The nationwide movement against police violence and mass incarceration has brought to light the repressive and coercive nature of the criminal justice system in the United States. Attention has been focused on both the egregious disparities in incarceration between the U.S. and other Western industrial states and a plethora of cases of lethal force used by the police against civilians. These are vital issues. But given less attention is the issue of how we have arrived at such violent, coercive and repressive policies of social control in the United States. In this essay I will focus on neoliberalism and its impact on policing as a broader explanation of how we have become what Jock Young called a retributive society.
As defined by David Harvey, neoliberalism is “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Neoliberalism has resulted in a series of social changes that have fundamentally changed the nature and purpose of policing in the United States. First, it has required new modes of spatial use, development and governance, particularly in urban areas. Second, it has created political, economic and social conditions which resulted in the invention of new crimes and new actuarial patterns of crime control. Third, neoliberalism requires an unprecedented and enormous expansion of the criminal justice system and concomitantly requires a more repressive and coercive criminal justice system. The neoliberal state is committed to policies highly desired by and insisted upon by corporate and elite interests. The flip side of that coin is that neoliberalism fundamentally changes how the state deals with the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed and the homeless. Policing follows suit with violent repression directed at the poor and virtual immunity extended to corporate, white-collar and political criminals.
Policing Space for Profit
Central to neoliberal policies have been rapid and massive changes in the spatial and socioeconomic characteristics of cities. Neighborhoods have experienced rapacious acquisition of properties by realtors and developers, resulting in skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification. As the federal, state and city governments withdrew support from social programs and services local communities experienced unprecedented levels of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, homelessness and social crime, the profits from which helped to fill the voids created by a declining economy. At the same time the privileged, realtors, developers, businesses and banks experienced a massive increase in wealth at the expense of the vast majority of urban residents.
The impact of neoliberalism in relation to rental housing costs is obvious and draconian:
Median Rents Unfurnished Apartments U.S.
That’s an over 400% increase in rental housing costs between 1980 and 2014. At the same time the median household income in 1990 was $49,950 increasing to only $50,054 in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau) an increase of 1%. Combine that fact with a U.S. poverty rate exceeding 15% in 2011 and the devastating impact of gentrification becomes painfully obvious.
Concomitantly more and more urban public space, like parks and recreation areas were privatized. Now open spaces were under corporate financial control and those areas were subjected to draconian levels of police intervention. The banks and corporations did not want people singing, drinking, playing, or sleeping in those suddenly private places. All of these things became criminal acts and all of these things became priorities for a new corporatized American police force which no longer owed any allegiance to the people but only to private capital.
Starting with the Reagan administration the federal government began to cease investment in urban renewal programs and urban development. Funds which had been made available to local city governments dried up and disappeared. The withdrawal of federal support had two main impacts. First, a wide range of positive social and development programs were terminated. Second, cities faced a problem of rapidly increasing debt. With the federal government’s retreat from governance to sovereignty urban governments increasingly looked to banks and financiers to cover their costs and obligations. The banks were only too happy to fill the void. They predicated their underwriting of municipal governance with three demands. First, social welfare programs had to be ravaged. Second, municipal services and space had to be privatized. Third, order maintenance through aggressive policing had to serve the interests of land developers, realtors, banks, corporations and private business. In other words, municipal government had to divest itself from its own populace and as a result the police no longer served the community they served finance capital alone.
So, municipal governments no longer governed. They became profit-producing, entrepreneurial, sovereign fiefdoms no longer serving their residents but totally focused on policies that made urban areas financially, socially and politically attractive to corporations, developers and banks. A combination of private and corporate financial investment and urban government policies created the conditions for a perfect storm of gentrification that deliberately displaced impoverished neighborhoods, massively widened wealth differentials, exacerbated class conflicts and required a militarized, violent army of occupation. Gentrification turned police departments into privately-owned, violent, security forces who no longer answered to the people they allegedly served.
New Crime and Actuarial Policing
The simple fact is that almost everyone’s contact with the criminal justice system starts with the police. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans will have interactions with the police as their only criminal justice system contact. These interactions rarely result in arrest, let alone prosecution conviction or incarceration. In fact, of all those people who have been subjected to “stop and frisk” police tactics, 90% are never found to be engaged in criminal activity. That fact alone demonstrates that the police are not fighting crime but are engaged in a pattern of discipline and regulation directed at those targeted by neoliberal policies. The police are not protecting communities and keeping them secure, the police are playing a key role in destabilizing and reshaping those communities for the benefit of financial entrepreneurs.
