CLEVELAND — To some black residents, the story of Cleveland is one of two worlds: "I tell people if they want to come be in the safest place in Cleveland, they should come downtown from the projects and hood. … Come out from downtown, and you’ll see a totally different sight."
That’s how local black activist Al Porter characterized the discrepancy between the huge police presence at the Republican National Convention protests on Tuesday and, in his view, the lack of police in other parts of Cleveland.
As he described it, police have long neglected big parts of the city, particularly those in which poor people and people of color live — leading to much more crime in those areas. And when those areas do get attention, Porter said it was more harassment and abuse than serious crime prevention — cops, he said, "immediately suspect and smack around the people they don’t got connection with."
I’ve already witnessed some of the divide during my brief stay in Cleveland. As I headed uptown to check on some protesters, the scenery visibly changed from the flourishing businesses that surrounded me downtown. Just a few blocks northeast, most buildings looked vacant, and many were in desperate need of a renovation. "Don’t walk around too far by yourself in this area," my Uber driver warned me as he dropped me off.
Porter spoke to me on Tuesday at a protest organized by racial justice activists in Cleveland during the Republican convention, with a focus on racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system. In this context, it may seem strange that Porter, a protester at the event, is actually asking for more police attention in minority neighborhoods.
But this gets to the two sides of criticisms of police from black communities: It’s not simply that black people are upset that police officers are an over-aggressive, harassing presence in their neighborhoods. They’re also upset that even as police carry out what many see as harassment and brutality over petty crimes, the justice system neglects much more serious crimes like shootings and murders.
Black communities are at once under- and overpoliced
Journalist Jill Leovy captured the sentiment well in her book Ghettoside:
Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Under this argument, black Americans are exposed to both under- and overpolicing. The question isn’t whether police brutality in black communities or crime in black communities is a bigger problem, but rather how we got to a point in the justice system in which both are big problems.
On one hand, the criminal justice system is highly active in black communities, but typically with a focus on petty offenses. Stop and frisk in major US cities targets drugs and other nonviolent crimes. The brutal arrest and death of Eric Garner, a black man in New York City, came about after he allegedly sold untaxed cigarettes. Courts and police in Ferguson, Missouri, focused on low-level crimes to raise revenue through fines and court fees from black residents.
On the other hand, black communities are typically neglected when they're hit by a terrible crime such as murder. In her book, Leovy outlines the inadequate resources Los Angeles relies on to solve murders in black communities — the elite homicide unit, the Robbery Homicide Division, typically focuses on celebrity cases, massacres, and arson murders but rarely pays any attention to violence in black neighborhoods, leaving it to understaffed local divisions.
This is typical across the US: Investigations have found, for instance, that homicides with black victims are less likely to be solved than those with white victims.
Overpolicing and underpolicing feed into each other to destroy community trust
These two problems don’t exist in a vacuum. The police harassment black communities feel they face may actually make it more likely that homicides in their neighborhoods won’t be solved.
As Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California Irvine, previously told me, people are much less likely to cooperate with police if they feel that cops are harassing them on a daily basis. "People don’t feel like they can go to the police even if they’ve witnessed crimes, because they don’t trust the police, and there’s antagonism there," she said. "And police can’t do the job on their own — they need the community to help them."
A study published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, for example, found murders are a lot more likely to be solved when police officers are quick to secure a crime scene, notify homicide detectives, and identify witnesses. All of these tasks are easier if locals are willing to cooperate.
What's worse, police's inability to solve crimes can lead to more lawlessness. As Leovy notes in Ghettoside, people are more likely to take matters into their own hands — and resort to violence — if they no longer believe the criminal justice system will protect them. Putting an end to retaliatory violence, which can be rooted in even small and personal disputes about relationships, is one of the reasons we have a criminal justice system in the first place, Leovy wrote:
In the dim early stirring of civilization, many scholars believe, law itself was developed as a response to legal "self-help": people's desire to settle their own scores. Rough justice slowly gave way to organized state monopolies on violence. The low homicide rate of some modern democracies are, perhaps, an aberration in human history. They were built, as the scholar Eric Monkkonen said, not by any formal act, but "by a much longer developmental process whereby individuals willingly give up their implicit power to the state."
So reorienting law enforcement to, for example, encourage community policing that focuses on reaching out to and working with members of the community could improve community-police relations and public safety at the same time.
Indeed, that’s what happened in Boston after police began working much more closely with the community through "focused deterrence policing." With this approach, police homed in on the specific problems community members and groups raised, like drug dealing, generally violent behavior, gangs, or gun violence. They then focused on the individuals and groups who drive most of that activity, particularly those with criminal records and those involved in gang activity.
Now, this would involve a lot of changes within police departments: a big culture shift, retraining, and maybe even hiring more officers — all of which can be very expensive.
But if cities want to take complaints like Porter’s seriously and build trust in the police, it may be a necessary step. At the very least, we have to acknowledge that it’s possible for communities to feel both under- and overpoliced.