Police department reforms, but in wrong direction

Opinion by Mina Shah
Oct. 5, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

According to The New York Times, the police department in Kansas City, Missouri is in the process of implementing a new program. Good, right, since we have seen, especially over the past year, that police departments and police training programs in the United States are in some serious need of reform? Not so much. See, this particular reform aims to predict those who are most likely to commit crimes in the city and head off new crimes before they happen by doing two things. The first is warning the identified individuals that they’re being watched extra closely by the police department because they’re “high risk;” the second is cracking down hard on those people for offenses that wouldn’t normally receive such high penalties.

If you’ve been paying any attention to the BlackLivesMatter movement and statistics about the gross imbalance of the “justice” system, you should be more than a little worried about this. If you’re wondering about the quotation marks around “justice,” just remember that in 2010, Black men were over six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, Black people today are more than twice as likely to be killed unarmed in encounters with police as compared to white people and Black students are arrested far more frequently than their white counterparts; as much as 70 percent of the in-school arrests made are of Blacks. And if you still think the quotations should be removed, shoot me an email so we can have coffee and learn about oppression together.

For any reader with awareness of the reform’s potential implications, this reform might cause discomfort. But why, exactly?

Just for starters, I think that all the statistics above might be a good opening clue as to the true origin of discomfort.  Much like the other parts of this incredibly broken U.S. justice system, this program would disproportionately target people of color, leading to even worse incarceration rates and increasingly disproportionate arrests of people of color by the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD).

But how can we possibly know this? Because it’s already happening. The KCPD has already begun to have meetings, both individually and in groups, with individuals whom they suspect will commit violent crimes in the future, based on previous arrest records. The primary person discussed in the Times article cited at the opening of this piece, who was targeted by this crime reduction program, is a person of color.

As the program currently stands, previous arrest and incarceration records for violent crimes are used to project who will commit crimes in the future. People of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated compared to white people; this will worsen if police further target the individuals caught up in a system that was already against them. 

Additionally, while it seems that there has been a decrease in the number of annual murders in Kansas City since 2013, overall assaults have increased, and it is unclear whether the changes in numbers are related to the program with the predictive algorithm. Furthermore, there are plenty of other cities who have tried to implement a similar sort of program with no perceivable changes.

This change is also the same sort of preemptive strike against crime that was attempted with the infamous “Stop-and-Frisk” program. Before its implementation it might have seemed like a good idea, but since 2003, no more than 12 percent of the people stopped annually were white (often less). And on top of that, between 80 and 90 percent of those stopped and frisked were found completely innocent, meaning that the initiative both reinforced the racial biases of the NYPD and wasn’t exactly effective. It’s pretty likely that this program could turn into the same thing, or something worse.

It’s true that in an effort to decrease crime in any city, Kansas City included, interventions and reforms to decrease crime must be more carefully thought out and work better with, not on the specific community in which the intervention will be implemented. For example, it might be better to do community outreach with these people identified as “at risk” to perform future violent crimes with the community at large. Such outreach could begin to remind community members, all of them, that this is their home and they should empower themselves to keep it a safe place. And to me, that sounds a whole lot better than perpetuating racial bias within the institutional structure of a police department.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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