If you ever feel inclined to quote me (other than back to me to win an argument), the most important sentence I will ever post is a sentence I have posted many times:

You get what you incentivize.

Yeah, I know, Incentivize is not a real word, but you get the idea, and I'm not sure I have a more succinct way to express the concept. 

Are the police paid to be racist?

Intentionally, no. I can't imagine there's a municipality out there holding a policy meeting where someone says: "I know, let's pay our police to be racist!" 

Serendipitously, yes, and that's a lot of the problem. 

I know of three ways in which this happens. I'm not saying it happens everywhere, but it's common. 

The first is that one of the metrics used to determine promotions in police departments is number of arrests. If you're a cop and you want to increase your numbers, where do you go? To high crime minority areas; finding someone committing a crime is easier there. To a certain extent, this is a good thing, because it encourages a police presence where they're most needed, but it's also a very bad thing. It's one thing if police are in your neighborhood to protect; it's another if they're looking for someone to arrest. If they're looking to arrest, they're more likely to stop people on flimsy grounds, as in walking by and looking suspicious, which will of course encourage an adversarial relationship between the police and a lot of inhabitants of those neighborhoods. There's a second characteristic to these neighborhoods that exacerbates the problem: oversight with consequences is less of an issue. In other words, police can get away with stopping people for no good reason in high crime minority neighborhoods a whole lot easier than they can in wealthier neighborhoods. The police aren't stupid - they'll do what they can to get promoted in places where they can get away with doing what they can.

The second way is related to the first, but the compensation is more immediate: Overtime pay for filling out arrest reports. Most of what I said about the first way applies to the second.

By the way, if prosecutors are compensated and/or promoted based on number of convictions, the people processing police arrests have incentives to encourage those arrests and they're going to be very hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them. As police officers find that racist behavior pays off without consequences, they'll of course engage in more of it. 

The third is what Federal investigators found in Ferguson, MO and a lot of other communities in the surrounding area:  Poor minority neighborhoods being used as a revenue source. We know that wealth has been concentrating very heavily in the United States. This concentration has a couple of major consequences for tax revenues at all levels:

1. Because wealthy people have less need to spend their money, more of it is pulled out of circulation, where it doesn't generate taxes, either in the form of income taxes or in the form of sales taxes. When we look at concentration to the extent that we are, these are big enough numbers to matter.

2. The wealthy find ways to be taxed at lower rates than the middle class, so a smaller percentage of the money supply finds its way into government coffers. 

So now you find jurisdictions with smaller tax revenues, and the middle class in these jurisdictions are sufficiently squeezed (because government can afford to help them less in ways like college tuition assistance) that they vote to keep tax rates low. That leads local jurisdictions with the need to operate but not enough money to operate properly. They need money. Where do they get it?

By fining poor people, typically minorities, heavily for minor offenses, then fining them more in penalties when they can't afford to pay the initial fines. The advantages of this approach to jurisdictions are that they don't have to go to their key voters and campaign contributors for as much tax money and that they're fining a population with too limited resources to fight back. 

In other words, local governments are in essence forced to steal from poor people to keep their doors open. 

Whose job is it to make the arrests for these minor offenses? The police, of course. In a link that Myriad placed on my previous post


this phenomenon is referred to as "for-profit policing." And, perhaps even more than in the first two ways police are paid to be racist, they won't get interference from prosecutors; in fact, prosecutors in this case are likely to push the police to collect from the poor. 

Police officers don't have to be racist per se, particularly on an individual basis, for the consequences of their actions to have a disproportionate impact on minority populations, or for their actions to really aggravate police-community relations.

You will see police departments all over the country go through racial sensitivity training, awareness training, whatever. It's all a good idea, it will all help some, but it won't fix the problem because it doesn't work to tell police officers why it's bad to be racist while paying them to be racist. Officers often have families to support, and they will out of responsibility to their families do what they need to do to earn good livings. 

I'm not saying that there are no bigoted cops out there; there are plenty. However, de facto racist policing isn't just a function of bigoted cops or even of bigoted prosecutors; it's a structural issue. It is designed into the system, and if we want to really address the problem with a prayer of reducing it to an appreciable extent we have to concentrate more on restructuring compensation (and taxing the wealthy enough to make some of this crap unnecessary) and less on simply blaming cops. Blaming cops isn't enough and isn't even always appropriate. 

