Double Standards in American Policing

Over at the Huffington Post, Ryan J. Reilly reports that St. Louis was one of the cities to receive MacArthur Foundation grants to improve the relationship between the police and the public. When discussing the award, the police chief made some frank admissions about the double standard that infects policing in the greater St. Louis area:

In an interview ahead of the announcement, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the reform effort a “positive that came out of a tragedy.”

[…]

Belmar… said it is simply unrealistic for law enforcement to be able to enforce the hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants in the county, many of them in connection with missed court dates for minor violations of municipal codes.

“I’m looking at cities that have 50,000, 39,000, 30,000 outstanding warrants today. You’re never going to catch up to that,” Belmar said. “You might have a city like Pine Lawn, which is 360 acres, that has 30,000 outstanding warrants. How can that be? The math doesn’t work.”

Belmar acknowledged that the protests in Ferguson have given a voice to populations that had been overlooked in the past.

“If you went to a very affluent area in St. Louis County, how long do you think a program would last where speed cameras were put up on arterial roads coming into subdivisions, and people were given letters saying they were going to be arrested? It would last about five hours,” Belmar said.

As Judge Janice Rogers Brown recently wrote in a concurrence in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, such double standards are not limited to St. Louis. Describing roving patrols for guns that are standard practice in Southeast D.C.—an area of predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods—she wrote:

As a thought experiment, try to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required. While viewing such an encounter as consensual is roughly equivalent to finding the latest Sasquatch sighting credible, I submit to the prevailing orthodoxy, but I continue to reject its counterintuitive premise.

Georgetown is an affluent, predominantly white area that is home to many D.C. elites and features high-end shopping and dining. It is indeed difficult to imagine SWAT teams shaking down tourists and well-to-do residents for very long.

Because many neighborhoods around the United States continue to be segregated along both economic and racial lines, this policing double standard has the effect—whether intended or not—of alienating poor minorities and undermining police legitimacy in those communities. Extracting money from the impoverished and using dubiously constitutional tactics in specific areas is the wrong way to treat the people who live there.