Three experts talked about the challenges facing the police these days, during a panel discussion on Law Enforcement, Policing and Security panel at Ohio University's Baker Peace Conference Friday.
Speakers Radley Balko, John Eck and Heather MacDonald delved into issues ranging from the increasing "militarization" of the police, to the question of alleged racial profiling by officers.
Balko is a senior writer and investigative journalist for the Huffington Post, who writes primarily about criminal justice and civil liberties issues.
Eck is teaches Police Effectiveness, Research Methods and Policy Analysis at the University of Cincinnati. He got a Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Maryland in 1994.
MacDonald is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She has covered issues such as homeland security, immigration, racial profiling, and homelessness.
Balko on the militarization of police forces
Balko began by explaining that despite posse comitatus —a law more than 150 years old that separates the duties of the military and the police—current trends seem to be headed in a different direction.
"We've gotten away from this mentality that we should use the minimum amount of force whenever possible," Balko said.
He explained that SWAT teams were invented for use in emergency situations where violence is necessary to diffuse violence. However, Balko mentioned several leaders, such as former President Ronald Reagan, who have tried to use SWAT teams more freely.
Balko also said that programs such as the Pentagon Giveaway Program, a program that gives excess military equipment to U.S. police departments, have accelerated the trend of police militarization.
"When you take police officers and you give them military equipment, and you train them in military tactics, and then you send them out and tell them they're fighting a war, that's got to have an effect on the mindset and the way that they approach their job and the way they approach the people that they're policing," he said.
Balko explained that SWAT teams are used much more frequently now than they were in 1980. He said the most common use is on drug warrants.
Drug raids performed by SWAT teams, he said, are often violent. Police on such raids sometimes use weapons such as guns and flash bombs, which stun people by shocking their visual and auditory senses and sometimes cause injury or catch houses on fire.
He pointed out that such raids lead to violent punishment of crimes that are not only non-violent in nature (such as possession of marijuana), but are also not yet proven, because the people who have their houses raided have not been convicted.
In addition, Balko referenced several media stories about botched raids. To date, he said, about 50 raids have resulted in death even when no illegal drugs or activity ended up being discovered.
"As opposed to using violence to defuse an already violent situation, you're creating a violent situation where there wasn't one before," Balko said.
Though Balko, a libertarian, would like to see the eventual decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, he said he would be satisfied with marijuana remaining illegal if policing it involved "a less literal war on drugs."
Eck on shifting responsibility away from police
Eck stressed that both police and others should pay attention to situations that can lead to crime, and work together to fix or adjust them.
He suggested that the majority of crime in any particular region concentrates in small areas—such as a particular house or street—regardless of the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and that the crime tends to stay in those places.
"We know where (crime) is going to occur," Eck said. "It's just a matter of doing something about it."
Eck said police would be more effective if they tried to figure out why crimes are happening where they are. He said that simply adding more police is expensive because of both salaries and the inevitable increase in mistakes.
In addition, Eck said, when crime is eliminated in one place, it does not typically move to a neighboring area.
"Even more bizarre is the fact that goodness spreads," Eck said. "When crime goes down in a high-crime place, it tends to reduce crime at nearby places."
Eck suggested the burden of eliminating crime should not be placed solely on the police. He advised that techniques similar to the means-based and ends-based methods used in economic and environmental regulation could be applied to crime control.
Means-based approaches would strictly focus on what violators must do and how they must do it. Ends-based methods, however, state the ultimate goal but give little oversight into how violators reach that goal.
Essentially, areas high in crime would be offered incentives to lower their crime rates. That would make such areas less dependent on police and more likely to come up with their own solutions.
Eck said he would like to see such approaches tried at a lower level before being widely implemented.
"Will this work? I don't know, because no one's really tested it," Eck said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Heather MacDonald on racial profiling
MacDonald examined whether police engage in racial profiling, with a focus on those in New York.
She said the American Civil Liberties Union often uses statistics about the number of times blacks are "stopped and frisked" as proof that racial profiling exists. She said that in New York in 2011, blacks were stopped at a rate of 53 percent, while whites are stopped at a rate of 9 percent, even though blacks make up 23 percent and whites make up 35 percent of the overall population.
However, she said, the ACLU's arguments are invalid since those statistics leave out the actual rates of crime committed by each group.
MacDonald said that in New York in 2011, blacks committed 66 percent of violent crimes, while whites committed 5 percent of the same. She gave statistics for other aspects of crime that also showed blacks as much more likely to commit them. She said such trends are similar nationally.
Because of this, she said, police presence is naturally the highest in certain minority neighborhoods, which, in turn, leads to more police stops in those areas.
The assertion that police discriminate against the poor works in a similar way, MacDonald explained.
She said that the majority of law-abiding residents in poor areas want to see more law enforcement. That creates a catch-22 in which police cannot respond to the wishes of such law-abiding residents without creating disproportionate stop data for those in poor areas.
MacDonald asserted that police stop people based on behavior rather than race or socioeconomic status.
"Anyone who thinks that stop rates should mirror census data must explain why public safety would be better served by stripping officers from the areas that need them most and deploying them in neighborhoods where people are not being victimized in anywhere near the same degree," MacDonald said.
MacDonald also talked about William J. Bratton's successes as the police chief of the New York City Police Department.
Since obtaining office, Bratton has routinely lowered the crimes rates in New York and has helped to make it one of the safest big cities in the U.S.
Bratton's CompStat program, which continuously researches crime and holds police accountable for proactively fighting it, has been a huge factor in that success.
Because CompStat police are likely to arrest people before a crime becomes drastic, New York's long-term prison population has seen a steady decrease. Criminals in New York are more likely to be caught performing a misdemeanor than a felony.
MacDonald said such interventions have improved the quality of life in New York.
"The many, majority law-abiding residents of poor neighborhoods have been liberated from fear…and given the freedom of movement that residents of low-crime neighborhoods have always taken for granted," she said.