The Trojan Horse of Community-Based Policing

Revolutionary Worker #1025, October 10, 1999

In the past year we've seen a major upsurge in the fight against police brutality and murder. Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations have taken action. The people want change, NOW. To get this change, we will need to fight still harder--and that's what we're prepared to do.

At the same time, we must also discuss what kind of change will really deal with the problem. We don't need solutions that turn out to be dead-ends or traps. So we have to look hard at the answers being put out there--especially now that the politicians, police officials and corporate media have stepped in to offer their solutions.

Lately we've heard a lot from these types about "community-based policing." Bill Clinton, for one, emphasized this in his March 13 radio address on police brutality. The New York Times followed up with an important article celebrating the "successes of community policing" in cities like San Diego, California and Fort Wayne, Indiana. (The article, "Rethinking the Strong Arm of the Law," explicitly contrasted "community policing" to the program of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.) The message from those in power is this: "community-based policing" (or CBP) is the "realistic" alternative to the rampant and racist police abuse and murder.

But many people besides politicians or police chiefs support some version of community-based policing; indeed, many fighters in our movement see CBP as at least one helpful approach among many. To those honest fighters we address this article.

Community-Based Policing in Practice

Advocates of community-based policing say they want "cooperation instead of confrontation" between the police and the inner-city communities. They say that this will cut down both on police murders of innocent people as well as the ongoing, daily harassment of people of color. At the same time, they claim that CBP will reduce the crime that dogs the people in oppressed neighborhoods.

But how does this "cooperation" work in practice? Basically, CBP aims to turn people in the oppressed neighborhoods into the eyes and ears of the police. The San Diego chief of police put it this way: "Our basic premise is, we don't have enough police officers to do it all, so we need community participation." CBP does this in several ways.

First, CBP gets the police involved in delivering basic social services. In Fort Wayne, according to the New York Times, "The city is divided into 227 neighborhoods, each with an assigned police officer who has the authority to call on city agencies like the parks department or the housing code department." The police chief there says that this gives the police a "constant flow of tips." No doubt. Control over services like housing and recreation enables the police to groom a handful of flunky types with the perks at their disposal, while holding the denial of such services over the heads of everyone else.

Second, CBP enlists "volunteers." San Diego has recruited 1,200 of them. According to the Times, "Many of them [are] retired people who receive police training, wear police-like uniforms and drive around in official vehicles. They help watch their neighborhood or work on police department computers so officers can patrol." Such volunteers can form a pro-police paramilitary force embedded in the neighborhoods. In cities like San Diego, right on the border, these volunteers are a potential vigilante force against immigrants.

Third, since the people rightfully have very little trust in the police, CBP tries to enlist institutions that the people do trust. Both Clinton and a June 1, 1998 Newsweek article applauded police-clergy cooperation in Boston. There a team of ministers turn over some youth to the police--in return, they say, for "having a chance to turn around" the rest. Some of the ministers involved have taken good stands in the past; but in the name of "saving youth from gangs," and in return for access to dollars for social service programs, they've now become an arm of the police and prison system. (This kind of deal calls to mind the "Judenrat" in Nazi-occupied Poland--councils of "respectable" Jews who were allowed to decide which Jews would go to the concentration camps first, in return for keeping the ghetto quiet. The Judenrat councils were strung along to the very end, and then finally they too got killed. If that analogy sounds extreme, then think about how extreme it is that almost two million people rot in U.S. prisons today--the most in the world, and the majority are people of color.)

Is It Worth It?

In return for this "cooperation," the authorities promise two things: an end to rampant police brutality and a drop in crime. For reasons we'll get into shortly, they won't deliver on either of these promises. But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that CBP worked to do both those things. What then? Would CBP be worth it?

Absolutely not. CBP aims to build nothing less than a massive snitch network among the oppressed, glued together by bribes and intimidation. The purpose of this snitch network is to push further the criminalization of an entire generation and to suppress any kind of resistance to this program. The people must not collaborate with the armed enforcers of their own oppression: this is both an important moral principle and a basic rule of mother-wit.

First, on the mother-wit point: when has bringing in the police ever helped a situation? Did calling 911 help Tyisha Miller? Or take Gidone Busch in New York--this mentally disturbed man was murdered just this past August by six policemen who claimed that they could not otherwise subdue a man wielding a simple household hammer! Six average people with street sense and "people skills" could have probably chilled the man out or, at worst, taken away his hammer and gotten him help. The Stolen Lives Project documents dozens of emotionally disturbed people who died at the hands of the police called in to help them. As Carl Dix has pointed out, if you've got a problem and you call the cops, then you've got two problems.

But the moral principle is even more important. The youth in the oppressed neighborhoods are not "bad kids." They have been denied decent education and health care and their families have been hit by economic misery. Society tells these youth over and over again that they are worthless, that they have no future and they don't even deserve one. The decent jobs began leaving the inner cities 30 years ago; today the main opportunity lies in the illegal economy. On top of this, the police themselves channeled crime into these neighborhoods. It's no mystery why a kid would get caught up in the "thug life."

This didn't happen by accident, or because of "bad choices" by these youth or their parents. The cuts in education and health care, the racist images in the mass media, and the withdrawal of jobs: these all resulted from conscious decisions by the capitalists who control the economic and political levers of society. And now, in order to solve the problem of crime, people should cooperate with the armed enforcers of the very class that put them in this hell? We don't think so!

