When Child Welfare Cases Police Women in Their Homes

In the fast-gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem, you could sort most families into two categories, according to Joyce McMillan. There are those who have never given a thought to the idea that a government agency might threaten to remove their child. And then there are those who live with the fear that one wrong move could mean a child protective investigator will come knocking. If you’re wealthy and white, you likely fall in the first category. And if you’re poor and of color, chances are that you or someone close to you has experienced the terror of a child welfare investigation launched on dubious grounds.  

Over her years as a family advocate in the New York City neighborhood, McMillan, who founded the Parent Legislative Action Network, has heard many of these stories: teachers reporting families when kids are showing up late to school; emergency room doctors who don’t give poor parents the benefit of the doubt; vengeful ex-boyfriends making false allegations. That’s why when Covid-19 hit, McMillan posted a flier on every floor of a Harlem family shelter with the message to call her if child protective services knocked. She figured that with the city shut down, parents being investigated for child maltreatment would feel more scared and alone than ever.

But what McMillan has instead found is closer to a collective sigh of relief when it comes to child protective services. Parents who were already being investigated were pleased when much of the scrutiny moved out of their homes and online. One parent told her, “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.” Other parents who have lived with the fear of future investigation say less contact with teachers means less worry that they’re going to be accused of mistreatment for “frivolous” reasons, says McMillan.

Data suggests parents are not imagining the change. Ever since schools around the country closed and children have sheltered at home, there has been a steep drop in calls to child maltreatment hotlines. One analysis estimates a drop of more than 200,000 allegations of child maltreatment in the U.S. reported in March and April over previous years. In New York City, child abuse reports dipped by 51% compared to the same eight-week period last year, according to the New York Times.

For kids experiencing real abuse, the closures and home confinement during coronavirus can mean danger if their cases aren’t investigated. Some ER doctors have said they are seeing fewer children, but more severe pediatric injuries linked to child abuse. And research has linked child mistreatment to heightened stress and economic hardship — two things rampant during this time of pandemic and protest. With families sheltering out of sight of teachers and other professionals who are legally mandated to report their suspicions, child advocates fear that mistreatment is going undetected and unreported.

“The risk to children increases when contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and health care providers decreases,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark told the BronxTimes.

But there’s another side to this story: Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.

“I’ve been speaking to families and they’re saying they aren’t under the scrutiny of teachers,” says McMillan. “It’s feeling like a relief. We’ve been celebrating and ramping up the campaign around why mandated reporting is not necessary.”

McMillan likens the pre-lockdown tactics to the aggressive policing of young black and Latinx men, only for women, and in the most private of spaces: their own homes. “We’re casting a really wide net and shaking down families, and if we’re lucky, we find something,” she says.

Tips or “reports” to child maltreatment hotlines are how cities identify which children may not be safe at home. Anyone can make a report, but most come from teachers and other professionals who work with children and are required by law to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. For parents who are the subjects of these tips, the ensuing 60-day child welfare investigation can be a blunt, invasive instrument, one that involves unannounced home visits, body checks of kids, and interviews with a family’s teachers and neighbors. But the majority of tips and reports are never substantiated: Fewer than one in five of children investigated are found to be victims of abuse and neglect.

These allegations are not distributed equally by race and class. One study estimates that only 10% of Asian children and 23% of white children will experience a child welfare investigation before age 18. For African-American children, that percentage blows up to more than half, or 53%. In New York City, even among community districts with similar poverty rates, neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and Latinx residents had, overall, higher rates of investigation, one analysis found. Nor does casting such a wide net come cheap. Philadelphia spends upward of $81 million in investigations alone.

Sam Chafee, a spokesman for New York City’s Administration of Child Services, said his agency is “very aware of and concerned about” racial bias in his own agency, and in other child services agencies across the U.S. He said his own staff members participate in implicit bias training, but that other individuals who are mandated to report suspicions of abuse should also be required to undergo training “so that reports to the SCR [Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse] are objective and result in help for children when truly needed.”

