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Are black communities overpoliced or underpoliced? Both.


There's little debate that there's a problem when it comes to the relationship between many predominantly black communities and law enforcement. According to one school of thought, these neighborhoods are underpoliced, with inadequate attention to violence prevention to make them safe.

On the other hand, nationwide reports of racial profiling, young black and Latino men being unfairly stopped and frisked for no reason, and police officers like those in Ferguson, Missouri, targeting African Americans for petty offenses show there's a case to be made that many black communities are actually overpoliced.

So which is it? David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, argues in a piece for the LA Times that the answer is "both" — black neighborhoods have too much police involvement and too little at once.

Being harassed and ignored is a bad combination

To explain this, Kennedy, who wrote Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, takes readers who can't imagine what life is like in high-crime black communities through a thought exercise. Imagine, he says, facing relentless harassment by police for small offenses but being ignored when it comes to serious public safety issues. Imagine knowing that law enforcement officials in your neighborhood "think you're all scum," and doggedly pursue you and your friends for things like marijuana possession and loitering, but check out when it comes to holding people accountable for actual violence:

You'd be experiencing what families in stressed black neighborhoods have experienced forever — very high rates of arrest for minor offenses white folks routinely get away with, and shockingly low arrest rates for serious violent crime.  The cause of the latter is not as simple as deliberate police withdrawal — it's a toxic mix of a terrible history of exactly that, and a nearly as toxic present of mistrust, broken relationships and bad behavior on both sides — but the result is the same. Being overpoliced for the small stuff, and underpoliced for the important stuff, alienates the community, undercuts cooperation and fuels private violence: which itself often then drives even more intrusive policing, more alienation, lower clearance rates, and still more violence. The cops write off the community even more; the community writes off the cops even more.

If you believe Kennedy, there's some hope for breaking that dysfunctional cycle — but the solutions will be much more complicated than simply asking police to do more or less.

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