to harsher, sometimes brutal treatment of the students within. According to a 2011 report from the Justice Policy Institute, “when schools have law enforcement on site, students are more likely to be arrested by police instead of discipline being handled by school officials. This leads to more kids being funneled into the juvenile justice system, which is both expensive and associated with a host of negative impacts on youth.”

This has been proved again and again. In 2015, video of officer Ben Fields brutally assaulting a black student named Shakara at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, became national news. Fields dragged the 16-year old girl from her chair and threw her across the room, an act filmed by another student, Niya Kenny. Kenny was charged with “disturbing the school,” a misdemeanor with a possible penalty of 90 days behind bars or a $1,000 fine; (charges were later dropped). She was also suspended from school for several days. This was a highly publicized incident, but similar interactions between school police and students frequently disrupt young people’s educational experiences.

Criminalizing school behavior is not new, especially not for black students. What’s different today is how many more students are being criminalized, and the current intolerance and punitive attitude in schools can be traced back to a spate of school shootings in the 1990s. For example, in 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, both students at Columbine High School in Colorado, killed 13 people and injured 24 others. The post-Columbine era saw the introduction of federal and state laws instituting zero-tolerance policies, which assign “explicit, predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.” At the same time, in the streets, the war on drugs led to more punitive criminal legal responses, such as three strikes and mandatory minimum sentencing.”

Teaching Tolerance: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Punishing Policies

“The SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) advocates for changes to end the school-to-prison pipeline and has filed lawsuits or civil rights complaints against districts with punitive discipline practices that are discriminatory in impact.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of school resource officers rose 38 percent between 1997 and 2007. Jerri Katzerman, SPLC deputy legal director, said this surge in police on campus has helped to criminalize many students and fill the pipeline.

One 2005 study found that children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. The vast majority of these arrests are for nonviolent offenses. In most cases, the students are simply being disruptive. And a recent U.S. Department of Education study found that more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic. Zero-tolerance policies, which set one-size-fits-all punishments for a variety of behaviors, have fed these trends.

Best Practices

Instead of pushing children out, Katzerman said, “Teachers need a lot more support and training for effective discipline, and schools need to use best practices for behavior modification to keep these kids in school where they belong.”

Keeping at-risk kids in class can be a tough order for educators under pressure to meet accountability measures, but classroom teachers are in a unique position to divert students from the school-to-prison pipeline.

Teachers know their students better than any resource officer or administrator—which puts them in a singularly empowered position to keep students in the classroom. It’s not easy, but when teachers take a more responsive and less punitive approach in the classroom, students are more likely to complete their education.

The information in “A Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline” highlights common scenarios that push young people into the school-to-prison pipeline and offers practical advice for how teachers can dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Avoiding the Pipeline

How can school districts divert the school-to-prison pipeline?

  1. Increase the use of positive behavior interventions and supports.
  2. Compile annual reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push students out of the classroom based on gender, race and ability.
  3. Create agreements with police departments and court systems to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, such as mace and handcuffs.
  4. Provide simple explanations of infractions and prescribed responses in the student code of conduct to ensure fairness.
  5. Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement in public schools.
  6. Train teachers on the use of positive behavior supports for at-risk students.

The School to Prison Pipeline: Criminalizing Black Youth in the Classroom | Video Infographic

History of the Juvenile Justice System

Racial Bias in Schools

Black students represent 16% of student enrollment but:

  • they make up nearly 50% of suspensions
  • three times more likely to be suspended than white students even when their infractions are similar
  • black students represent 16% of student enrollment
  • black students are half as likely as white students to be assigned to gifted programs, even when they have comparably high test scores

Black Girls are suspended 6x more than white girls for similar offenses

PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

Let Her Learn: A Toolkit to Stop School Push Out For Girls of Color

Let Her Learn:  Join the Fight to Stop School Pushout

NeaToday: When School Dress Codes Discriminate

“While a dress code is supposed to make the school environment more conducive to learning, it frequently does the opposite…

‘White Male Default’

Kutzer says that she will only “dress code” students if their clothing is clearly so tight it is uncomfortable. Her school follows “standard school attire,” (SSA) so students wear uniforms. On laundry day, however, some students show up without. Other student’s families can’t afford to keep up with their growing children, so their uniforms are ill-fitting.

“We are told by our administrators to send non-compliance issues to the office, but I only refer kids who are clearly wearing too tight or uncomfortable clothing, and I send them to the nurse, who keeps a stash of extra clothing for this type of situation,” explains Kutzer.

The high school attended by her daughter, however, uses a dress code policy rather than the SSA. Kutzer noticed that it essentially targets female and minority students—the focus being on on parts of the female anatomy, like backs, shoulders, and legs.

school dress codes

“Targeting styles of clothing that are mostly associated with a particular minority group is discriminatory. When styles such as ‘sagging pants’ are the issue, we are putting a burden predominantly on black males,” says Kutzer.

She calls this the “white male default,” a common trend for school dress codes. “Dressing as most white young men do seems to be what is encouraged.’