Views: 830

Comment by Myriad on August 22, 2015 at 10:13am

Your clarity of mind and expression always impresses me.

A socialistic note - spending of taxes should be widespread, not just local.  (Local does awful things to schools, for instance.)  The rich areas should be subsidizing the poor ones - cuz, ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Comment by koshersalaami on August 22, 2015 at 10:38am

Peter, thanks

Odd, because that's what impresses me about you, but because you rarely post political, I see it in comments. 

Concerning sharing the wealth more than locally:
There was a point at which even George H. Will thought this. He had spoken to someone in Colorado about school systems and she showed him the extent to which poor districts make school funding unequal, keeping the poor from educating their way out of their circumstances (or at least making it one Hell of a lot more difficult). I don't know if he still believes that, but he once wrote a column in support of that idea. 

Particularly in education, we need to spread the wealth more. I've been on the opposite end of that. Wherever we lived while I was growing up, at least once we were past my parents' first house, my parents looked for concentrations of Jews, not so much because of the community but because they knew that Jews spend money on education, so the school systems would be good. In other words, part of the issue was resources and part of the issue was local choice. However, if you don't have the resources, you can't make the choice, and that has to be the main problem to address. 

Comment by James Mark Emmerling on August 22, 2015 at 10:49am

Quotable indeed, except for incentivize. Well it doesnt bother me as it is impactful as hell (like the article, where you admirably refrain from suggesting racism being a human motivation---rather, a systematic endemic one).

Comment by Myriad on August 22, 2015 at 10:54am

K, I do try, but emotion and shouting get the better of me FTTT.

Comment by koshersalaami on August 22, 2015 at 11:06am

In your case I don't object to that. Your frustration is too justified.

James, if you've got a better way of expressing that dubious sentence, i'll take it under advisement, as long as one of its salient characteristics is its brevity. 

I'm not refraining. I'm observing. There simply aren't enough people in the United States who self-identify as racist to account for the amount of racism we find. Prior to the Johnson administration in the 1960's there were, but it doesn't work that way any more. If all these people think they aren't racists, the racism has to come from somewhere. Some of it is in actual racism unacknowledged to the outside world, some of it is in actual racism unacknowledged to oneself, but some of it is a third thing. 

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on August 22, 2015 at 12:39pm

Myriad speaks for me here. 

Comment by James Mark Emmerling on August 22, 2015 at 12:57pm

Incentivize is for sure a real word, I found out.

Comment by James Mark Emmerling on August 22, 2015 at 1:15pm

'' Prejudices are the props of civilization,''said Andre Gide.

''Where there are grave prejudices, there is no judicial investigation'' said  Publilius Syrus.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on August 22, 2015 at 1:32pm

I believe that the racism inherent in any organization has everything to do with the intentions of the leadership.

LAPD has gone through multiple cycles of reform over the past century, yet to this day it remains a department in crisis. The LA Sheriff's Department is currently under federal investigation for abuses at Men's central Jail.  I'm not sure what the answer might be, but the only time I can remember any kind of coherent reform was when LAPD was during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the United States Department of Justice entered into a consent decree with the LAPD regarding numerous civil rights violations.  Mayor Richard J. Riordan and the Los Angeles city council agreed to the terms of the decree on November 2, 2000.  The federal judge formally entered the decree into law on June 15, 2001. The consent decree is legally binding, and William J. Bratton was hired and served two terms as Chief of Police and changed the culture of LAPD.  In July 17, 2009,  U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess terminated the Consent Degree and Bratton left office in October.  Things have been slowly going south since then.

Perhaps the only way to "police" local police is to have the Justice Department and Federal Courts enter into "consent decrees" for every recalcitrant department across the whole country.  R&L ;-(

Comment by koshersalaami on August 22, 2015 at 1:40pm

Could be. I don't know the numbers, as to whether problems with racism should be assumed to be the default, the norm. We can tell who's doing things wrong but I'd like more information on who's doing things right. 


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