Archive for July, 2015

Policing in America Part II: Four Important Lessons from Baltimore

Sunday, July 26th, 2015


Over the last year, the United States has been forced to reassess the way our country polices people. Most Americans, well most white Americans, never have to think about the way that we practice policing in this country. They may complain about the speeding ticket they got or about the random DUI checkpoint.  However, we are increasingly living in a country that utilizes two different types of policing: one for the middle – wealthy white folks and one for communities of color.  And one for the poor, homeless, or immigrants. The latter is the combination of broken windows policing, the drug war, and the subtle racial bias that all Americans hold. This policing divide has been “showcased” over the past year with the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others all at the hands of those charged with protecting us.


This piece will help explain the problem in Baltimore to the best of my ability. However, as a middle class white person all I can do is attempt to explain this problem as I have never experienced it myself. I contend that the problems in Baltimore and many other American cities is one of institutional racism within the criminal justice system and elsewhere in America.


I want to challenge anyone considering this issue to think critically about the entire problem.  This problem is about far more than a few “racist cops,” it is about an inequality within the criminal justice system that has led to the institutional oppression of people of color. Thus, protests such as the Baltimore Uprising are better explained as an expression of frustration and anger from a community that has been systematically denied equality as opposed to a “riot.”  This is a complicated issue, but below I will attempt to highlight key points with articles in an attempt to better understand and explain the problem in Baltimore.



1.  Deaths in Police Custody


Some may say the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody was a rare occurrence, however deaths while in police custody are more common than some may think and disproportionately affect people of color.


From 2010-2014, 109 people died during police encounters in Maryland. Two-thirds of those people were black and 41% of the victims were unarmed. The officers involved were charged in only 2% of cases.


The Guardian keeps a chronological list of deaths while in police custody highlighting the fact that these deaths are more common than one may think.



2. Problematic Culture in the Police Department


Many believe that the problems in Baltimore have a lot to do with the questionable culture of the Baltimore Police Department, whose corruption and brutality has been well documented by local and national media.


One year before the incident with Freddie Gray the Baltimore Sun, publishes this article documenting the egregious amount of brutality on the part of law enforcement.


“The city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.”


Freddie Gray likely died from injuries sustained while in the back of a police van while handcuffed and unbuckled. This tradition has many slang terms in law enforcement, some define it as a “Rough Ride.”



3.  Institutional Racism in the Criminal Justice System and Elsewhere


While many political pundits will argue that this was simply an issue of one mishandled case, in Baltimore and elsewhere throughout this country black men and women face institutional racism that shows itself within the criminal justice system and other social institutions.


Black people in Baltimore are far more likely to be unemployed, fall victim to predatory lending, and have shorter life expectancies.


Furthermore, within the criminal justice system black and Hispanic people are far more likely to have bail set at an amount that they cannot afford. This is true in Baltimore and nationally, statistics on this can be viewed on The Sentencing Project.


Perhaps the most offensive thing about the Baltimore Uprising was the news coverage and personal Facebook and social media posts that I witnessed. White America is more concerned with a CVS being looted than it is with addressing the systematic degradation that Black Americans face every single day. These protests are about far more than Freddie Gray, rather they represent a community’s frustration with broken windows policing and inequality in the criminal justice system. There have been so many victims like Freddie Gray, and the protests that followed his death are an expression from a community that faces state violence and oppression day by day.


4.     The War on Drugs and Broken Windows Policing


Another central problem that plagues Baltimore is the War on Drugs and the policing styles that come along with it. The aggressive strategies of law enforcement toward drug dealers and users has led to a community (especially in low income neighborhoods that disproportionately house people of color) that distrusts the police. Hence, Freddie Gray ran from the police when he saw them. Furthermore, it has led a generation of young black men imprisoned for minor drug crimes that due to the draconian drug laws of this country will likely debilitate their chances of finding work in the future.


The drug war has created a system in which the community distrusts police and police distrust the community (the poor community that is). It has also incentivized police to harass anyone that “looks like” a drug dealer which has led to police creating a volatile environment especially for young men of color. It has opened the window for no-knock raids, the militarization of the police, and searches without warrants all in the name of stopping low level drug dealers in urban communities who have little to nothing to do with the actual supply of drugs in this country. However the most problematic thing the war on drugs has done is that it has made its own citizens public enemy #1 and treated them as such.


