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Pepper Spray Days: Why Cops Are Getting Brutal in a Low-Crime Era

The Occupy protests have helped expose the problems police continue to have with using force.

While it set out to target the institutions of finance, Occupy Wall Street has emerged as the foil of a whole other group: the police. In the two months since the protests began, the enduring images of the movement are not bankers or traders being harangued by righteous hordes; they are Oakland police officers firing tear gas at a war veteran, Denver cops in riot gear facing down peaceful crowds, and, most recently, campus police at the University of California, Davis hosing down a group of students with pepper spray.


As the Occupy encampments have spread and increased, the police presence around them has followed suit. In fact, there are so many cops in America’s streets lately that you might think we’re all facing a great and impending threat. You’d be wrong. Besides hurting a lot of folks, these cops are masking an important statistic about cities around the country: Over the past two decades, crime in America has fallen dramatically. Both violent and property crime is down, and last year the murder rates in the 25 largest metropolitan areas were all well below their peaks from 20 years ago (in D.C. and Los Angeles, murders were down fourfold from their worst years). This raises two questions: Why all the cops? And why they are they being so brutal?

Popular perception is that crime ticks up during recessions and falls when the economy gets better, but that’s actually not the case, according to many experts. John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, says that although crime rates from the 1950s and 1960s are difficult to pin down, research suggests they were on par with those in the past decade; this despite the fact that the ‘50s and ’60s were periods of unprecedented economic growth in the United States. In other words, crime has returned to where it once was, so the recent drop isn’t an aberration.

Roman says what’s more interesting is the rapid spike in crime in the 1980s and early 1990s, what he calls the "crime bubble." He says, "it was anomalous that [crime] went up in the first place. You had an unsustainable bubble. Bubbles burst."

But as the bubble collapsed, police resources did not. “Cities really scrambled to increase the number of police,” says Roman. According to a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) national report, the total number of full-time sworn officers went up 34 percent from 1987 to 2007, an increase of around two percent a year. After that, it was off to the races. Even as urban crime fell between 2003 and 2007, total operating budgets for police forces bounded upward 14 percent.

It may look like a facile formula that actually supports hiring loads of police—more cops, less crime—but the relationship isn’t that simple. In 1994, with the Rodney King riots still fresh in people’s minds, the Department of Justice began doling out grants for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a program to shift the policies and culture of policing. A sweeping GAO study from 2005 discovered that the $7.6 billion poured into state and local policing through COPS was responsible for minor downticks in crime rates during its first seven years—2.5 percent for violent crime and 1.3 percent overall. But when the researchers controlled for other factors, like differences across local economic conditions, they found that increased policing contributed very little to the overall decline.

In fact, Roman says scant evidence exists for the case that any policing policy, federal or local, is a crime fighter. "I can find very little support for the idea that our policies have really affected the crime rates."

Roman might sound crazy, but the GAO study reaches a similar conclusion: There’s no hard evidence that community policing strategies—adding more foot patrols, expanding community engagement—are tied to crime reduction or prevention. This cold reality has created a cottage industry of economists speculating about crime, most famously Steven Levitt, architect of the Freakonomics abortion thesis. Roman says the motivation behind researchers searching for odd explanations is simple. "The reasons for crime going up and going down [are] largely outside of our control.”

Despite the evidence, many city officials have not surrendered attempts to control crime, and the results are often ugly. The most notorious example is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s widely panned stop-and-frisk program, which allows officers to randomly search citizens for contraband (and perhaps unsurprisingly, the officers usually stop young, brown men). Officers everywhere, as Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman carefully document in The Atlantic, are using military tactics on average Americans, something that’s become obvious of late. What’s more, as the size and strength of police forces grow, it makes sense to believe that incidents of brutality could increase as well.

Even before the Occupy protests took off, Americans witnessed a spate of police abuse incidents across the country. There were the headline-grabbing cases in Oakland and New Orleans, in which police shot and killed unarmed black men, and quieter cases of misconduct ratcheting up costs in courtrooms and communities in Cleveland, Houston, Portland, Miami, and many others.

Tracking down accurate figures on police misconduct is virtually impossible. Each of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement departments across the country track their own figures, keeping tabs on complaints and abuse cases in varying ways. But researchers say no one has regularly compiled reliable national numbers. And reports of abuse from previous decades are incomplete.

John Firman, a researcher with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), firmly believes that misconduct has fallen. He cites findings from a 2001 study the IACP conducted, which says for every 10,000 calls police responded to, force was used less than four times. That number is so low, says Firman, because cops continue to grow more sensitive to misconduct and more educated on the proper use of force.

Firman calls this a "renaissance" in the complaint process. Police departments, he argues, have softened and opened up to the public, an evolution that Roman also sees taking place. "They're high-profile," he says, of recent abuse cases, "because they're increasingly rare."

Abuses are also increasingly seen. The ubiquity of cell phones and the web mean we can watch a Seattle officer pummel an unarmed woman and inspect a video of a cop killing a defenseless Oscar Grant—incidents that, two or three decades ago, may have passed in silence.

But the new channels to observe police abuse, and report it, don’t mean the problem of misconduct is settled. According to the aforementioned 2007 BJS study, just 8 percent of complaints against police were sustained, and 21 percent of the officers accused of excessive force were later exonerated. Another report from 2007, this one from the University of Chicago, uncovered rampant racist abuse in the prior five years among the Chicago police force, with few repercussions. "The city's system," the authors wrote, "was so obviously toothless and ineffective that it actually encouraged these officers in the belief that they could abuse African-Americans with impunity."

Still, Roman says, cops continue to get more professional, less corrupt, and increasingly effective, with one notable caveat: "Police have always struggled with how to deal with demonstrations."

Firman agrees, saying the Occupy protests pose a significant challenge to police forces because they are "unique." But Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the co-chair of the Mass Defense Committee at the National Lawyers Guild, the pro bono backers of the Occupy movement, contends that force unfurled repeatedly at occupations is nothing new. As with earlier movements, she says, police now respond “as if protest activity is somehow presumptively criminal.”

In an essay for The Nation, former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper writes that the protests highlight the frightening turn toward a militarized police force. To him, the police responses to Occupy aren’t detached from everyday policing. "The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders … is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country."

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Tayler at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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