In 17-year-old Maddie Reeser’s Baltimore City public school, it’s the black girls at her school who are the most frequently dress coded—a double discrimination. “My white friends rarely get sent to the office, but my black friends do quite often,” says Reeser.

Another student said she brought up this issue to a male administrator, who told her it was “because white girls don’t have as much to show.” The student says this comment made her feel uncomfortable, let along failing to address the inequality.

Despite the fact that Reeser’s school has a uniform, she and her peers still faced the same issues that Belsham described at her Duval County school. “The rule should be based on the clothes, not how they fit, because it’s different for each person,” says Belsham.

Despite the rules being the same for every girl, teachers end up enforcing the rules more strictly with black females, and in a way that is humiliating.

Many dress codes can cause black students to fall behind academically, according to a 2018 National Women’s Law Center study. Looking at public schools in the District of Columbia, the report found that three in four D.C. public high school dress codes say students can be pulled out of class or school for dress code violations.

“It’s outrageous that girls are losing critical class time simply for what they are wearing,” said NWLC Education Fellow and report co-author, Kayla Patrick. “This sends a disturbing message to all students: What a girl looks like is more important than what she learns and thinks. No girl should ever have to forfeit her education because her shirt is the wrong color or she has a hole in her jeans.”

The Glowup: The Dress Code Is Discrimination? First Grader Denied His First Day of School for Dreadlocks

“Imagine this: You escort your son to his first day of first grade, all buttoned up in his brand new uniform and eager to begin the school year, only to be turned away because your child has dreadlocks.

That’s what happened to Clinton Stanley and his son, Clinton Jr., when they arrived for their first day at A Book’s Christian Academy in Apopka, Fla. Upon seeing Clinton Jr.’s head full of dreadlocks, administration officials did the Christian thing and told the Stanleys that the six-year-old would not be able to attend, due to an unseen rule in the school’s handbook that states that all boys’ hair must be cut above the ear.

An emotional video of the incident taken by Stanley Sr. shows that even his request to braid his son’s hair down was met with denial. In fact, the only solution the school would offer in the moment was to allow him to unenroll his child, causing him to miss his first day of school.

As A Book’s is a private academy, they are legally within their rights to enforce a dress code. However, to include a grooming choice as personal and culturally relevant as wearing dreadlocks rightfully raises concerns.

“If a kid has dreadlocks, that’s your personal standard,” Stanley told local news station WESH 2 News. “Meaning, that’s a personal problem you haven’t overcome, because 95 percent of the kids who have dreadlocks are African American.”

But evangelist and school director John Book told WESH that he is “obviously not a racist,” countering that his school is “probably 95 percent black.” He then quoted the famous hymn, “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” emphasizing the phrase “All the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”

But what A Book’s restrictive dress code indicates is that the cultural expressions of red, yellow, black and white children are not considered equally precious. After all, the school only offered to re-enroll Clinton Jr. under the condition that he cut his hair, an offer the Stanleys wisely declined.

Of course, this is far from the first time we’ve seen a traditionally black hairstyle become an issue in school. Much like the military, American schools both public and private have regularly policed hairstyles like locs, braids and naturals, proclaiming them unsanitary, unruly and even disruptive to the academic environment. In the process, black students have been denied days of learning, proms and even graduation, while repeatedly being given the message that their natural hairstyles are unacceptable or somehow abnormal.

It’s an issue no parent or child should have to address as they attempt to get an education, let alone on the very first day of school. But thankfully, this story has a happy ending: The very next day, Stanley found a school for his son accepting of his hairstyle of choice—which Clinton Jr. celebrated by wearing his locs in a mohawk for his second first day of school.

Learn More

PBS: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

ACLU: School to Prison Pipeline

Teaching Tolerance: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Justice Policy Institute: The school to prison pipeline, explained

SPLC: Report highlights racial disparities in school discipline – once again

Teen Vogue: How the School-to-Prison Pipeline Works

National Black Women’s Justice Institute: SUMMARY OF DISCIPLINE DATA FOR GIRLS IN

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Teaching Tolerance


Southern Poverty Law center (SPLC)

National Black Women’s Justice Institute

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Alternatives to Calling the Police

Often calling the police on people of color can trigger forms of racial oppression from harming the victim, deportation, loss of job, to escalating the situation causing harm or death.  Many of these consequences can be triggered by minor violations such as noise complaints, selling marijuana, public intoxication, etc.  It’s important to understand the consequences of calling the police and to always search for alternatives when possible.

Possible Negative Impacts of calling the police

  • Police often arrest and harm the victims, especially back women and black transgender people, causing further trauma
  • If the person is undocumented you could trigger an ICE deportation
  • Police could escalate the situation causing harm, harassment, trauma or death
  • Victims could go to jail causing them to lose their job, experience financial hardships, harming family relations, exposure to abuse, affecting future school and job opportunities and/or entering people into a prison cycle that perpurates further and more erve crimes
  • Could create harmful divides in your community

Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police

According to the group Petworth Immigrant Rights & Police Accountability

  1. Is this merely an inconvenience to me? > Can I put up with this and be okay?
  2. No, I need to respond > Can I handle this on my own, is this something I could try to talk-out with the person?
  3. No, I need back-up > Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone whom I could call to help me?
  4. No, I need a professional > Can we use mediation to talk through what’s happening or is there an emergency response hotline I could call?
  5. No >  If I call the police do I understand how involving the police could impact me and the other person?


