Incremental or Intolerable? Clinton and Trump on Policing in America

The much-anticipated debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26 was unprecedented in many ways, and yet much of the rhetoric remained unfortunately familiar. Within just a few minutes of debate, we saw the state of the national conversation about policing when it comes to mainstream party politics. Without a doubt, neither side is focused as of yet on the real, root problems that drive the extreme tension between police and the black and brown communities.

As unorthodox as he may be in his other positions, Donald Trump’s views on policing are perfectly in line with standard right wing “law and order” politics. He firmly and repeatedly endorsed “Stop-and-Frisk,” the infamously racist and unconstitutional NYPD practice of aggressive frisking or searches of pedestrians based on “reasonable suspicion” that the citizen may be involved in a crime. The ineffectiveness of “Stop-and-Frisk” in combating crime and its blatantly racist practice are well-documented, particularly in analyses by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

What is more important than the data is Trump’s broad visions of policing and race in America. Trump’s picture revolves around the specter of violent crime in the form of the black gangster and the Latino illegal immigrant, who “roam the street [and] shoot people.” He justifies indiscriminately aggressive policing without restraint in poor neighborhoods of color. Such policing tactics have resulted in mass criminalization of minorities without the vaunted drop in violent crime, a fact that deserves forceful, repeated declaration by our mainstream left.

A strong stance against aggressive policing unfortunately did not materialize on Clinton’s side of the debate. To her credit, Clinton endorsed several of Black Lives Matters’ policing proposals from Campaign Zero in her platform, and many of these proposals go to the heart of solving the problems in policing. Her rhetoric at the debate, however, was quite tepid, and her rhetoric is important because it suggests that, if elected president, her policies regarding policing will be equally moderate. She refused in the debate to denounce “Stop-and-Frisk” as a racist policy, merely remarking that it was “ineffective” and “unconstitutional.” She did not go into any sort of detail regarding the magnitude of civil rights violation that Trump was advocating for.

Additionally, Clinton's analysis of the policing problem did not once suggest any racism or lack of accountability in the policy, practice, or culture of the police department. She framed it as a problem of “building trust between police and community,” of “better training,” and of dealing implicit bias “that we all have.” In other words, Clinton portrayed the problem in policing as fundamentally about perceptions of police practices that negatively affect individual encounters, as opposed to any real systemic problem with police practices themselves.

In regards to sentencing and prison, Clinton did call out systemic racism, but her approach to policing was undeniably weak – with one exception. Clinton denounced the mass criminalization of young black and brown men for nonviolent offenses, as well as the fact that being black means a much higher chance of incarceration than being white when charged for the same crime. At first glance, this seems to be a progressive and bold stance on policing, until we realize who is her most public advisor in regards to policing: recently retired NYPD chief William Bratton.

Bratton has praised Clinton for having “great ideas” and “experience” in law enforcement. In recent years, he has fashioned an image of himself as a “progressive police chief,” but this is a relatively recent development. In the late 1990s, he was famous for developing zero tolerance policing in New York alongside present-day Trump endorser and ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani. Bratton now opposes the stop-and-frisk policies he once supported, and they have greatly decreased under his second tenure as NYPD chief. In regards to rhetoric, he has admitted that black people feel “fear, anger, and frustration” towards the police, calling for greater trust between police and community.

While Bratton’s tenures as police chief in Los Angeles and New York (at least the second time) were clear improvements over more aggressive, “law and order” police chiefs like Daryl Gates or Ray Kelly, he continues his old “broken windows” zero tolerance model, even under the “progressive” mayor of New York, Bill DeBlasio. In 2013, according to the Police Reform Organizing Project, there were 155,381 misdemeanor arrests, for nonviolent offenses; 87% of the arrests were people of color. Despite the evidence for racism and against Zero Tolerance’s effectiveness, augmented by a recent Inspector General’s report, Bratton refuses to change his department’s policies. Clearly, his commitment to community policing is marred by hypocrisy, and Clinton’s attachment to such figures draws up doubts about her own commitment.

In the end, Clinton’s emphasis on trust-building and better training is not surprising when we remember that her main allies are incrementally reformist police chiefs like Bratton. It’s a convenient way to admit that tension between police and minorities may have some justification without seriously challenging police methods, policy, or culture. Other members of the establishment or even ostensibly progressive left, including New York mayor Bill DeBlasio and President Obama, share the same view. Yet this description of the problems in policing is blatantly too surface-level.

Truly radical, meaningful reform cannot occur without direct and forceful policies to undermine and reverse racist police practice and culture, and to establish external accountability able to efficiently prosecute and deter misconduct. It must be asserted openly by Democratic politicians that policing is infected at a systemic level, a truth only consistently acknowledged by the Black Lives Matter movement.

By effectively ceding to Trump the narratives about aggressive policing, police racism, and crime through her weak responses, Clinton missed a fine opportunity to show her commitment to dismantling racism, which could have been a positive step for a candidate struggling to motivate minority millennials to turn out for her. More importantly than the electoral side of things, however, is the fact that as long as the establishment left’s view of policing remains so conciliatory, there will be no truly substantial change in policing. Their reforms will be just like Bill Bratton’s in New York: mildly effective, but still much closer to racist “law and order” policing than any self-respecting liberal would like to admit.   


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