The Thin Blue Line

Over the past 12 months or, the national discussion about the conduct of our law enforcement officers in our urban neighborhoods has reached a fever pitch. Amidst the backdrop of instances of excessive force and murder we’ve taken up sides and dug in.  And though we’ve once again found ourselves drunk on outrage and addicted to the argument, I’d like to offer up a moment of clarity-a brief chance to find some signal in the noise by answering two important questions.  They’re simple questions but important ones and I haven’t heard anyone ask them yet.  So here goes.

What is it that we’re really asking of our urban police officers in America today?

And what expectations should we reasonably have for their success?

Law Enforcement in the Age of Deindustrialization

In order to get our arms around the full scope of the task we’ve asked out of our law enforcement professionals, it’s important to understand where we are on the arc of our journey as a society. This isn’t a commentary about the American fall from grace or even a challenge to our idea of American exceptionalism. I’ll leave that to the politicians. This is a factual account of the socioeconomic outcomes of deindustrialization. Which may feel less exciting than moralizing and pontificating about times past, but it’s critically more relevant to this discussion, if the discussion is aimed at solution.

Here’s the cold truth. We are no longer an economy where people labor at making things in America. We still make things. Just differently then we used to. We produce 4% more steel then we did during the Reagan administration. We do it with a quarter of the workforce though. As a result, we are an economy where the labor focuses on doing things and enabling the consumption of things. This is not a function of societal decline or poor leadership. It is a result of the globalization of the industrial workforce and the progress of technology that America has largely driven. Good, bad or indifferent, something happens to the population of a nation that goes through the process of deindustrialization. As a result, something happens to what we ask of those that police it. And for specific areas, like our decaying urban environments, that something is not pretty.

The post-World War II era was a period of massive industrial boom for America.  It started with the mobilization of the war effort, continued with the requirements for export to rebuild Japan and Europe and peaked as that industrial engine fueled the automobile industry, suburban housing and the massive boom of consumer goods consumption in the 50’s and 60’s.  But as the globalization of the manufacturing workforce began in the 70’s, our industrial employment engine began to atrophy.  Not because we were dying as a country, but instead because we began to progress into a services economy. The FIRE industries of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate took hold and have maintained. Within the last 15 years, we’ve added the technology sector into the mix to create a very different work force than we had decades ago. The impact of on our urban environments has been very clear. Most of the higher paying middle class jobs today exist outside of the city in suburban America. What’s left in our cities is two things really- a small number of the true industry leaders and power players that live in the extreme high end neighborhoods and the “second city”, as defined in the landmark study by Karl Alexander and his team from Johns Hopkins University highlighted in the recently published book The Long Shadow.

The Long Shadow refers specifically to Baltimore but it’s a fair proxy for any town urban America.

“It is a wonderful place for a weekend visit and a great place for some to work, but this new economy is focused more on making money than on making things. That leaves a gaping hole in the middle, and most of the well-paid professionals laboring in those office towers head out to the suburbs at day’s end. Then the second city emerges, with the low-wage night crew cleaning and security personnel standing guard.”  

Right now, the residents of Baltimore are, in the best cases, those that make the “second city.”  At worst they are the generationally destitute living off of a social safety net that is ill equipped to provide them with the one thing that has any chance at providing them with a future; relocation. There is no future for them in the city. And no way to leave either.

The Bethlehem Steel Works once employed 30,000 people in Baltimore at a time when 75% of all jobs in the region existed within the borders of the city.  By 2005, the plant employed 1,500 workers.  In 2013, it was closed.  There is no recourse for that level of job destruction.  And I want to be clear, our national economy is as strong now as it likely ever has been.  Our middle class urban one, however, is in ruin.  Which is an important distinction because it highlights that most of America has no idea the level of urban decay we are experiencing.

There’s one group that is painfully aware of it though-urban law enforcement. They’re left with the charge of keeping the peace in the societal crater that’s left behind.

Policing the State of Incarceration

There are over 700,000 police officers of some flavor in our country. Roughly one out of every 220 adult Americans is a law enforcement officer.  This is aligned with the ratio of most industrial countries.  All across America these professionals arrest 39,000 people every day.  That’s not aligned with the rest of the industrialized world.  You’re twice as likely to be arrested as an America in American as you are as if you were a Brit in the U.K for example.  We have a lot of laws that put people in prison these days and a lot of sentencing guidelines that dictate long prison terms. None of them, by the way, were passed by law enforcement officers. The result is that we also have more people in prison than any other country in the world.  These people come disproportionately come from our urban areas. 95% of them will eventually be released, mostly unemployable, back into those same urban areas-those same urban areas that have lost all of their jobs.  The cycle of prison recidivism within an already economically depressed area creates an environment in which the standard for policing looks more like survival than keeping the peace.

 Alone and Afraid

12% of our national police force is black.  Which actually aligns to our national demographic.  But there’s something critically offsetting in our urban police forces, relative to the population they are tasked with serving. The economic shift from urban industrialization has largely left our urban minority communities behind.  I’ll avoid the “why” behind that because it’s a study in and of itself.  Centuries of forced segregation and exclusion from professional organizations takes its toll.  In focusing narrowly on the demographic outcomes of that shift, however, we see that now, our urban neighborhoods are for the first time in our history, less than 50% white.

In contrast, Atlanta is the only major metropolitan area with a majority minority police force. Which tells us that the communities being policed in our urban neighborhoods are rarely policed by officers from that neighborhood.   And though there are some hiring biases for legacy applicants, for the most parts, these neighborhoods also lag in high school graduation rates, college graduation rates and just about every professional career placement statistic.  These neighborhoods presently don’t produce enough professionals to fill our police forces.  Again, the why behind that is a different discussion.  But the outcome is clear.  Our urban police officers are being asked to patrol neighborhoods for which they have little cultural identification. The distrust and suspicion that this breeds on both sides is as much at the core of the problems we’re having today than any other factor.

So what?

We are asking an impossible task of our urban police forces.  It’s getting worse not better.  We’re asking them to keep the peace in areas of profound economic depression, the result of a permanent global economic shift that has destroyed the urban middle class with no hope for return. We’re forcing a concentration of convicted criminals with little hope for financial prosperity and a painfully disturbing rate of recidivism into that mix.  And to cap it off, we’re asking them to do it in neighborhoods of complete cultural and geographic unfamiliarity.

Last year, the Chicago metropolitan area had roughly the same per-capita murder rate as Nigeria.  Cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia aren’t far behind. Which means that the implied peace we’re asking our law enforcement officers to keep is not there to start with. So what expectations should we reasonably have for success?  I honestly don’t know.  What I do know is that even if recent evidence has weakened our willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt as to their intent, it should not have weakened our appreciation for the near impossibility of the task for which we have charged our urban law enforcement officers with.  It doesn’t excuse those that do wrong or free us from the obligation of prosecuting them. But it does add some perspective.  So the next time you run into a cop, especially a city cop, remember that. And the next time you consider what is important to you when you exercise your democratic rights, think about the crisis of urban America, and how you could help our finest by addressing it with meaningful civic action.   Because in our cities, the modern American police officer has an impossible task, and we’re not talking seriously about anything that will change