Alternatives to Calling the Police

  1.  Know your Neighbors!  Spend time meeting and building relationships with your neighbors.  Exchange contact info.  Many neighborhood conflicts can be resolved easily by contacting the right neighbor.
  2. Volunteer with local community mediation groups.  If there isn’t one organize your community to create one.
  3. Join or organize a neighborhood group to organize to help conflicts and challenge police oppression.
  4. Research and develop a list of hotlines and resources to contact first before calling the police.  Share with your community.  Ideally make it a live doc that everyone can update.  Find resources and hotline numbers for the following
    • Mediation
    • Mental Health
    • Victim Support
    • Sexual Assault
    • Severe Heat or Cold
    • Undocumented Immigrant Help
    • BilingualHotlines
    • Human Trafficking
      • National Human Trafficking Hotline (888) 373-7888 24/7 200+ languages.  A trained and experienced Anti-Trafficking Advocate will speak with you about your needs, your options, and the resources. Anonymously report tips, seek services, and ask for help.
  5. Take anti-racist, de-escalation, mediation and anti-harassment trainings when possible.  Make a list of all the local organizations that host these trainings  and share with your community
  6. Volunteer with local organizations that support anti-racism, anti-police oppression and community policing initiatives.  Again, make a list and share with your community.
  7. Advocate and support efforts for local legislation to fund anti-police oppression programs and community-led peacekeeping and mediation efforts.
  8. Continue to educate yourself.  Read and follow this frequently updated resource


    New Zine: 12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops

    Calling the police often escalates situations, puts people at risk, and leads to violence. Anytime you seek help from the police, you’re inviting them into your community and putting people who may already be vulnerable into dangerous situations. Sometimes people feel that calling the police is the only way to deal with problems. But we can build trusted networks of mutual aid that allow us to better handle conflicts ourselves and move toward forms of transformative justice, while keeping police away from our neighborhoods.

    1 Don’t feel obligated to defend property—especially corporate “private” property. Before confronting someone or contacting the police, ask yourself if anyone is being hurt or endangered by property “theft” or damage. If the answer is “no,” then let it be.

    2 If something of yours is stolen and you need to file a report for insurance or other purposes, consider going to the police station instead of bringing cops into your community. You may inadvertently be putting someone in your neighborhood at risk.

    3 If you observe someone exhibiting behavior that seems “odd” to you, don’t assume that they are publicly intoxicated. A traumatic brain injury or a similar medical episode may be occurring. Ask if they are OK, if they have a medical condition, and if they need assistance.

    4 If you see someone pulled over with car trouble, stop and ask if they need help or if you can call a tow truck for them. If the police are introduced to such a situation, they may give punitive and unnecessary tickets to people with car issues, target those without papers, or worse.

    5 Keep a contact list of community resources like suicide hotlines. When police are contacted to “manage” such situations, people with mental illness are sixteen times more likely to be killed by cops than those without mental health challenges.

    6 Check your impulse to call the police on someone you believe looks or is acting “suspicious.” Is their race, gender, ethnicity, class, or housing situation influencing your choice? Such calls can be death sentences for many people.

    7 Encourage teachers, coworkers, and organizers to avoid inviting police into classrooms, workplaces, and public spaces. Instead, create for a culture of taking care of each other and not unwittingly putting people in harm’s way. If you’re part of a group that’s holding a rally or demonstration, don’t get a permit or otherwise cooperate with the police.

    8 If your neighbor is having a party and the noise is bothering you, go over and talk to them. Getting to know your neighbors with community events like monthly block parties is a good way to make asking them to quiet down a little less uncomfortable, or to find another neighbor who is willing to do so.

    9 If you see someone peeing in public, just look away! Remember, for example, that many houseless people do not have reliable access to bathrooms.

    10 Hold and attend deescalation, conflict resolution, first-aid, volunteer medic, and self-defense workshops in your neighborhood, school, workplace, or community organization.

    11 Street art is beautiful! Don’t report graffiti and other street artists. If you see work that includes fascistic or hate speech, paint over it yourself or with friends.

    12 Remember that police can escalate domestic violence situations. You can support friends and neighbors who are being victimized by abusers by offering them a place to stay, a ride to a safe location, or to watch their children. Utilize community resources like safe houses and hotlines.