Beginning in the 1990s many police departments abandoned “crime-fighting” in favor of an “order maintenance” policing strategy. Rather than targeting serious crimes like assault, robbery, rape, burglary, theft and homicide police departments turned their attention to minor, low-level instance of “disorder.” So incivility and behavior which is somehow defined as annoying like homelessness, panhandling, public alcohol consumption and minor vandalism became the new “index crimes” targeted by police departments. The result was obvious. The police engaged in punitive, oppressive and often violent tactics directed primarily at poor, inner-city communities. The net impact was that policing was no longer directed at serious crime, it was the new social engineering policy of the state to attack poverty.
The neoliberal demand for order maintenance makes a mockery of arguments that policing strategies are designed to protect us from harm from violent and property crimes. In 2013 police made 11,302,102 arrests. Of those 480,360 (4%) were for violent crimes and 1,559,284 (13.8%) were for property crimes. In view of the simple fact that arrest is the starting point for most police violence against civilians the question becomes what exactly is the police doing that require so many other arrests? The answer is that they were engaged in policing disorder, rudeness and bothersome behavior not crime.
The most telling category of arrests is the amorphous category of “all other offenses, defining by the FBI as “all violations of state or local laws not specifically identified as Part I or Part II offenses, except traffic violations.” In other words all criminal acts not defined by the FBI as being “serious” crimes. In 2013 police made 3,282,651 (29%) arrests for “all other” infractions, a number dwarfing arrests for both violent and property offenses. But, it’s worse than that. In addition to the “all other offenses” category police made 1,441,209 arrests (12.8% of all arrests) for vandalism, curfew violation and loitering, vagrancy, disorderly conduct, drunkenness and liquor law violations (excluding drunk driving), extremely minor offenses as well. So 42% of police arrests were for public order indiscretions. If we add to those numbers the victimless crimes of prostitution and drug abuse (1,549,663 arrests and 13.7% of all arrests) we end up with a total 56% of all arrests that posed no discernible threat to the public.
Punitive policing has nothing to do with crime. It is, in fact, a symbolic representation of state power, a form of public humiliation and public punishment. Order maintenance strategies were direct almost exclusively against the poor and people of color in the United States. Policing became the primary tool of neoliberalism to control, humiliate and regulate the poor.
New crimes and new policing strategies like those associated with Wilson and Kelling’s infamous “Broken Windows Theory” had very little to do with serious crime. Instead, a plethora of new laws and policing priorities were focused on one thing and one thing only, the protection of capital flows to protect and enhance private investment and development in urban settings. For example, one of the first campaigns launched by NYPD under its “broken windows” paradigm was to crack down on and arrest street vendors. It was, of course, just this type of policing strategy that led to the tragic police-killing of Eric Garner for selling cigarettes on the streets. The demand for new laws and aggressive policing of street life came directly from commercial interests who argued that street vending, street artists, and the like created congestion on sidewalks and competed with the products being peddled in their stores. Aggressive policing toward sidewalk vendors, singers, dancers and artists had nothing to do with serious crime. It had everything to with private profit.
Similarly, it was corporate real estate developers who pushed for aggressive policing and changes in police deployment strategies as a means to clear out neighborhoods for gentrification. Once again new laws and aggressive policing strategies were aimed at the homeless, the poor and the mentally ill. Corporate elites wielded their considerable political clout to reallocate police resources from “crime” to removing obstacles to their takeover of land and buildings and their subsequent profits from skyrocketing rents and sales of refurbished urban housing. Simply put, the police were used to displace entire populations and sanitize the streets not for the benefit of residents, but for the profits of corporations.
NYPD’s Compstat program is the prime example of how police resources are reallocated for private profit. New York’s police commissioner Bill Bratton was a primary architect of this new form of police accountability to corporate interests. Bratton reorganized the NYPD around “private-sector business practices and principles for management.” Compstat, in addition to heightening police accountability to financial capital also decreased police accountability to poor communities. No longer were the concerns of residents the primary motivation for police activity. Now the police were accountable only to actuarial statistical patterns and numbers which served to define “disorder” in a manner conducive to private business and development. Compstat in no way provided any meaningful community input to policing. It was and is a total rejection of community input and the full embrace of private business and financial section input.
