Donald Trump’s quest for “law and order” will likely lead instead to chaos and racism

All smiles.
All smiles.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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US president-elect Donald Trump is a fan of stop and frisk. He’s also talked about his “zero tolerance” approach to immigration. “Stop and frisk” and “zero tolerance” are both familiar buzzwords for tough-on-crime policies; Trump used them throughout his campaign to highlight his strongman, law-and-order persona. Now civil rights advocates worry that the incoming president’s nomination for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, would view policing in a similar vein.

In the midst of this renewed debate, two new books from New York University Press offer an important perspective on the impact of law and order policies—which, research shows, rarely lead to more law and order. Indeed, Michael D. White and Henry F. Fradella’s Stop and Frisk and Derek W. Black’s Ending Zero Tolerance look at how cracking down on the streets and in schools often lead instead to racist policies and a breakdown in community trust.

Stop and frisk was introduced more than 50 years ago, though it’s most commonly associated with the 1990s regime of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani—an early Trump supporter whose name had been floated for the AG job. Meanwhile, zero tolerance of weapons, drugs, and other misbehavior in schools started in the 1990s, and expanded rapidly after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Stop and frisk encouraged officers to stop, question, and arrest people for minor infractions, thereby letting criminals know that order had been imposed, and major criminal activity would be discovered and punished. Zero tolerance was meant to make schools safe by quickly suspending or expelling students who brought weapons or drugs to school grounds, or who were simply disruptive. Both policies embraced the idea that more discipline—especially, in practice, more disciplining of people of color—would result in more stability.

But authors White and Fradella argue that ramped-up discipline has in fact resulted in social breakdown. In schools, zero tolerance has led to a breathtaking increase in suspensions, often for minor violations, or for no violation at all. One egregious example from 1999 involves a thirteen-year-old named Benjamin Ratner, who confiscated a friend’s knife after she confessed to him that she was contemplating suicide. Ratner put the knife in his locker. A teacher found it, and, under zero tolerance rules, suspended him for 10 days. Ratner went to court to appeal, but the courts declined to challenge the school’s authority.

Ratner’s fate was hardly unique. Black points out that in Washington DC, between 2011 and 2012, one out of three students in public middle schools were suspended—many more than once. These suspensions do not reduce discipline problems; instead, they compound problems by taking students out of a safe, structured space and limiting their opportunities for educational advancement.

The single greatest predictor of student suspension is not economic status or teacher’s evaluation of behavior; it is whether the student has been suspended before. More, students at schools with high rates of suspension have lower achievement levels even for students who were not suspended. “The routine imposition of harsh punishment infects the overall social and cultural makeup of a school,” Black concludes. A harsh regime of arbitrary punishment doesn’t make students feel safer. It makes them feel under assault.

The same is true of communities targeted for stop and frisk policies, according to White and Fradella. They point to a study of the Miami Gardens Police Department, which found that between 2008 and 2013, the department stopped and searched more than 65,000 people, and that 1,000 people had been stopped 10 or more times. Only 13% of those stopped were arrested. As in schools, the result of this kind of constant harassment is not a feeling of safety, but a sense that people face constant, arbitrary threats to their privacy and safety.

Again, these threats are not just arbitrary. They are, in both policing and schools, racist. White and Fradella confirm that when police are given broad authority to stop and detain suspicious individuals without probable cause, those who are perceived as suspicious are almost always people of color. In New York City in 2011, people stopped under that city’s regime of stop and frisk policing were 53% black, 34% Hispanic, and only 9% white. In fact, the Constitutional basis for stop and frisk policies has rested on Terry v. Ohio, a 1968 Supreme Court decision in which a police officer stopped two men in downtown Cleveland because, in the officers words, “they didn’t look right to me at the time.” The men were black.

Zero tolerance policies in schools were initially promoted as a way to end racial bias in discipline. Any child caught with a weapon was to receive the same punishment—usually suspension. However, Black points out, teachers still have vast discretion in deciding whether to send a student to be disciplined—especially under zero tolerance policies that often treat objects like nail clippers and scissors as potential weapons. Zero tolerance means that there’s no check on the teacher’s immediate impulse, which means that, as with stop and frisk, there’s no check on racial bias.

Even in preschool, black children make up 18% of the student body but amount to 42% of preschool students suspended. Given the research showing the devastating effect of suspension on school achievement, Black says that racist discipline policies could be responsible for a significant proportion of the African-American achievement gap in schools.

There are solutions to these problems. Black argues that the courts could start to roll back zero tolerance policies by applying the growing legal consensus that children have a right to education. White and Fradella suggest that more supervision and accountability, and a focus on officer behavior rather than outcomes, could help address the excesses of stop and frisk. For that matter, stop and frisk has already been substantially rolled back in New York, and police stops have dropped dramatically.

But ultimately, these problems are going to be difficult to rectify with individual technical fixes. Instead, we need to reevaluate the way we think about the purpose of discipline. There is plenty of evidence that crackdowns result in more violence, not less. Yet still, in policing, in schools, and in other institutions, discipline is seen as an end in itself.

Policing is supposed to be about protecting and serving the public. School is supposed to be about learning. But too often, both become an opportunity for those in authority to demand obedience and exercise power—especially over marginalized people.