Elected officials, law enforcement executives and the public need to acknowledge the lessons learned from another scathing report exposing the root of distrust between minority communities and the police: zero-tolerance policing.
Released last week, the Department of Justice’s investigative report on the Baltimore Police Department connects the long-simmering distrust of Baltimore law enforcement to a legacy of government-sanctioned discrimination dating back to city’s founding in 1729: “These tensions hardened during the 1990s and 2000s as the city responded to increasing violent crime rates by emphasizing aggressive, ‘zero tolerance’ police strategy that prioritized making large numbers of stops, searches, and arrests – often for misdemeanor street offenses like loitering and disorderly conduct.”
Let’s use Baltimore to explain how zero-tolerance policing largely came to be. When Baltimore’s violent crime rate jumped 53 percent between 1987 and 1994, the city planning committee identified 266 distinct neighborhoods to be the focus of a new city ordinance vigorously pushed by the mayor’s office to reclaim public spaces by arresting the panhandlers and homeless. Soon after came the case of Patton v. Baltimore City (1994) in which the zero-tolerance arrest policy was ruled unconstitutional as it infringed on the homeless’ First Amendment right to freedom of association by attacking their “status” as opposed to their “acts.”
Whether police executives of the 1990s and onward considered a zero-tolerance strategy detrimental to crime control efforts in the long-term is irrelevant. Police work for elected officials, who saw the short-term gains in crime reduction offered by a zero-tolerance strategy as a potential electoral advantage. Whether zero-tolerance policies disenfranchised poor minority communities was irrelevant because their voice was small and their vote smaller. Sadly, elected officials put poor minority communities at odds with the police, who ironically were best positioned to see how the general failure of structural solutions disproportionately affect these communities.
This predicament is known as the democratic policing dilemma. Scholars suggest a democratic policing dilemma will persist so long as the potential for an electoral advantage clashes with technical expertise within the police profession. Knowing this dilemma exists, we must use the DOJ’s latest report as an opportunity to learn about one another.
Elected officials need to know that shaping police policy for an electoral advantage undermines police expertise and is an overreach that can have devastating consequences. Law enforcement leaders need to understand the power of legitimacy to lead the exercise of social authority needed to make up for where and when instrumental crime control measures fall short. Fellow citizens need to recognize how the democratic policing dilemma has left police with some unwarranted blame.
As we move forward amid an abundance of passion for police reform, it’s important we understand the limitations of more police oversight: The more police conduct improves, the harder it is to improve by good intentions alone. Perhaps evidence-based policing is the technical solution capable of compensating for where structural solutions fall short. The inherent transparency and empirical validity of evidence-based practices may reduce the gap between democratic deliberation and decisive deployment of force.