The killing of black citizens by police in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, the sniper shooting of five police officers in Dallas, and now the ambush killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge are only the latest evidence of a disastrous divide between police and the communities they are sworn to protect.
The fear on both sides feeds on itself, leading police to approach citizens--particularly those of color--assuming the worst, and to citizens anticipating the worst when approached by police. Needless to say, this impedes solving of crimes.
This must change before we dig ourselves in even deeper. Most of the answers proposed in recent days--better training of police in escalation of force, better police-community communication--are useful immediate steps. But for real long-term change, we need structural solutions that address the root of these divisions, and do not depend on sustained effort, attention and good will.
While we talk about reform of the criminal justice system, the more fundamental matter is what we as a society have assigned the police to do. We have given them the task of fighting a War on Drugs, rather than focusing on safeguarding communities.
While the recent events are not themselves drug-related, the War on Drugs has set the stage, and made such confrontations almost inevitable.
The War on Drugs is the main driver of the militarization of law enforcement. Since 1997, the federal "1033" program has given local police over $4 billion worth of surplus military equipment--night vision goggles, M-16's, MRAPS (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles developed for use in Iraq)--specifically for fighting the War on Drugs. SWAT teams are used primarily for executing drug warrants.
Federal grant money is available to local agencies for drug enforcement. Civil asset forfeiture--allowing the seizure of cash or property that might conceivably be drug-related--is a funding source for local police departments. Both provide powerful financial incentives for police departments to prioritize drug cases.
The result is our phenomenal rate of incarceration--reflecting both drug offenses and the violent crime necessarily associated with an illegal market. With 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners. Even Russia and China have much lower incarceration rates.
The incarceration rate is not spread evenly across the population. While drug use is very similar across racial and ethnic groups, drug enforcement disproportionately targets minority populations. A black person is far more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than a white person, and according to U.S. Department of Justice figures, about one in three black American males can expect to spend time in prison.
The high rates of incarceration severely damage minority communities, breaking social bonds and leaving children without parents, with dire consequences for their futures. Those with convictions are often barred from jobs, loans, federal programs and educational opportunities--cycling them back into the drug economy or the illegal sale of single cigarettes or CDs as the best available options. The cycle feeds on itself, leading to more convictions, even fewer job opportunities, more crime, more fear and more animosity between police and minority communities.
It will take a while to dig ourselves out of the gigantic hole created by the War on Drugs, but as the saying goes, "The first thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is STOP DIGGING." A problem two generations in the making will not be solved overnight, but stopping the drug war is a systemic nationwide policy change that would immediately remove a major source of conflict between police and minority communities. Expunging convictions will be necessary to change the future for those already convicted.
Take the money now spent on narcotics policing, prosecution and prisons and spend it on regulation, treatment for those who want it, and on addressing the poor schools and other conditions that lead to hopelessness in minority communities.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of 150,000 current and former law enforcement personnel and their supporters, has been making this argument for years. Maybe now it will get some traction. We have reached a tipping point, with police, minority communities and the general public finally realizing that the current situation cannot continue. Too many people are being killed, and there is no end in sight unless we fundamentally rethink what we are doing.