A Harvard political philosopher on why tougher policing in America won’t reduce crime

More police don’t equal less crime if people’s basic needs aren’t being met.
More police don’t equal less crime if people’s basic needs aren’t being met.
Image: Charlie Riedel/AP Images
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Violent crime is near historic lows in America, but new attorney general Jeff Sessions has made increasing the power of law enforcement a key focus at the Department of Justice (DOJ). In a series of recent speeches, he has painted a dark picture of the state of America, particularly its big cities, and called on police and prosecutors to crack down.

The 11% increase in the US’s murder rate in 2015 after two decades of decline may not be a “blip,” according to Sessions, but “the start of a dangerous new trend—one that puts at risk the hard-won gains that have made our country a safer place,” he wrote in the Washington Post (paywall) in June. America currently faces a “multi-front battle” which includes “an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic,” Sessions told the National District Attorneys Association. He is prescribing more punishment like “proactive policing and broken windows theory”, which punishes small crimes as a preventative measure.

He wants African-Americans to get on board. In a speech on Aug. 1 to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (Noble), Sessions talked about the need to increase African-American confidence in law enforcement. He cited a Gallup poll that showing that only 30% of African-Americans had confidence in the police, compared to 57% of the whole country.

But the administration’s approach to crime is misguided according to many experts on crime and inner cities, including Tommie Shelby, professor of philosophy and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

In Dark Ghettos, published in November 2016, Shelby examines black poor communities through the lens of philosophy, attempting to describe when certain decisions, including criminal ones, are legitimate. People might be using crime to signal to the society at large that injustice plagues their communities, he argues. For crime to truly stop, those injustices must be fixed; tougher law enforcement alone won’t do it, he says.

In an interview with Quartz, Shelby discussed why Sessions and the Trump administration as a whole have an unwise approach to crime, and prescribes ways for regular citizens to get involved in local activism and politics.

Quartz: Sessions said on Aug. 1 that only 30% of African Americans have confidence in law enforcement. What should the DOJ be doing to make that number higher?

Tommie Shelby: African Americans’ lack of trust in law enforcement officials and institutions has a long and complex history and no simple solution. As due process is a constitutional right, the DOJ could start by setting high national standards for the training, qualifications, and professional ethics of police officers and then ensure, through vigorous oversight, that these standards are met across the hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country. But such an effort (difficult enough to achieve politically) would have limited success without a serious push to deal with joblessness, lack of affordable housing, and substandard schools in black communities. Without that, the heavy police presence will still feel like an occupying force bent on containing the dispossessed, even if the officers are a little nicer.

Trump talks a lot about inner cities. He warned of crime-ridden “inner cities,” swapping them interchangeably with places where black people live, even though most black people do not live in those so-called inner cities and haven’t since the 1990s. You’ve written about ghettos. What are “ghettos” and how do they differ from “inner cities”?

Ghettos are predominantly black metropolitan neighborhoods with high concentrations of disadvantage. “Ghetto” came into parlance to characterize the plight of disadvantaged black people in cities after the Great Migration. The “inner city” is now something of a euphemism. It used to be used a lot more in social scientific research on black poverty especially black metropolitan poverty. I think now it’s clear that you can have high concentrations of black socioeconomic disadvantage in places outside of the central cities, in some suburban and even rural areas.

I think Trump, in talking about inner cities, was primarily focused on some news coverage of street violence, especially gun violence in a few cities around the country, particularly in places like Chicago and Baltimore. For a lot of people who don’t live in these communities, that don’t have much investment in the lives of the people in these communities, they’re primarily concerned with fear of violence in those areas. I think there is a tendency, especially for those people who don’t care about racial or economic justice, to just rely heavily on the criminal justice system to solve the problems of the most disadvantaged and that’s what you see in Trump and Sessions’ Justice Department and so on.

Jeff Sessions has called the “broken windows” theory of policing, which focusing on prosecuting even small crimes, a “proven police technique” that is “lawful and proven to work.” You argue that the crimes of the poor might actually be forms of resistance. If that’s the case, is Sessions’ response likely to be effective?

