(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)
We are in a new phase of the long police reform debate. Over decades, opaque spending, police staffing practices, expansion of criminal codes, and other factors have made some Black and brown urban communities neighborhood-level police states. We are now, perhaps for the first time, seriously interrogating whether police should be able to function in these ways and, more fundamentally, questioning the role of police in public safety.
Politicians and courts have typically deferred to police claims of expertise in the delivery of public safety and community security. Today, by contrast, policymakers and the public have begun to question whether greater police funding, power, and discretion actually increase security. Directly impacted communities, coupled with racial justice movements and new-generation political leaders, have credibly suggested that even as policing sometimes saves lives, policing is ultimately a security threat. This narrative shift places the police on uncharted moral and political terrain.
Through qualitative research in several American cities, I have interviewed many Black people about their beliefs on, experiences with, and hopes for policing and security. I have seen some of the complex fault lines at the heart of debates over police reform. In these debates — now centering defunding, abolition, and other measures aimed at shrinking the footprint of policing in American life — there is an inevitable response from skeptics: What about Black people’s safety?
One hard truth, at least according to criminological research, is that even as policing has been brutal and racist, it may have prevented some violence. It may have deterred deaths. The Great Crime Decline of the 1990s may have been partly attributable to policing tactics, including hot-spots policing and the rightly castigated “broken windows” approach. The devastating and multiplex harms to Black communities from techniques of control and caging are also well documented. Yet, in a world more focused on the interpersonal violence that shows up in crime statistics than the structural violence that does not, it appears that increased policing has some measurable relationship with reductions in violent crime.
Black people, experientially, are not ignorant of this fact. Research also suggests that many Black Americans, including those who live in marginalized neighborhoods, report that they want more police presence in their communities. They just want police to “stop killing us.” They want police to be better and fairer.
I have heard many Black research participants share thoughts that are reminiscent of these findings — but with important caveats. For example, Linda (pseudonym), a 46-year-old Black woman living in Washington, D.C., told me — with a jocular tone, sprinkled among numerous critiques of police bias and inefficacy: “I’d rather have [police] around here 24/7. It make me feel much safer, whether they’re crooked or not. I wouldn’t tell. They’re in the uniforms. As long as they look like police, I’m alright, or security. I’m alright with any type of protection.”
“It make me feel much safer, whether they’re crooked or not” is not a stunning endorsement of policing. Indeed, earlier in the interview, Linda complained about how much the police “suck” in her neighborhood, and later, she shared an unsettling story about her nephew’s experience of physical police violence. “They do that to our babies,” she lamented. Yet, in a poll that asks, “If you have to choose, do you support or oppose increasing the number of police officers,” there is a good chance that Linda would respond, “support.”
Even if experience makes it doubtful that American policing is the right institution to protect Black communities, many Black people still share the American Dream that the police can function to “protect and serve” everyone. This complex reality — that many Black people distrust police but still want more and better policing — presents a conundrum for policymakers. To the untrained eye, movement calls to defund the police and reinvest in social services and community groups might seem difficult to reconcile with social scientists’ and technocrats’ warnings that status quo policing is necessary, that “under-policing” is as much of a problem as over-policing.
There are at least three points about Black security that policymakers faced with this conundrum might consider:
First, social science might not be the most relevant form of policy expertise for our current moment. This moment calls for expertise of many kinds. One shortcoming of social science-primacy in policymaking is that it is inherently backward-looking, a way to assess the worlds we have already inhabited. Empirical social scientists can only study approaches that have existed and ideas that have already been implemented. Given this reality, it is obvious why research shows that people want the police to work better in their neighborhoods; there has never been another widely available, well-funded, politically powerful institutionalized protective force against violence within this nation. Offered a choice between the devil one knows and an unknown, most people, at least initially, choose the devil they know. It is unsurprising police presence deters violent crime when deployed in particular ways; again, there has never been a well-funded, institutionally embedded alternative with primary control over violence reduction.
