Police Leaders — Speak Out!

speak outShortly before I retired, I remember discussing the racial disparity in arrests we were experiencing with my assistant, Noble Wray (Noble is now Madison’s chief of police and an African-American.) I said, “Noble, one day in the future someone will ask us how did we permit this to happen?”

It still is a good question. How did we permit this to happen? Michelle Alexander, in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow,  provides answers — it’s the “war on drugs,” and, particularly, on whom it has been waged. Hence, the subtitle of her book, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.[1]

Lest we forget, in 1972 we had fewer than 350,000 inmates held in our nation’s prisons and jails. Today. we have more than 2 million – a quadrupling. In Europe, many countries have rates of crimes no better than ours, yet they significantly imprison fewer of their citizens.

Alexander goes on to maintain that we have bought into a set of facts that simply do not reflect the reality of the situation:

  1. The Drug War is aimed at the kingpins — big dealers. Not true. Four out of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales. And few of those arrested for drug possession have histories of violent behavior.
  1. The Drug War is aimed at dangerous drugs. Not true. Arrests (90% of them) are for possession of marijuana.
  1. The Drug War is aimed rehabilitating addicts. Not true. The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison (versus probation, community service, or addiction treatment) has caused the great increase in our prison population and also resulted in an explosion of prison construction.

Alexander argues that our “get-tough” approach to crime; that is, our “war” on crime that began with the Nixon administration and intensified with Reagan’s declaration of a “war on drugs” has devastated black America. Almost naively, our nation’s police (with strong financial enticements from the federal government) signed up to join the war and gather the funds. Now decades later, the war has not been won and the outcome was not quite what we all expected.

The result is that nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison as a result of that war. Upon their release, they will find themselves as second-class citizens being excluded for the rest of their lives from good jobs, serving on juries, voting, and even disqualifying them from food stamps, public housing and student loans. This is not a new allegation, many critics of our criminal justice system have already spoken about these social impediments to rehabilitation.

We often hear people in the community ask, “What has happened to fathers and husbands in the black community?” Alexander provides an answer, “They’re in prison!” When 1 out of 3 black men will find themselves in prison, it is not so hard figure out where all those husbands and fathers have gone.

Alexander goes on to assert that the “war on drugs” is less a response to the actual crime of drug abuse than a deliberate effort to push back civil rights gains of the black community. Her book gives expression to the deep feelings of many African-Americans that the criminal justice system is simply stacked against them. For example, what is the wisdom behind continuing to incarcerate nearly 1 in every 100 Americans when we have a declining crime rate? To Alexander, it is a vast new system of racial and social control that we have fallen into — a new Jim Crow.

This is no conspiracy, she says, but “to show how historically both our conscious and unconscious biases and anxieties have played out over and over again to birth these vast new systems of social control.”

Maybe it is time that our nation’s police leaders speak out about this. I know that it is not easy to do so. Even in my town of Madison, Wisc. I was strongly criticized for speaking out regarding the inability of our city’s school system to correct the significant disparity between white and black graduation rates. At the time, I said that any youngster dropping out of high school would soon be a police problem because of the high unemployment rates of non-high school graduates. I told the community that I wanted all of us to work upstream to solve this problem.

If I were a chief today, I would speak even more strongly about this and other community problems. In most instances, high school dropouts do not get the opportunity to fully participate in our society because they do not have the skills to hold a meaningful job. One might even say that high school dropouts are on a track toward prison because of the lack of legitimate and meaningful work available to them.

It’s time we shifted from using the criminal justice to that of the health care system to do something about drug addiction. We already have a model in place as to how our nation responded to the problem of tobacco abuse. We used public education, not a threat of prison, to reduce our nation’s use of tobacco — for it, too, is a dangerous drug. We can no longer afford the cost of what we are doing, both financially and morally. We can no longer use ours prison to solve a health problem like drug abuse.

What I am arguing for is that police leaders begin to see themselves as equal community partners with educators, health practitioners, and community interest groups. As leaders in our society, they also need to be educated and understand the “big picture.” Crime should no longer be the sole responsibility of the police any more than our children’s health and education be solely the responsibility of medical practitioners and teachers. It’s the responsibility of all of us.

[See full NYT book review here.]

To see how a number of police leaders are speaking out, visit the webpage of Law Enforcement Against Prohibitiion (LEAP) and their page on Facebook.


[1] Before the middle of the 19th century, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks. Minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of the term as a racial slur. By the end of the 19th century, the term was less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks but as a term to describe the various laws and customs which oppressed blacks.