A few years back, my co-blogger quadmoniker worked for New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is supposed to act as a watchdog group for the city’s police department. If a citizen wanted to file a complaint against a police officer, she would do so with the CCRB, who would then dispatch an investigator (like quad) to interview the police officer and other people involved in the incident. Tracking down complainants, though, meant occasionally trekking to some woebegone corner of the city, where “probable cause” was broadly interpreted and which meant that cops stopped and patted down anyone they deemed to be suspicious. In some housing projects, there are police observation rooms, where officers monitor any activity in the complex via video camera. The cops can stop anyone and request I.D.; you can be arrested for being inside buildings where you’re not a resident. For most people, contact with law enforcement is rare, and antagonistic encounters with the police are even rarer. But for many of the people quad had to interview, it was an inescapable fact of everyday life.
I thought about that while reading William Finnegan’s profile of Joe Arpaio in the New Yorker last week. Arpaio is the longtime sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona and has received (and actively sought) a lot of national attention for his harsh approach toward illegal immigration. Among the most controversial are the sheriff’s high-profile “crime-suppression sweeps,” like the Finnegan one described in the article. Deputies in paddy wagons, on horseback and a helicopter descended upon a largely Latino town — with news crews in tow — and demanded I.D. from “basically every-dark skinned person they saw,” he writes. This exercise was carried out even though it was known that only a handful of people in the town weren’t born in the U.S., and despite protests from the town’s mayor. Arpaio says his department has investigated and detained over 30,000 undocumented aliens in the county, and in his zeal to arrest “illegals,” as he calls them, he has been unique in broadly interpreting a state law on human smuggling, so that not only are the smugglers charged, but the undocumented immigrants being smuggled are charged as “co-conspirators.” (This has exacerbated the overcrowding in the county’s jails, which Arpaio has addressed by building tent prisons in the scorching Arizona heat, and Arpaio brags that his inmates work on chain gangs and receive two cold, 30-cent meals a day.)
Arpaio wasn’t always an anti-immigration true-believer, but once he saw which way the conservative winds were blowing, he made the issue the tentpole of his public image. He is now the most popular politician in the state, so much so that Janet Napolitano needed an endorsement from him to edge out a close win in her gubernatorial race in 2002. (She is now President Obama’s homeland security secretary.) The same “tough on crime” calculation is true for New York, where Nelson Rockefeller, the state’s liberal Republican governor (back when such a thing existed), kept having his presidential ambitions thwarted by charges that he was too permissive on crime. His most consequential response to that was to create the harsh drug laws that bear his name, and that created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for the possession of four ounces of narcotics. Drug convictions went up. Crime didn’t budge. (Rockefeller only made it to the vice presidency.) Rudy Giuliani, an ex-prosecutor, won the mayoralty of NYC on the same law and order platform, installing a policing method based on the “broken windows” theory and received national recognition for taming New York City.* The implementation of so many of these tactics, like Arpaio’s “crime suppression” sweeps, was in large measure about mounting a show of force to allay the fears of white voters — who rarely lived in the places where the crackdowns were happening.
But once loosed, it has proven extremely difficult to stuff that genie back into its bottle. The effectiveness and necessity of these zero-tolerance tactics is questionable. In Finnegan’s piece, some of his deputies grudgingly admit that Arpaio’s methods haven’t done much to stem the flow of undocumented aliens coming through the county. An award-winning series in the Eastern Valley Tribune found that in Maricopa County, the sheriff’s monomaniacal focus on illegal immigration meant eschewing violent crime investigations or timely responses to emergency calls. The number of stop-and-frisks in New York City jumped from 97,296 in 2002 to 508,540 in 2006 even though crime in the city remained near record lows. But backing off or changing course would offer opponents a political opening. So the stated justifications for those measures become elastic and more extreme; “stop and frisk” is necessary to keep crime rates low, “illegals” are now allegedly bring swine flu into the States. And the tactics are stepped up accordingly, until everything is inbounds and justifiable in policing.
“[The officers] know that a reasonable fear of safety is necessary to justify force, and so they are ready to tell you their justification during their first statement. They also will tell you, if you sit them down in an interrogation room and compel them to answer your questions, that they work in dangerous neighborhoods where people hate them. That’s what some cops believe about the neighborhoods they police; that they are full of danger and anger that is directed toward them. If they believe that, every action can be considered furtive.”
The broader this thinking becomes, the easier it becomes to justify broader methods, because the people you’re policing seem to be less and less like you because you deal with them in increasingly circumscribed ways. And the slow, inexorable creep of institutionalization and dehumanization continues unabated.
*There’s plenty of debate about whether the precipitous drop here in crime here New York was because of anything Giuliani did, or because he ran the city as the crack era waned and during the economic boom of the late 90’s. New York City became safer at a time where crime fell dramatically everywhere else in the country, as well.