“Broken Windows policing,” which gained renown in the 1990s thanks to politicians like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the mutant offspring of our already infamous race history, a set of high-tech tricks to disguise old-school discriminatory policing as cheery-sounding, yuppie-approved, Malcolm Gladwell-endorsed pop sociology. The ideas grew out of a theory advanced in 1982 by a pair of academics, James Q. Wilson of Harvard and George Kelling of Rutgers. “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” the pair wrote in The Atlantic, arguing in “Broken Windows” that disorder and crime were “inextricably linked” and that fixing the former would impact the latter.”


For more on the discriminatory nature of broken windows policing I would point you to the book The Divide by Matt Taibbi in which he documents the problem and its discriminatory outcomes in New York City and elsewhere in the United States.


“This is the kind of thinking that leads communities to install spikes under overpasses to prevent homeless people from seeking shelter.  It robs people of basic human dignity, merely because they look poor, young or black.   In other words, broken-windows policing has unintended consequences that have now reached a boiling point, making the tactic more of a liability than an asset.  Fixing a broken window might deter street crime, but treating broken people like they are removable windows leads to mass civil unrest.”  — April Kelly-Woessner is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College


It is my hope that the media attention on events like those in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore will lead to the reform of the Criminal Justice System. Just this past week, President Obama spoke openly about the racial inequality within the Criminal Justice System and was the first president to ever visit a federal prison. In order to stop events such as the death of Freddie Gray, we need to address both the way we police and the way we prosecute with the Criminal Justice System. First, we must end “broken window policing” which will require transitioning police strategy and culture from aggressively targeting low impact crimes to looking more at the big picture and working with the community to once again gain the trust of the citizens that police officers are obligated to serve. Further, we must end the War on Drugs that has led to the highest incarceration rate in world. Instead we should focus on the decriminalization of drugs and rather than imprisoning we should send drug users to treatment and low-level dealers to probation rather than filling prisons with non-violent offenders.


Finally, we must work to address racial inequality in areas outside of the Criminal Justice System. We must increase job opportunities and the quality of schools within low-income communities that disproportionately house people of color. All of this is within our grasp, yet nothing will happen if White America continues to ignore racial inequality and the problems of the criminal justice system. If we can address these issues, we can increase equality within this country and prevent more death at the hands of the state.


Kevin McElrath

Policing in America Part I: New York City

Sunday, July 19th, 2015


In the aftermath of the Eric Garner protests, I was asked to explain/defend the actions of the protesters by people who saw Eric Garner’s death as an isolated tragedy and did not understand why masses of people were taking to the streets. As a lifelong New Yorker, it was clear to me that Eric Garner’s death was part of a larger pattern of overzealous policing tactics resulting in tragedy, tragedy that disproportionately falls on black men. However I have been hearing these stories for years, and I can see how to an outsider it could seem like it came out of the blue. So I put together a compilation of links to outline the story for those who have not been following for the past decade. In light of the recent events in Baltimore, I think there is a need to be familiar with the long-term story there in order to understand how policing went off the rails.


In what follows, I will give you a collection of news stories and other sources (mostly from that last 10-15 years) that I think support the suspicions that many residents of NYC, especially black residents, have of their police, and “the system” in general. I think that the sum-total of the information provided below demonstrates that there is a serious, systemic problem with overly enthusiastic policing, that this problem disproportionately affects minorities, that it fits into deeply rooted systems of inequality, and that entrenched interests stand in the way of even the most common sense reforms. I hope the weight of the information in these links will move you to be more sympathetic to those who carry out disruptive actions in order to draw attention to these problems.



1. There has been a string of high profile incidents of black men dying under strange circumstances at the hands of the NYPD, leading to a general sense that police cannot be held accountable, no matter what they do.


Amadou Diallo was unarmed and innocent, he was shot 19 times in what was most likely a horrible accident. Nevertheless, it is the sort of accident that it is difficult to imagine a non-cop getting away with:


Patrick Dorismond was killed under disputed circumstances, with his friend claiming that the undercover cop instigated the confrontation without identifying himself as a cop:


Sean Bell was shot and killed on his wedding night in events that most likely resulted from overly nosey undercover cops checking out his wedding party.


Ramarley Grahm was shot in his bathroom while trying to flush marijuana down the toilet:


Eric Garner:


The officer who put Mr. Garner in a chokehold has two complaints against him that suggest he may have some sadistic tendencies:


The chokehold wasn’t the only problem: What happened after was arguably worse:


Akai Gurley was shot in a stairwell by a rookie cop who had his gun out for no good reason:


The officer who shot him texted his union representative before reporting the incident:


The one major case where the officers were held accountable to my satisfaction was the Abner Louima case, where a group of officers sodomized a Hatian man with nightsticks.