What To Do Instead of Calling the Police
A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process

When the Police Knock on Your Door
Your Rights and Options: A Legal Guide and Poster

Great Example of a Local “Alternatives to Calling Police” Guide

ATCP-8.5x11-SURJ-print color-1

DC Alternatives to Calling the Police – Resource Guide & Flow Chart

White Caller Crimes | Judge of Characters

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Police Reform

Yes!: We Already Know How to Reduce Police Racism and Violence

“After being pulled over for a busted taillight on July 6, Philando Castile informed a Minnesota police officer at his window that he owned a gun and had a license to carry it. As he reached for his license and registration, his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter then watched as the police officer fired four shots into Castile’s body. He died in the driver’s seat.

Allowing suspects to explain their side of the story reduced compliance issues

Castile was one of 137 Black people in the United States killed by a police officer this year [as of July 8, 2016]. Another Black man, Alton Sterling, was killed by police in Louisiana the night before. On Thursday, seemingly in response, five police officers were killed and six were wounded when snipers interrupted a peaceful protest in Dallas on July 7. Amid the violence there have been forceful calls to city leaders to address police racism and brutality.

But research has existed for awhile to show cities how to reduce racism and interrupt the violence.

Train for racial bias

Stereotypes about the criminality of Black communities affect a police officer’s decision to shoot a suspect. That’s a fact. However, racial bias training can address the preconceptions and subsequent racially based brutality. After extensive training with a computer simulator in which the race of the suspect was unrelated to the presence of a weapon, a Florida State University study showed that officers were able to eliminate their biases. In a separate study, California officers also found that listening to the community and giving suspects time to explain their side of the story reduced compliance issues and increased cooperation.

Hire more female officers

Female officers are less likely to use excessive force, according to a National Center for Women in Policing report that looked at seven major U.S. police departments. While women make up 12.7 percent of those departments, they only account for 5 percent of citizen complaints of excessive force. This also means that female officers cost their departments less, because they are less likely to be involved in litigation. The Los Angeles Police Department paid $63.4 million between 1990 and 1999 for lawsuits against male officers and only $2.8 million for those against female officers.

Match the racial diversity of community

Police departments rarely mirror the diversity of their communities. The New York Times reports that hundreds of police departments are 30 percent more White than the populations they serve. But the number of violent incidents drop drastically when the diversity of the force matches the diversity of its community, according to research from Columbia Law School. A call for this diversity goes back decades, points out Joscha Legewie, who conducted the research with Jeffrey Fagan. “Our findings indicate that in cities that are polarized, particularly where there might be more ethnic or racial tensions, a diverse police force might help reduce tensions,” Legewie said.

Open departments to research

Police departments need to open their records to researchers if they want to understand how to fix brutality, said Beatriz Magaloni, an associate professor of political science at Stanford. Magaloni studies police brutality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where 5,132 civilians were killed by police between 2005 and 2014. While Rio is very different from the U.S., violence is likewise concentrated around poor and Black communities. Her research introduced Magaloni to some of the most effective practices, such as peaceful policing of slums and providing salary incentives for reducing homicides rather than rewards for bravery—which contributed to a culture of violence.

Wear body cameras

Body cameras reduce complaints against police officers, University of South Florida researchers found in a study conducted with the Orlando Police Department. During one year, 46 Orlando officers were randomly assigned to wear body cameras while 43 did not. At the beginning, most officers were skeptical. But by the end, the majority acknowledged that body cameras positively influenced behavior, improved evidence collection, and reduced civilian complaints. They agreed to continue wearing cameras.

Shaun King’s 25-part series on stopping police brutality gathered in one spot

Introducing a 25-part series on how to reduce police brutality following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

  1. Solutions for police brutality can begin with our overwhelmingly white male justice system
  2. To help fix police brutality, cops can no longer have less training than the average cosmetologist
  3. Police officers should be routinely tested for drugs and steroids like American athletes
  4. If you want to be a violent racist and never lose your job, become a police officer
  5. Police officers should be required to have a college degree
  6. Every city and state in America must ban racial profiling
  7. 911 operators must ask about mental health issues, a small change that could save lives
  8. To combat police brutality, hire more female cops — studies show they’re better at keeping their cool
  9. Why we must require cops to live in or near the area they police
  10. Communities of color are massively over-policed — effectively criminalizing color itself
  11. American police must be regularly tested for racial bias
  12. American police, who see humanity at its worst, must be regularly tested and treated for PTSD
  13. Why we must take police brutality cases all the way to the Supreme Court
  14. Good police must speak out against bad officers
  15. If nurses and doctors can treat the mentally ill without shooting them to death, so can American police
  16. Why police body cameras are failing, and the exact policies we must enact to unleash their power
  17. If a police officer must use force against a suspect, it should match the ‘crime’
  18. Every American police officer must have three weapons other than guns on them at all times
  19. It must become illegal for police to act violently using only their inaccurate imaginations
  20. American police departments are revenue generating monsters, policing for profit must be banned
  21. Police must record statements explaining their use of force immediately after each incident
  22. All use of force investigations must be turned over to an independent agency with binding instructions
  23. Police departments that fail to report killer cops don’t deserve federal funding
  24. Changing the culture of police brutality needs to happen on the state and local level
  25. Police officers, local prosecutors are two of a kind

Campaign Zero Policy Changes to End Police Violence

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1. End Broken Windows Policing

A decades-long focus on policing minor crimes and activities – a practice called Broken Windows policing – has led to the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color and excessive force in otherwise harmless situations. In 2014, police killed at least 287 people who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking “suspicious” or having a mental health crisis. These activities are often symptoms of underlying issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental illness which should be treated by healthcare professionals and social workers rather than the police.

