Is policing part of a Strong Town?

This is a response to the post on Strong Towns, titled “What’s the Role of the Police Department in Building Strong Towns?

I’m going to argue that a Strong Town does not depend upon or even much need policing. This strong statement comes from my experience in observing the interactions between law enforcement and citizens of color, citizens of low income. I’m a white male middle class person, so I have not directly experienced these issues, but I see them every day. Every day. In the city where I live (Sacramento), in the county where I live (Sacramento) to an even greater degree, and in most of the places I visit in the western US. There is data driven enforcement where I live, as follows: if they are black, they are guilty. If they are other people of color or poor, they are likely guilty. If they are black and poor and young and male, god help them, they will probably be dead no matter the nature of their perceived infraction. The district attorneys are part and parcel of the problem, as they will not prosecute law enforcement officers for violations of the law and of civil rights. The police unions are part and parcel, as they defend all officers, no matter how much of a bad apple they are.

I am not saying that all law enforcement profiles, in fact most probably do not. Not all officers are prone to excessive use of force, in fact most are probably not. However, the person of color has no way of knowing which kind of officer is approaching them. They have to assume they are going to be harassed, arrested for imaginary violations, and possibly murdered. Because that is what happens all too often. In fact, any instance is too often.

You might think I’m exaggerating. Let me refer to two cases in my area, both of which received national attention.

Nandi Cain was a young black male crossing the street legally. He was confronted by and severely beaten by a Sacramento City police officer for the imagined ‘crime’ of jaywalking. The officer did not lose his job and was not disciplined beyond administrative leave.

Joseph Mann was a middle aged black male killed by two Sacramento City police officers who first tried to run him over with their patrol car, and when they couldn’t hit him, pumped large number of bullets into him. What did he do? He was holding a pocket knife and behaving strangely. He had mental health issues. Neither officer was fired, neither was prosecuted, and it is not clear whether either were disciplined. Both eventually left the department. One later admitted in print that what they had done was probably murder, but the district attorney did not follow up. The interesting thing about this case is that other earlier arriving officers had largely defused the situation, the good officers, but the two later arriving ones assumed that the person was guilty of whatever and had to be killed, the bad officers. Data-driven enforcement, for sure.

This list could go on for pages, just in my region, and it could be a book nationally. I’m sure you have all heard of such incidents. The reason I picked these two is that they also relate to safety on the streets, which is a major component of a Strong Town. Nandi, the pedestrian, is the most obvious one. He could not safety cross the street in his own neighborhood, not because of traffic (though there are certainly issues with that as well), but because the police profiled and convicted him in the field. Joseph was killed while standing in the street. The officers used a deadly weapon, their patrol vehicle, to try to kill him, and only went to their other deadly weapons, their service revolvers, when that did not work.

The fact is, under our current policing paradigm, people of color, and particularly the young, black, poor male, cannot be safe. If any citizen is not safe, all citizens are not safe, and you cannot have a Strong Town.

The second major issue is the propensity of law enforcement to take the windshield perspective on all traffic collisions, and assume that the pedestrian or bicyclist was fully responsible for their injury or death. This shows up in the news media all the time. The officer on the scene will report that the bicyclist was not wearing a helmet, or that the pedestrian was wearing dark clothing. This is at the scene, before any investigation has even started. And that is the only thing the public ever hears. There is never a follow-up. And no one can get a copy of the investigation except the immediate family, if any, because friends and other family, and the public, is not considered an interested party.

Again, a specific example. I arrived on scene just moments after a student riding to school had been hit by a driver. His pack was thrown a considerable distance, and I made sure that it was not moved by anyone, as it gives an indication of the speed of impact. When I pointed it out to the officer, he went and picked it up and said it had no bearing on the crash. A neighbor who did not see the crash but had seen the student bicycling to school dozens of times, stated to me that she had never seen the student veer or do anything but ride in a completely safe and predicable manner. The officer would not take her statement since she did not witness the collision. How can anyone feel safe using the roadways if law enforcement sees only what it wants to see, not the facts? The student was transported to the hospital but did not have life-threatening injuries.

Traffic crash statistics, on which we base many of our decisions about traffic safety, investments in transportation systems, and how we value people who use the roadways and sidewalks, is suspect. Officers report that the pedestrian or bicyclist was at fault in most crashes, because that is what they want to believe. To believe otherwise would bring into question the built environment and the organizing principles of the city, and that is something most law enforcement personnel are not willing to consider.

Chuck Marohn has expressed concern about traffic enforcement, in More Thoughts on Ending Traffic StopsIt’s Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop, and many other posts and episodes. The Internet is full of posts questioning whether law enforcement can be a constructive partner in Vision Zero.

Robert Severance III of Cleburne TX is probably an honorable person. But I’d speculate that one or more persons on his force are not. As BWTrainer commented in response to the Strong Towns post, there is no mention of what the citizens think. A Strong Towns approach values all voices but emphasizes the voices of those who are not usually heard. That’s what I think.



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