I think the broken windows approach is part of a broader tendency of social policy, in response to the plight of the urban poor, to try to solve everything by relying on some kind of penal response.

We know from decades of research that many of these minor legal transgressions—petty theft, vandalism, breaking public order rules, illicit drug use, underground economic activity, prostitution—on the part of the disadvantaged spring directly from their unjust circumstances, whether from defiance, stress, and frustration or from struggling financially to take care of themselves and their loved ones. This is well known.

To not try to address those underlying structural disadvantages and merely to rely on law enforcement measures conveys to those who are being penalized that the public and the officials who act on their behalf, government, don’t really care about them. And so you’re likely to get an even stronger negative response, which we have often seen in urban uprisings (sometimes called “riots”).

These acts, some morally defensible and some not, are attempts to deal with deep inequality and wrongful treatment, including mistreatment from law enforcement officials. So cracking down on minor infractions will often be viewed as repression in these communities, as a way to contain those whose interests don’t matter, and is likely to encourage further resistance and alienation.

What does it mean to be “unjustly disadvantaged” by society?

Philosophers for many hundreds of years have been trying to address the question of what makes a society just. It’s challenging to give a fully persuasive and precise answer. There are, though, some basic principles in modern liberal democracies that are not really in dispute, things like, people should have a certain set of basic political liberties that allow them to participate in a society as equals, including to participate in governance. People are entitled to due process, to real opportunities to live a fulfilling life, and to an educational system, including higher education, that allows everyone to develop their talents and pursue their ambitions. And each must be free from discrimination and unfair forms of exclusion in their quest for meaningful employment.

I don’t think anyone can participate in a democratic society as an equal if they don’t have their basic needs met—housing, food, clothing, and health care. They won’t have an opportunity or time or energy or resources to contribute to public debate or to support representatives who might advocate for their interests, even to run for office themselves, if all their energy and time is devoted to just trying to secure their most basic needs. And of course, when one is living in very impoverished circumstances, there’s a tendency to become quite alienated from the public and to no longer even participate in civic life at all.

There’s a section in your book in which you talk about “political cynicism”. Could that be related to the opioid epidemic?

I think it’s related. I think that long periods of living under unjust circumstances where you are highly burdened by them can lead one to start to care much less about not only one’s society, but also you might start to care less about yourself. And you might seek ways of coping with a sense of depression, a sense of your low status in society, a sense of contempt other people have for you, a sense of having your ambitions thwarted right and left. I do think people in such circumstances react in a variety of ways and using illicit drugs is one such way.

How do you think people should respond [to this inequality and suffering]?

We have a tendency to focus a lot of our political energies at the federal level, and that’s of course appropriate. It’s a very powerful element, capable of doing good but also great harm. But a lot of the levers of power are actually local, particularly those that have to do with law enforcement. It seems to me there can’t be effective resistance or lasting change unless we pay more attention to governance at the local, municipal, and state level, because that’s how we get the people we get in Washington.

I do think what happens in Washington depends a lot on what’s happening locally, including who the governors and state representatives are. Are you supporting people who are running on a more progressive platform by advocating for them, knocking on doors, giving them money, doing that kind of work? It’s unglamorous work, it’s out of the spotlight and in a world of social media, where everyone is used to being and wants to be in front of everyone else, it’s hard to get people motivated to do that kind of work. But it’s absolutely essential.

We’re now in a position where we have to two things at once, which has so often been the case. You have to both try to defend what you have—we don’t want people to lose basic things like the access to educational opportunities and healthcare—and at the same time lay the groundwork for change down the line. We have to do both. It’s hard to do both things because they all take a lot of energy, resources, and time.

And so it’s really important to have a sense of a broad social division of labor within the political domain. You can’t do everything. We have to find places where we can contribute, given our skills and temperament and the time and energy we have available to make the best contribution we can, encouraging others to play roles they too are most suited for.