Policy Solutions

End Policing of Minor “Broken Windows” Offenses

The following activities do not threaten public safety and are often used to police black bodies. Decriminalize these activities or de-prioritize their enforcement:

  • Consumption of Alcohol on Streets
  • Marijuana Possession
  • Disorderly Conduct
  • Trespassing
  • Loitering
  • Disturbing the Peace (including Loud Music)
  • Spitting
  • Jaywalking
  • Bicycling on the Sidewalk

(Example: Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015)

End Profiling and “Stop-and-Frisk”

Establish enforceable protections against profiling to prevent police from intervening in civilian lives for no reason other than the “suspicion” of their blackness or other aspects of their identity. This should include:

  • immigration status, age, housing status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, HIV status, race, religion and national origin as protected groups
  • the right for people to seek court orders to stop police departments from profiling
  • bans on both intentional profiling and practices that have a disparate impact on protected groups
  • ban stops for “furtive” movements such as a reaching for waistband or acting nervous
  • ban stops for being in a high-crime area
  • ban stops for matching a generalized description of a suspect (i.e. black male ages 15-25)
  • require officers to establish objective justification for making a stop and to report every stop including location, race, gender, whether force was used and whether a firearm was found.
  • end the use of predictive policing technology, which uses systematically biased data to enhance police profiling of black people and communities
  • prohibit police departments from using resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, report, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes.
  • prohibit police departments from transferring an individual to federal immigration authorities for purposes of immigration enforcement.
  • prohibit officers from being placed under the supervision of federal agencies or deputized as special federal officers or special federal deputies.

(Examples: End Racial Profiling Act of 2015NYC Community Safety Act; NYC Stop-and-Frisk Reforms; California Senate Bill 54)

Establish Alternative Approaches to Mental Health Crises

Mental health crises should not be excuses for heavy-handed police interventions and are best handled by mental health professionals. Establish and fund Mental Health Response Teams to respond to crisis situations. These approaches have been proven to reduce police use of force in these situations by nearly 40 percent and should include:

  • a multidisciplinary co-responder team that includes mental health professionals, social workers and crisis counselors as well as specially trained police officers
  • involvement of this multidisciplinary team in planning, implementation and response to crises
  • at least 40 hours of crisis intervention training for police officers (Ex: LAPD Mental Evaluation Team)

Learn More About This Issue

2.  Community Oversight

Police usually investigate and decide what, if any, consequences their fellow officers should face in cases of police misconduct. Under this system, fewer than 1 in every 12 complaints of police misconduct nationwide results in some kind of disciplinary action against the officer(s) responsible. Communities need an urgent way to ensure police officers are held accountable for police violence.

Policy Solutions

Establish effective civilian oversight structures

Establish an all-civilian oversight structure with discipline power that includes a Police Commission and Civilian Complaints Office with the following powers:

The Police Commission should:

  • determine policy for the police department based on community input and expertise
  • share policy and policy changes in publicly accessible formats
  • discipline and dismiss police officers
  • hold public disciplinary hearings
  • select the candidates for Police Chief, to be hired by the Mayor
  • evaluate and fire the Police Chief, if needed
  • receive full-time, competitive salaries for all members
  • receive regular training on policing and civil rights
  • not have current, former or family of police officers as members
  • select its members from candidates offered by community organizations

The Civilian Complaints Office should:

  • receive, investigate and resolve all civilian complaints against police in 120 days
  • establish multiple in-person and online ways to submit, view and discuss complaints
  • be immediately notified and required to send an investigator to the scene of a police shooting or in-custody death
  • be allowed to interrogate officers less than 48 hours after an incident where deadly force is used
  • access crime scenes, subpoena witnesses and files with penalties for non-compliance
  • make disciplinary and policy recommendations to the Police Chief
  • compel the Police Chief to explain why he/she has not followed a recommendation
  • have the Police Commission decide cases where the Police Chief does not follow recommendations
  • issue public quarterly reports analyzing complaints, demographics of complainants, status and findings of investigations and actions taken as a result
  • be housed in a separate location from the police department
  • be funded at an amount no less than 5% of the total police department budget
  • have at least 1 investigator for every 70 police officers or 4 investigators at all times,whichever is greater
  • have its Director selected from candidates offered by community organizations
  • not have current, former or family of police officers on staff, including the Director

(Ex: San Francisco Charter Policies on Police Commission and Office of Citizen Complaints)

Remove barriers to reporting police misconduct

For all stops by a police officer, require officers to give civilians their name, badge number, reason for the stop and a card with instructions for filing a complaint to the civilian oversight structure.

