One of the shocking things that emerged from the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police was that the federal government does not have a reliable national database of deaths at the hands of the police. Allie Gross and Brian Schatz report that there are some hopes that this may change.
Last week, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. Currently awaiting Obama’s signature, it mandates that states receiving federal criminal justice assistance grants report, by gender and race, all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody, including any while a person is being detained or arrested. This would include events like the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, says Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the bill, in an interview with Mother Jones.
The bill also mandates that federal law enforcement agencies annually gather and report these deaths to the US attorney general, who in turn has two years to analyze the data, determine if and how it can be used to reduce the number of such deaths, and file a report to Congress.
The catch is that there have been similar measures in the past but there were no penalties for local police departments not submitting the information. This law says that states can lose up to 10% of their federal law enforcement grants but it still leaves it up to the attorney general to monitor compliance and hand out those fines.
Meanwhile, New York City police continue their work slow down where they are refusing to arrest people that ‘they don’t have to’, which is a telling statement indeed. What they mean is that they are not arresting and fining lots of people for what are called ‘quality of life’ offenses such littering, selling loose cigarettes, panhandling, sleeping on park benches, public urination, and the like. Cracking down hard on these kinds of things was part of the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing that said that ignoring minor offenses led to a sense of general breakdown in society and emboldened crooks to commit more serious crimes.
This was always a controversial theory. Proponents pointed to the reduction over time in crime in New York as evidence in its favor but opponents pointed out that serious crime has been in steep decline in violent crime all over the nation (and many parts of the world) over the last four decades irrespective of whether police in those jurisdictions were adopting this policy or not, and that other societal factors (such as the dramatic reduction of lead in the environment) could be the reason.
The catch about arresting and fining people for these minor offenses is that they are only minor for well-off people but affect poor people in dramatic fashion. Better off people just pay the fine and walk away. Poor people often default on the initial fine because they cannot pay and then extra fines get added on along with interest and before long, they can end up in jail for what started out as a minor offense. NPR had a serious of stories about how many people lose their driving licenses as a general punishment for nonpayment of fines, even if their initial offense had nothing to do with their driving posing a risk to others, and this loss destroys their ability to work, making their life situation perilous.
Furthermore, cities often use the fines from these minor offenses as a source of revenue. As Matt Taibbi points out, the police become, in effect revenue generators for the cities.
Crime in New York has not risen following the slowdown and New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, an architect and advocate of the broken windows theory, was asked about it and he said that you could suspend the policy for short periods without adverse consequences but that his faith in the theory was unshaken and that they would go back to it once the slowdown ended.
So it looks like we are going to see a continuation of the aggressive policing that has caused such a rift between public and police and results in the police viewing themselves as some kind of occupying force that is above the law.