2. Blacks have reason to fear the police and prosecutors:



- Although the homicide rate by black males is about 10x compared to white men, black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police. This suggests that biases in policing go beyond the simple differences in crime rates and include a component of bias which, conscious or unconscious, is sometimes deadly.


-Current and former black officers attest to feeling harassed off-duty, or at other points in their lives:


- One black woman shares her experiences and feelings:


- “Driving while black”


-Sentencing disparities:


-Disparities in punishments at school:


- Experiences of black friends with the justice system versus my own.



3. The system facilitates and encourages abusive cops.


- Even clear incidents of wrongdoing rarely result in serious punishment


- NYC’s Civilian Complaint Review Board is toothless:


- NYPD officers have blocked traffic and rioted to prevent oversight in 1992. Rudy Giuliani encouraged them:


- A small percentage of NYPD officers seem to be the ones that people always “resist arrest against”, and a similarly small group disproportionately accounts for accusations of excessive force. Yet the NYPD keeps them on the streets.


- Statistics regarding the nature of complaints against the NYPD:


Civil forfeiture: The NYPD is basically robbing people (or taxpayers. then the cops lose in court) using methods that the courts have ordered them to stop using:


This happens all over the country too:


The the police union fights body cameras tooth and nail:


Police have incredibly high rates of domestic violence:



4. There have been numerous non-lethal incidents of NYPD officers being out of control, and I have a sense that they are acting from a sense of impunity.


- Bicycle push incident: A cop walked up to a guy and pushed him off his bike, knocking him to the ground. The officer was fired, but it the cop seems to have estimated that he could get away with it. He was convicted of falsifying a criminal complaint, but got no jail time:


- The NYPD uses undercovers at protests to provoke instead of calm tensions:


- There was a recent high profile case of NYPD officers planting drugs on people, with allegations that the practice is widespread.


- There is something fishy about the way these officers make gun busts. Circumstantially, it looks plausible that they might have planted guns on some people.



- Pregnant woman tackled


- Man roughed up by police for his “copwatch” activities.


“Stopped and frisked for being a “f*cking mutt”, a video where a young man demonstrates the overly authoritative and disrespectful way police act towards him.


The “cannibal cop”, who used his access to records to stalk women that he talked about murdering and eating.


- There was an incident with a motorcycle group basically taking over the West Side Highway (the very same one I marched on), and engaging in a high speed chase that ended with a man being beaten in front of his family until bystanders intervened. Cops were nowhere to be seen in spite of a large group of cyclists acting threatening. As it happens, there was an undercover cop in the group, who seems to have participated in the beating. It’s impossible for me not to wonder if this gangs wild rides were not tolerated due to some sort of inside connection with the police.


- Don’t forget the corruption of Bernard Kerik. At least he wasn’t above the law, but how did he get so high up?:


- Every year thousands of lawsuits are filed against the NYPD, as are tens of thousands of complaints:


- Cop kicks fruit vendor without provocation, claims fruit vendor assaulted him, assistant DA files charges anyway even though he had seen the video, then backs down when called on it:

5. Several lines of evidence suggest a culture of retaliation inside the NYPD which is impeding attempts at reform.
NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly taped evidence of illegal quotas for ticketing people being put on officers, and orders to take steps to skew statistics by downgrading the level of crime reported. A group of 20 officers showed up at his house and took him off to a mental hospital, where he was confined for a week.


It appears that the police may have attempted to retaliate against the person who taped the killing of Eric Garner. The person who made the tape was arrested days later for supposedly giving a gun to a minor. There were no fingerprints on the gun, and DNA evidence is taking quite a while:


A cop who was left to die by his fellow officers because of his role in an anti-corruption probe still gets hate mail for violating the “blue wall of silence”.


6. More diffuse issues such as “gentrification” are also interwoven with the other problems I am discussing here. The vigorous enforcement of “quality of life” laws is good for property values, and that is considered a good thing in most places, but in a renter city like NYC, things are different. Increased property values drive out working class families, ironically denying them the safer neighborhoods that reduced crime was supposed to bring them. In tightly knit communities, keeping things somewhat dingy looking is beneficial to the residents, who feel safe themselves, and are happy not to have too many new people trying to move to their neighborhood too fast.


The sense is that longtime residents are being bothered for minor offenses that would previously have been ignored, and that this is being done for the benefit of real estate interests who naturally want the best paying tenants they can get. It also fills the cities coffers with fines.