Learn More About This Issue

3.  Limit Use of Force

Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people – just as police do in England, Germany, Japan and other developed countries. In 2014, police killed at least 253 unarmed people and 91 people who were stopped for mere traffic violations. The following policy solutions can restrict the police from using excessive force in everyday interactions with civilians.

Policy Solutions

Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force

A. Authorize deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to an officer’s life or the life of another person and such force is strictly unavoidable to protect life as required under International Law. Deadly force should only be authorized after all other reasonable means have been exhausted. (Ex: International Deadly Force Standard; Tennessee Deadly Force Law)

B. Require that an officer’s tactical conduct and decisions leading up to using deadly force be considered in judgements of whether such force was reasonable. (Ex: LAPD Use of Force Policy)

C. Require officers give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force and give subjects a reasonable amount of time to comply with the warning (Ex: Las Vegas Metro PD Policy)

D.  Require reporting of police killings or serious injuries of civilians (Ex: The PRIDE Act; Colorado law)

E. Require the names of both the officer(s) involved and victim(s) to be released within 72 hours of a deadly force incident (Ex: Philadelphia PD Policy)

Revise and strengthen local police department use of force policies

Revised police use of force policies should protect human life and rights. Policies should include guidance on reporting, investigation, discipline, and accountability and increase transparency by making the policies available online. This use of force policy should require officers to:

  • restrict officers from using deadly force unless all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted (Ex: Philadelphia PD Policy)
  • use minimum amount of force to apprehend a subject, with specific guidelines for the types of force and tools authorized for a given level of resistance (Ex: Seattle PD Policy)
  • de-escalate first (Ex: Seattle PD Policy)
  • carry a less-lethal weapon (Ex: Seattle PD Policy)
  • ban using force on a person for talking back or as punishment for running away (Ex: Cleveland PD Policy)
  • ban chokeholds, strangleholds (i.e. carotid restraints), hog-tying and transporting people face down in a vehicle (Ex: NYPD Policy)
  • intervene to stop other officers who are using excessive force and report them to a supervisor (Ex: Las Vegas Metro PD Policy)
  • have first aid kits and immediately render medical assistance to anyone in police custody who is injured or who complains of an injury (Ex: New Baltimore PD Policy)

End traffic-related police killings and dangerous high-speed police chases

Prohibit police officers from:

Monitor how police use force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force

A. Report all uses of force to a database with information on related injuries and demographics of the victims. (Ex: Seattle PD Policy; Indianapolis Metropolitan PD reporting website)

B. Establish an early intervention system to correct officers who use excessive force. These systems have been shown to reduce the average number of complaints against officers in a police department by more than 50%. This system should:

  • report officers who receive two or more complaints in the past month
  • report officers who have two or more use of force incidents or complaints in the past quarter
  • require officers to attend re-training and be monitored by an immediate supervisor after their first quarterly report and terminate an officer following multiple reports

C. Require police departments to notify the state when an officer is found to have willfully violated department policy or the law, committed official misconduct, or resigned while under investigation for these offenses. Maintain this information in a database accessible to the public (Ex: Illinois Law) and prohibit these officers from serving as police officers, teachers or other governmental employees.

Campaign Zero reviewed police department use of force policies in 91 of the largest U.S. cities. Eight use of force policies were found to be associated with fewer police-involved killings and killings of police officers. Learn more at UseofForceProject.org.

4. Independently Investigate & Prosecute

Local prosecutors rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals. This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence. These cases should not rely on the police to investigate themselves and should not be prosecuted by someone who has an incentive to protect the police officers involved.

policy solutions

Lower the standard of proof for Department of Justice civil rights investigations of police officers

Allow federal prosecutors to successfully prosecute police officers for misconduct by passing legislation to eliminate the requirement that an officer must “willfully” deprive another’s rights in order to violate Section 242.

Use federal funds to encourage independent investigations and prosecutions

Pass legislation such as the Police Training and Independent Review Act of 2015 or use of existing federal funds to encourage external, independent investigations and prosecution of police killings (see Action Items 2.2.2 and 2.2.3 of the President’s Task Force Report).

Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor’s Office at the State level for cases of police violence

The Special Prosecutor’s Office should be:

  • required and authorized to prosecute all cases of where police kill or seriously injure a civilian, in-custody deaths and cases where a civilian alleges criminal misconduct against a police officer
  • equipped with an office and resources to conduct thorough investigations
  • required to have its Chief Prosecutor chosen from a list of candidates offered by community organizations

Require independent investigations of all cases where police kill or seriously injure civilians

The independent investigators should be:

  • required and authorized to prosecute all cases of where police kill or seriously injure a civilian, in-custody deaths and cases where a civilian alleges criminal misconduct against a police officer
  • required to investigate all cases where police kill chosen at random from a list of the largest ten agencies in the state
  • required to report their findings to the public

Learn More About This Issue

5.  Community Representation

While white men represent less than one third of the U.S. population, they comprise about two thirds of U.S. police officers. The police should reflect and be responsive to the cultural, racial and gender diversity of the communities they are supposed to serve. Moreover, research shows police departments with more black officers are less likely to kill black people.