The result of all of this was the criminalization of “disorder.” Suddenly police became more concerned about panhandling, public singing and dancing, loitering, public drinking, bicycle riders, boom boxes, prostitutes, graffiti and street vending than they were about serious criminal harms. Criminalizing previously noncriminal acts resulted in a strategy of order-maintenance policing that was both punitive and judgmental in vilifying those who might be marginally annoying but in no way dangerous. This was both a gift to corporate interests and a war on the poor. In concert with the severe cuts to social service programs and the new definition of “crime” as disorder, policing became a major policy initiative in dealing with structural poverty.
Neoliberal policies including massive corporate tax cuts and even corporate tax forgiveness along with the gutting of the progressive income tax created levels of inequality in the United States unheard of since slavery and the rise of the robber barons. The redistribution of income alone was astonishing. In 1980 the top 10% of income earners controlled 35% of all income. Today they control more than 50%. The Gini Ratio which measures income inequality soared to .46 making the United States the most unequal industrialized country in the world.
At the same the U.S. prison population soared from around 500,000 in 1980 to over 2.5 million today with another 5 million under the control of one or another correctional programs. Today the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world and one out of every 30 adults are under control of the correctional system. And all this occurred in the midst of a dramatic drop in criminal victimization. The violent crime rate in 1981 was 52.3 per 1,000 people. In 2013 it was 26.1 per 1,000 people. The rise in incarceration had nothing to with crime. It had everything to do with an orderly corporatized society.
Neoliberalism has adopted a policy of incarceration as a response to control of poor communities and a growing surplus population of the unemployed and underemployed. As neoliberal policies have abandoned the state’s function of governance and eviscerated welfare policies it has looked to the criminal justice system as its primary response to poverty. That response has included both punitive and aggressive policing and the vindictive use of incarceration. The disorderly among us are subjected to arrest, police violence, incarceration and displacement from their communities. Order maintenance policing (Broken Windows) targets the homeless, the mentally ill and the poor for arrest and prosecution. Police resources are disproportionately reassigned to poor communities. A massive 33% nationwide cut in spending on health care for the mentally ill, including funds for medication, has resulted in police intervention as a primary modality to deal with psychiatric problems. Once the concept of crime was replaced by quality-of-life violations of local ordinances it was easy for police to find “cause” to stop-and-frisk almost anyone. Despite the fact that stop-and-frisk policies rarely resulted in arrests or the discovery of actual “crime” nonwhites were subjected to the tactic six times more frequently than Caucasians even with crime rates held constant. In New York City 90% of the precincts with high frequencies of police stops were majority-minority precincts. Analyzes of stops found that the strongest predictive variable was the poverty rates of the neighborhoods in which the stops occurred.
Broken windows policing and the neoliberal policies on which it is based represent a policy of vilification of the poor. The very act of being stopped, even if there is no arrest constitutes punishment. It is an invasion of privacy, it is public humiliation, and it is a denial of liberty. Neoliberalism has resulted in punitive, order maintenance policing which is nothing more than the symbolic assertion of state coercion and violence. It is a spectacle created to assert state power and discipline in the service of private capital.
Gary W. Potter, Ph.D
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Center on Race, Crime and Justice. 2010. Stop, question & frisk policing practices in New York City. John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Gilmore, R. 2007. Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. University of California Press.
Hackworth, J. 2006. The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American urbanism. Cornell University Press.
Harcourt, B. 1998. Reflecting on the subject: A critique of the social influence conception of deterrence, the broken windows theory, and order-maintenance policing New York Style. Michigan Law Review 97, 2: 292-348.
Harcourt, B. 2005. Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing. Harvard University Press.
Harcourt, B. 2012. The illusion of free markets: Punishment and the myth of natural order. Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D, 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.
Mcardle, A. and T. Erzen (eds.) 2001. Zero tolerance, Quality of life and the new police brutality in New York City. NYU Press.
Moody, K. 2007. From welfare state to real estate: Regime change in New York City, 1974 to the present. New Press.
Sampson, R. and S. Raudenbush, 1999. Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology 105, 3: 603-651.
Simon, J. 2009. Governing through crime: How the war on crime transformed American democracy and created a culture of fear. Oxford University Press.
Smith, N. 1996. The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist city. Routledge.
Swank, D. 2006. Tax policy in an era of internationalization: Explaining the spread of neoliberalism. International Organization 60, 3: 847-882.
Wacquant, L. 2009. Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Duke University Press.
Young, J. 1999. The exclusive society. Sage.