Broken window theory has merits if not applied excessively, but it morphed into “zero tolerance”, which is very much against the New York way of life:,9171,41921,00.html


Here are of the more absurd and annoying (if fairly harmless) examples of excessive ticketing and restrictions on things that make city life tolerable for working class people:




7. Adding to the dull, aching sense of loss that gentrification strikes in the hearts of longtime New Yorkers is the knowledge that one of the factors driving up real estate values is rich foreigners buying apartments that they won’t live in, and using them as tax shelters.


-The developers who have benefited the most from the building boom are not honest folks, and they seem to be above the law. This sort of thing magnifies the sense of rage at injustice and inequality in our city.


- What I personally saw of Bovis (name changed to Lend Lease Corporation):

They were in charge of demolishing a building in front of my building. They put back-hoes on the roof and smashed the roof in by driving around and hitting the roof with the backhoe. I looked at it with worry for days until my worries were proved correct:



8. Drug laws, “broken windows” policing, and economic and political interests invested in the prison system combine to make a toxic soup of injustice.


- Drug war and incarceration rates


- More than half of people in prison are there for drug offenses:


-Marjiuana arrests have risen even as violent crime arrests have fallen:


- Special interests fighting to keep the drug war going:


The drug war was founded on racism:



9. There are many other cultural dynamics outside of policing which highlight the fact that systemic and culturally entrenched racism is still very much with us:


-Having a black sounding name is a real handicap:


College education doesn’t close the gap:


- There also seems to be a problem with racial bias in doctor-patient interactions:


- “Positive feedback bias” from teachers, which lowers standards on minority students.:



10. And finally, some perspectives on Ferguson:



I think that the above examples should amply demonstrate that the problem of blacks not getting a fair shake in this country is still very much with us, that excessive policing is a real problem, and that when the two are combined, the result is particularly toxic. These issues are urgent and must be reckoned with now and not later. It’s gone on for too long already.


 James Hanks is a life-long New Yorker, and has no special expertise in the area of criminal justice.


Note:  This is the first part of a two part series.  The second piece will focus on Baltimore and will be published on 7/26/15.


Flexible Labor and the Precarious Economy

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

work pic 1

Precarious or contingent workers are defined broadly as those with a lack of an attachment to their employer. Examples of this include part-time workers, independent contractors, temps, and interns. Recent scholarship has highlighted the rise of precarious work arrangements since the 1970s, as this group occupies nearly 30% of the American workforce.[1] This group is incredibly diverse encompassing a variety of skill levels and education from the worker making your burger at McDonalds to the adjunct professor teaching at the local college.  This leads us to a couple questions: Why has this shift occurred and how does it impact American workers?


The rise of the precarious workforce is likely a result of the shift in the American economy from manufacturing to the service industry as well as the transition from the “breadwinner” household to that of the “dual-earner” or single parent household. This transition has led both organizations and workers to look for greater flexibility in their employment relationship. However as the push for flexibility occurs from both sides, it seems that many organizations have taken advantage of this.


Research from sociologist Arne Kalleberg et al. suggests that precarious work arrangements increase workers’ vulnerability to low pay without offering fringe benefits (such as health insurance). Precarious workers are also not under the same legal protection as regular employees, and thus are increasingly vulnerable to sexual harassment, discrimination, and health/safety violations. Not only are these positions harsh for those in them, but some evidence suggests these work arrangements have a negative effect on all employees. Statistical analysis of survey data suggests that when firms utilize precarious work arrangements, the employment security of all workers is negatively impacted. As precarious work negatively affects both workers within these positions and full-time workers alongside them, how can this situation be mitigated?


In the age of the global economy where competition is greater than ever, our labor policy must strike a balance between the ability of organizations to have flexibility in labor use and workers to have security in their employment. The days of the “company man” are gone and as increasing numbers of Americans fall into precarious work arrangements and transition from job to job more frequently we must ask ourselves how we can adapt to these macro-economic changes? This can be done largely by expanding the social safety net and socializing the risks employees face as a result of the increase in precarious work arrangements. Many will roll their eyes at the last sentence, yet everyone is benefiting from precarious workers in one way or another, companies enjoy record profits through cheap labor and consumers enjoy the cheap services provided by the precarious workforce.  As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we have the ability to provide everyone with a decent living, however the question remains: do we have the dignity to do so?




Kevin McElrath

[1] Ross Perlin, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Brooklyn, NY: Verso (2011).