Policy Solutions

Increase the number of police officers who reflect the communities they serve

Require police departments to develop and publicly report a strategy and timeline for achieving a representative proportion of police officers who are women and people of color through outreach, recruitment and changes to departmental practices (Ex: Connecticut Law)

Use community feedback to inform police department policies and practices

Require a regular survey (Ex: Milwaukee survey) to be fielded to the community to gauge their experiences and perceptions of the police and use this information to inform:

  • police department policies and practices
  • police officer evaluations
  • police officer pay incentives

Learn More About This Issue

6.  Body Cams/Film the Police

While they are not a cure-all, body cameras and cell phone video have illuminated cases of police violence and have shown to be important tools for holding officers accountable. Nearly every case where a police officer was charged with a crime for killing a civilian in 2015 relied on video evidence showing the officer’s actions.

Policy Solutions

Body cameras

Require the use of body cameras – in addition to dashboard cameras – and establish policies governing their use to:

  • record all interactions with subjects who have not requested to be kept anonymous
  • notify subjects that they have the option to remain anonymous and stop recording/storing footage if they choose this option
  • allow civilians to review footage of themselves or their relatives and request this be released to the public and stored for at least two years
  • require body and dash cam footage to be stored externally and ensure district attorneys and civilian oversight structures have access to the footage
  • require police departments, whenever they want to deny a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for body or dash cam footage, to prove in court that the footage constitutes a legitimate FOIA exemption (Ex: Illinois House Bill 4355)
  • permanently delete footage after 6 months if this footage hasn’t been specifically requested to be stored
  • include a disciplinary matrix clearly defining consequences for officers who fail to adhere to the agency’s body camera policy.
  • consider whether cameras or mandated footage are tampered with or unavailable as a negative evidentiary factor in administrative and criminal proceedings
  • prevent officers from reviewing footage of an incident before completing initial reports, statements or interviews about an incident
  • prohibit footage from being used in tandem with facial recognition software, as fillers in photo arrays, or to create a database or pool of mugshots. (Ex: Baltimore PD Body Cam Policy)
  • update privacy laws to protect civilians from having video or audio recordings released publicly that do not contain potential evidence in a use-of-force incident, discharge of a weapon or death.

(Ex: ACLU Model Policy)


Learn More About This Issue

7.  Training

The current training regime for police officers fails to effectively teach them how to interact with our communities in a way that protects and preserves life. For example, police recruits spend 58 hours learning how to shoot firearms and only 8 hours learning how to de-escalate situations. An intensive training regime is needed to help police officers learn the behaviors and skills to interact appropriately with communities.

Policy Solutions

Invest in Rigorous and Sustained Training

Require officers to undergo training – including scenario-based training – on the following topics on at least a quarterly basis and involve the community – including youth of color – in their design and implementation:

  • Implicit bias
  • Procedural justice
  • Relationship-based policing
  • Community interaction
  • Crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution, and rumor control
  • Appropriate engagement with youth
  • Appropriate engagement with LGBTQ, transgender and gender nonconforming individuals
  • Appropriate engagement with individuals who are english language learners
  • Appropriate engagement with individuals from different religious affiliations
  • Appropriate engagement with individuals who are differently abled
  • De-escalation and minimizing the use of force

Intentionally consider ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ racial bias

Require current and prospective police officers to undergo mandatory implicit racial bias testing, including testing for bias in shoot/don’t shoot decision-making, and develop a clear policy for considering an officer’s level of racial bias in:

  • law enforcement certification
  • the hiring process
  • performance evaluations
  • decisions about whether an officer should be deployed to communities of color

Learn More About This Issue

8.  End For-Profit Policing

Police should be working to keep people safe, not contributing to a system that profits from stopping, searching, ticketing, arresting and incarcerating people.

Policy Solutions

End police department quotas for tickets and arrests

Ban police departments from using ticket or arrest quotas to evaluate the performance of police officers

(Ex: Illinois law)

Limit fines and fees for low-income people

Pass policies requiring local governments to:

  • ban issuing fines or arrest warrants for civilians who fail to appear in court for a traffic citation (Ex: Ferguson Policy)
  • ban generating more than 10% of total municipal revenue from fines and fees (Ex: Missouri law)
  • allow judges discretion to waive fines and fees for low-income people or initiate payment plans (Ex: Pennsylvania law)
  • prohibit courts from ordering individuals on parole or probation to pay supervision fees and other correctional fees

Prevent police from taking the money or property of innocent people

Prohibit police from:

  • seizing property of civilians (i.e. civil forfeiture) unless they are convicted of a crime and the state establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture
  • keeping any property that has legally been forfeited (instead, this property should go to a general fund)
  • participating in the federal Equitable Sharing program that allows police to engage in civil asset forfeiture

(Ex: New Mexico law)

Require police departments to bear the cost of misconduct

  • Require the cost of misconduct settlements to be paid out of the police department budget instead of the City’s general fund
  • Restrict police departments from receiving more money from the general fund when they go over-budget on lawsuit payments

Learn More About This Issue

9. Demilitarization

The events in Ferguson have introduced the nation to the ways that local police departments can misuse military weaponry to intimidate and repress communities. In 2014, militarized SWAT teams killed at least 38 people and studies show that more militarized police departments are significantly more likely to kill civilians. The following policies limit police departments from obtaining or using these weapons on our streets.

