"When you’re at war, you have to have an enemy": How the way we talk about crime makes the problem worse

Drexel University's Robert Kane tells Salon why criminal justice reform can't ignore the "tough on crime" lexicon

By Elias Isquith

Published May 15, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

Now that there's at least one big name presidential candidate from each party running on a platform that includes criminal justice reform — Sen. Rand Paul for the GOP, and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party — it's probably fair to guess that the issue will not fade from the political mainstream any time soon. And with the consequences of what some have called the "Baltimore Uprising" still unfolding at the same time that the city's former mayor, Martin O'Malley, prepares to run for president, it's also fair to say the conversation will not be held exclusively in the abstract.

But even an issue as visceral and immediate as police brutality also has an intellectual component, which is why Salon decided recently to call up Drexel University professor, criminologist and department head Robert Kane to, once again, discuss the best path forward for improving relations between law enforcement and people in benighted communities. In addition to discussing the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) and the so-called asshole theory of policing, our conversation also touched on why the "war on crime" rhetoric used by so politicians is a key part of the problem, and needs to go away. A condensed and edited transcription of our chat can be found below.

When the initial news of Freddie Gray dying while in BPD custody broke, were you surprised?

I was not particularly surprised when I first heard about the death in custody and some of the potentially questionable circumstances under which it occurred. The police in inner-city areas often have a strained relationship with residents of these communities. As a result of that, we can often expect there to be some police-citizen conflict in these more disenfranchised locations. So when I heard that Freddie Gray was basically a death in custody, my first thought was that something must have happened in that transport vehicle — that maybe police officers inside were possibly trying to teach him a lesson.

How common is that "rough ride" practice in general?

I don’t think that any of us really knows how common the practice of inflicting "attitude adjustments" on suspects is.

Believe it or not, there’s a sociological theory from the 1970s that explains this kind of behavior, and it's actually called the “asshole theory.” It sounds flippant, and to an extent it sort of is, I guess. But this is a theoretical perspective that describes when police officers come to a scene with a potential suspect, the officers believe they’re in charge of the situation. If the suspect gives them the impression that the suspect believes they’re in charge, that causes the officers to want to "clarify" the situation ... So if a person challenges the officer’s definition of the situation ... then, historically, it’s fairly well-understood that the officers may label this person an "asshole" and use violence to redress the affront to their authority.

This is something that police researcher and police officers themselves have probably known about for generations. Different places may have different names for the process, but for the most part, it describes the same thing: A person rejected the officer’s definition of the situation, the officer responded with some violence to ensure that the person realized who was in charge. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is common practice in policing environments with low visibility, where there aren’t a lot of supervisors around and where maybe the strain between the police and the public.

How much do you buy into the idea that body cameras or dashboard cameras will make a big, positive difference?

Well, listen, if we didn’t have access to video, we never would have known about Rodney King. That was the only reason Rodney King ever came to light, because of a guy with a video camera in the next apartment building.

When I say we’re talking about "low-visibility" communities, what I mean is that these are communities that the average voter typically doesn’t see. These are neighborhoods the average voter doesn’t drive through, and doesn't come to appreciate the condition under which a lot of folks are living on a daily basis. These are also the same places the police have the least amount of supervision, by the way.

As I’ve often heard in the past, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If the best type of sunlight we can offer, at least in the short term, is a body cam or a dash cam (or the cellphone [video] from somebody who happens to catch the scene), it seems to me that that at least gives us a window into the kinds of daily interactions police are having with members of communities — the kind that most of us never see.

Do you think it's fair to argue, as some have, that former governor and likely presidential candidate Martin O'Malley's "zero-tolerance" policy as mayor of Baltimore contributed to the breakdown of the relationship between the city's police and its people?

My own take on this is that Martin O’Malley is the product of his time. Basically, he was in office at a time when zero-tolerance policing — or what people call "order-maintenance" policing — was the primary enforcement paradigm in a lot of urban communities. So I would venture to guess that most big cities experienced this zero-tolerance enforcement strategy.

I can tell you from my own work that I have never been a fan of zero-tolerance policing, because it sends a signal to the police that their job is to go into these neighborhoods and poke people with a stick to get them to move along, empty their pockets, get up against the wall; and, somehow, this is supposed to reduce crime. In fact, the best research in the area of policing and communities demonstrates pretty clearly that a little of this coercion goes a long way and too much of this coercion backfires. It causes increases in violent crime and sometimes it can trigger a riot.

What's something that lawmakers can do in the short term to improve the situation?

The primary change that any lawmaker can impose right now is to stop talking about crime policy using the language of war.

To me, the biggest problem we have with the criminal justice system is the fact that since at least the late-1960s, our lawmakers have talked about crime policy using war-like terminology. We had a "War on Crime," then we had a "War on Drugs." Is this because this is where all the crime is located or all the drugs are located? No, it’s because it's the most visible place where police officers can go in and find these public markets. (I find it interesting that we don’t talk about the "war on Adderall" in suburban high schools, but we do talk about the "war on crack" in inner-city Baltimore, Philadelphia or D.C.)

Guess where the war is being fought? The war is being fought in economically and politically disenfranchised, mostly African-American communities in the inner city. But the problem is, when you’re at war, you have to have an enemy. So we need to take a step back and redefine the messages we send to the police when we develop our crime policy.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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