Of course, the advocates of CBP say that the snitch network would only be used to get the real hard-core criminals out of the neighborhood. But just who decides who is a criminal and who is a predator? Nowadays, the system says that a homeless man hustling to wash windows is a "predator" who must be arrested and even shot, while the real estate baron who uses arson and interest rates to drive poor people from their homes is a "role model." It declares that a youth who writes "Free Mumia" on a wall is a vandal who must be sent to prison, while the political hack who covered up racial profiling for six years in New Jersey gets a seat on the state supreme court. It decrees that immigrants seeking work are vicious outlaws to be hounded and even killed when they don't understand a command, while the ones who exploit them are "creative entrepreneurs." We need to get very clear on who the REAL criminals really are--and then decide whether CBP is a solution to our problem, or more of the same and worse.

Nor can we ignore the dimension of political repression in CBP. What if a neighborhood should organize to oppose the shutdown of a health clinic or a recreation center? What if someone goes so far as to tape or photograph police harassing or beating people? What do you suppose these "community-based" police, or their "volunteers," will do then? How do you suppose the cops would use their "constant flow of tips"?

We're not talking ancient history here. In New York, the police were recently caught secretly videotaping meetings of students opposed to cuts in student aid. In Chicago, they held up and harassed 40 youth on their way to last year's October 22 demonstration, and they tried a similar trick in L.A. Why on earth should we make it easier for them to spy on and suppress our movements? But that's exactly what CBP does.

CBP is a huge step to giving the police total control over our communities. Those of us in the movement to stop police brutality--those of us who have some hard-won sense of the real nature of the police--should NOT lend our support to any such measure. We should oppose it. And we should struggle with those in our movement who have been misled into taking up such a solution.

Why Community-Based Policing Will Not Stop Crime

Beyond the moral and political principle involved, CBP is a lot of bullcrap. For starters, CBP will not stop crime. This is because the job of the police isn't really to stop crime in the first place. Their job is to preserve order, which means the property relations of society. The cops "serve and protect" the rich and the super-rich against any threat to their property, whether it be criminal or people resisting their oppression. In regard to crime, the police keep some crimes away from the better-off areas, and use other crimes as ways of controlling the poorer, more proletarian areas.

Let's be real here--the police know who runs the drug trade, the chop shops, or whatever in any neighborhood. They manipulate the different crews against each other, and they ultimately decide who will operate and who will not. Sometimes the cops even get in on it themselves (though that kind of blatant corruption is actually not the main way that they are involved with crime). Their role is to regulate crime, not stop it. The police actually need a certain level of crime in the oppressed areas in order to justify their existence. If this dog-eat-dog and anything-for-money system didn't generate so much crime on its own, the cops would have to invent it.

You can see this in the way that the police in different cities have tried to break up the gang truces, even though these truces cut way down on the turf war murders of the late '80s and early '90s. Why would the police do that? Because the truce movement also cut down on the police control of things and could give people the idea that we might solve our own problems relying on ourselves.

You can see a similar thing in New York. As the economy opened up a little bit in the last few years, and as the drug trade stabilized and changed in character, crime began to go down. But arrests continued to go up, because Giuliani ordered the cops to arrest people on the pettiest violations they could cook up!

If anything, the snitch network and volunteers of CBP will give the police more ability to use crime against the people, enabling them to direct it against people who oppose them and spare the ones who cooperate.

Why CBP Will Not End Police Brutality

The other big lie about CBP is that it will cut down on police brutality. First off, why should the police need a big snitch network in order to cease being brutal? What does one thing have to do with the other? Aren't they really saying "Look, we're subjecting people in your neighborhood to totally unjustified terror--but if you give us what we want, which is more information, we'll think about going easier on you?"

No advocate of CBP has ever answered this question, or even tried, so far as we know. But while there may be no excuse for police brutality, there is a reason. Shortly after the killing of Amadou Diallo, the newspapers quoted a social worker explaining why the police stop, frisk and harass so many young Black and Latino men for no reason:

"The worst experience you can have is a sense of total helplessness and a feeling you have to cower in the presence of somebody else. What's frustrating is, we hear that somehow this is for our own good. [They say] they're doing this to protect us and take care of the community. In the process...[they're] breaking the spirit...of a generation of young men...[They're] breaking their will."

This system holds no future for the youth, especially for youth of color. No wonder the rulers find the will and spirit of this generation of Black and other youth of color something to suppress. Police brutality is an indispensable weapon for doing that, and they are not about to give it up. For all the talk about "community-based policing," the formation and reinforcement of heavily armed SWAT teams goes on in almost every community. The hiring of police goes up, even as poor schools scramble for teachers and social services are cut yet again. The cops in New York killed seven people in August, the Houston PD killed three more, and so it continues. People like Bill Clinton promote CBP in order to supplement the heavy hand of the police and make it more efficient, rather than replace it. We know why he does it--the question is why should WE?

What Do We Rely On?

Our movement is only now beginning to catch fire. Many younger people have just begun to get a glimpse of the potential power of the people. For the first time in a generation, revolutionary collective solutions to social problems--solutions that rely on the people--are beginning to seem possible. Let's not make a terrible mistake and waste this potential.

At a time like this, we should remember the story of the Trojan horse. For years the armies of Greece laid siege to the ancient city of Troy. They used armed force, fire, and starvation against the Trojans. But nothing they did could break the will of Troy. Finally, the Greeks told the Trojans that they were giving up. Not only that, they said Greece would give Troy a gift in tribute to its fighting spirit: a huge wooden horse. The Trojans accepted this gift and began a great celebration of their victory. Finally, worn out from their merry-making, the Trojans fell asleep. It was only then that the Greek soldiers snuck out of their hiding places in the massive wooden horse and slaughtered the now-defenseless inhabitants of Troy.

Our movement must reject the Trojan horse of community-based policing.

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