Social science can help policymakers think carefully about the past and potential consequences of policies. Building security for Black America will require study of not only fluctuations in crime rates and opinions on the police, but also answers to other research questions. Here are a few:
- How much access do Black people have to supportive people to disrupt and interject in moments where we are at risk of violence?
- What resources do Black people have to find ways to rebuild a sense of security once it has been violated?
- How free do Black people feel to move through neighborhoods of all varieties without encountering suspicion?
- How free do Black people feel to pursue activities that bring us joy, such as running, birdwatching, or simply spending time with friends outdoors?
Yet, social science cannot answer more fundamental questions about the justice or moral rightness of approaches to security. It cannot tell us when we have reached the tipping point at which police-supported safety is not worth the broader unsafety and political, social, and legal estrangement of Black Americans. Supporting the security of Black America means taking stock of historical and social scientific research without being unduly confined by its terms.
Second, social scientists are likely misinterpreting the data on what security means to Black people, overstating the centrality of more and better policing. Most of the research and polling data on policing were designed to probe policing, so — unsurprisingly — their findings are about policing. The problem with this approach is that security, both objectively and subjectively, may not be solely or even primarily related to policing. Consider, for example, Sandra (pseudonym), a 41-year old Black woman who lives close to Linda in Washington, D.C. When I asked Sandra about the positive changes in her neighborhood, she replied:
I see a whole lot of condos being built really really fast, and I think that’s good. I got tired of seeing all Black people all the time. I want to be able to understand other people’s cultures … I started seeing gardens and people that show interest and come to the community and motivate you and your kids. They have a One Stop where kids can go and play ball after school and earn stipends. I think that it’s better than when we were coming up because there was nothing to do. We had to fight for summer jobs. We had to wait until school came back around until we could get our jobs back. I think it’s changed for the better for my children and my children’s children. It seems like it’s going in the right direction. There’s a lot more things to do instead of hanging out and being afraid to walk down the street. More police presence is here, and you feel a little bit safer. It could be better with the noise control sometimes. I understand on the weekend they’re having parties and all that, but I never seen that when I was coming up. They have parties and it’s all lit up … [T]hey rent the room and have block parties. We didn’t have that. There wasn’t no money, and if there was we didn’t know about it. It’s a lot of better options and food, shopping, and better quality of food. I’m just glad I have a chance to be a part of it.
A policing study would zero in on Sandra’s comment about feeling safe in the presence of police. But Sandra’s new sense of security in her redeveloping neighborhood has numerous components — economic integration, racial integration, greening, increased community engagement, activities for youth, employment opportunities for youth, social activities for adults, and widely available healthy food. While these are to some extent “root cause” investments, which some worry will take generations to promote security, many of these investments can have immediate safety effects. Narrowing Sandra’s thoughts about safety to one statement — “More police presence is here, and you feel a little bit safer” — gives a false sense of her vision for a safe and secure community.
Finally, in this time of great change, we need practical solutions. We must take stock of American policing for what it is. Demands for pragmatism in this debate are often aimed at defunding advocates or abolitionists. But from the vantage point of Black security, it may be that the most realistic approaches to our current crisis will stem from a recognition that American policing is “working the way it is supposed to” — its practices and incentives emanate from its longstanding, basic function as a tool of race-class control. Clinging to the dream of a racially equitable system of policing as currently constituted might be more utopian than abolition.
Abolitionists often speak of their approach as “radical imagination.” By “radical imagination,” they mean that their ideas are radical in a Leftist political sense and radical in their boldness and expansiveness. That language, though motivating to some advocates and activists, might seem frightening or unrealistic to others.
It is important to remember that there is radical imagination on all sides of this debate. It may take radical imagination to envision a world without police and prisons, but it also takes a very bold imagination to believe that it is possible to stop unjustified, extrajudicial, and racialized police killings within an institution built on those characteristics.
It is time to embrace new ways of evidence production, consumption, and visioning. We need approaches that are fit to the task of honoring and nurturing the security of Black people and Black communities.