Policy Solutions

End the Federal Government’s 1033 Program Providing Military Weaponry to Local Police Departments

End the supply of federal military weaponry to local police departments under the 1033 program. (Ex: Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act)

Establish Local Restrictions to Prevent Police Departments from Purchasing or Using Military Weaponry

Restrict police departments from:

  • using federal grant money to purchase military equipment (Ex: Montana law)
  • deploying armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, drones, Stingray surveillance equipment, camouflage uniforms, and grenade launchers
  • using SWAT teams unless there is an emergency situation or imminent threat to life and high-ranking officers have given approval (Ex: Cincinnati PD Policy)
  • conducting no-knock raids without probable cause to believe someone inside the home is an imminent threat (Ex: Cincinnati PD Policy)
  • accessing federal grant money or purchasing military equipment if the department has been recently found to demonstrate a “pattern or practice” of discriminatory policing
  • in addition to these restrictions, wherever possible agencies should seek to return to the federal government the military equipment that has already been received (Ex: San Jose)

See What Your Local Agency Received from the Department of Defense

Learn More About This Issue

10. Fair Police Union Contracts

Police unions have used their influence to establish unfair protections for police officers in their contracts with local, state and federal government and in statewide Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights. These provisions create one set of rules for police and another for civilians, and make it difficult for Police Chiefs or civilian oversight structures to punish police officers who are unfit to serve. Learn more about how police union contracts help officers avoid accountability here.

Policy Solutions

Remove barriers to effective misconduct investigations and civilian oversight

Remove contract provisions, local policies, and provisions in state Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights laws that:

  • allow officers to wait 48 hours or more before being interrogated after an incident
  • prevent investigators from pursuing other cases of misconduct revealed during an investigation
  • prevent an officer’s name or picture from being released to the public
  • prohibit civilians from having the power to discipline, subpoena or interrogate police officers
  • state that the Police Chief has the sole authority to discipline police officers
  • enable officers to appeal a disciplinary decision to a hearing board of other police officers
  • enable officers to use the contract grievance process to have an outside arbitrator reverse disciplinary decisions and reinstate officers who have committed misconduct
  • prevent an officer from being investigated for an incident that happened 100 or more days prior
  • allow an officer to choose not to take a lie detector test without being punished, require the civilian who is accusing that officer of misconduct to pass a lie detector first, or prevent the officer’s test results from being considered as evidence of misconduct

Keep officers’ disciplinary history accessible to police departments and the public

Remove contract provisions, local and state policies, and provisions in state Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights laws that allow police officers to:

  • expunge or destroy records of past misconduct (both sustained and unsustained) from their disciplinary file
  • prevent their disciplinary records from being released to the public via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request

Ensure financial accountability for officers and police departments that kill or seriously injure civilians

Remove contract provisions, local policies, and provisions in state Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights laws that:

  • require officers to be given paid administrative leave or paid desk-duty during an investigation following a police shooting or other use of deadly force
  • prevent officers from receiving unpaid suspensions as discipline for misconduct or allow officers to use vacation or discretionary time to pay themselves while on suspension
  • allow officers to receive paid leave or paid desk-duty after being charged with a felony offense

Campaign Zero reviewed the police union contracts in 81 of the largest U.S. cities. 72 of the 81 cities’ contracts imposed at least one barrier to holding police accountable. Learn more at CheckthePolice.org.

Use of Force Policies

Police Use of Force Project: How police use of force policies can help to end police violence


These policies often fail to include common-sense limits on police use of force, including:

  1. Failing to make life preservation the primary principle shaping police decisions about using force
  2. Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations, where possible, by communicating with subjects, maintaining distance, and otherwise eliminating the need to use force
  3. Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians, in many cases where less lethal force could be used instead, resulting in the unnecessary death or serious injury of civilians
  4. Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents immediately to a supervisor
  5. Failing to develop a Force Continuum that limits the types of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance.
  6. Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before resorting to deadly force.
  7. Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before shooting at a civilian.
  8. Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians

We (Use of Force Project) reviewed the use of force policies of 91 of America’s 100 largest city police departments* to determine whether they include meaningful protections against police violence.

Click here for full report and highlights

34 of the 91 police departments reviewed require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force.

                    Philadelphia Police Department Use Of Force Continuum

77 of the 91 police departments reviewed have a Force Continuum or Matrix included in their use of force policy, defining the types of force/weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance.


21 of the 91 police departments reviewed explicitly prohibit chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) or limit these tactics to situations where deadly force is authorized.