Like McMillan, Chris Gottlieb, co-director of NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, suspects that mandated reporting may do more harm than good. With so few reports substantiated, says Gottlieb, cities are “misdirecting resources away from the small percentage of cases where there is serious abuse, and away from what they should be used for, which is much-needed services like housing and health care.”

She’d like to see research comparing whether harm to children actually increased while children sheltered with their parents. “I think this could be a test where the numbers end up showing that we don’t need the mandated reporter system at all.”

Proponents of mandated reporting point to the cases of abuse that go undetected, and say it is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than allow children to suffer. Without mandated reporting, they fear, no one person will feel the responsibility to alert authorities to a child’s potential abuse or neglect. The question for advocates like Gottlieb is: How many of those unreported cases are actually solved by the current system, relative to the harm done by investigations.

“In neighborhoods that are inundated with Children’s Services, you get to the tipping point where it’s generally understood that this is a government authority that comes into a neighborhood and abuses its authority,” says Gottlieb. In these neighborhoods, the acronym of the child welfare organization, ACS, can be so well-known that it is batted around in schoolyard chatter as a threatening force akin to the police, Gottlieb adds. “People see Children’s Services as dangerous threats to their family.”

Before the pandemic, some parents worried constantly about their children getting hurt in the schoolyard only to have a teacher or doctor point the finger at them, says Nancy Fortunato, senior parent leader at Rise, an organization for parents with child welfare involvement. Fortunato knows one mother who, after enduring multiple investigations, began photographing her children each morning before they left for school so she had proof that they left her care unharmed. Another mother she knows lost her job for chronic lateness while trying to comply with the many service referrals by a child welfare investigator.

These parents, like parents everywhere, are now facing a cocktail of pandemic-related struggles: job loss, homeschooling children with disabilities, anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness. Many are also struggling with issues related to poverty, such as homelessness. But the stakes of showing their stress are different.

These last few months, as the smartphones of middle- and upper-class parents have flooded with reassuring articles about how it’s important to take it easy when it comes to remote schooling and to be gentle on yourself and your kids, Jessica Marcus has been charting a very different message sent to the low-income parents she works with. In what she fears may be the beginnings of a disturbing trend, Marcus, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, says her office has seen a handful of new clients who say when they called their children’s schools asking for help accessing the internet or securing devices for remote learning, the schools reported them to child protective services on suspicions of educational neglect. “Our clients find that when they ask for help, instead of help they get a report,” says Marcus.

The threat of child removal prevents many families from going to child care workers who might help them connect to crucial resources. While many child welfare systems have allocated more of their budgets to providing supports to stabilize vulnerable families, what is known as “foster care prevention,” advocates say the threat of monitoring and family break-up motivates parents to keep their distance.

Like Marcus, New York City parent advocates interviewed for this story all know parents who say teachers have directly or indirectly threatened to notify child welfare services for issues related to remote learning, like if a parent doesn’t turn the camera on during a class meeting. Nonetheless, they say that with school moved online, the monitoring of their parenting now is a whisper of what it once was.

Fortunato, who has herself been investigated, cautions parents not to get too comfortable with the quiet. “You always have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, because tomorrow, when kids go back to school, child welfare will start knocking on people’s doors. …Those kids that didn’t do remote learning as they should, that’s educational neglect. Those kids that didn’t go see their doctors, that’s medical neglect.”

In an alternate future envisioned by Gottlieb, community members may be more empathetic after months of living through a pandemic —  and then national racial justice protests.

The litmus test, Gottlieb says: “When things reopen, will a teacher who sees a child coming to school in dirty clothes be as quick to pick up the phone, or will they reach out to the parent and say: Are you having trouble with quarters for the laundry machine? Can we help you?”

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The Cities Taking Up Calls to Defund the Police

On June 7, members of the Minneapolis city council announced something that just weeks ago might have seemed politically untenable: They would disband the Minneapolis Police Department entirely, and start over with a community-led public safety system. Though the mayor reaffirmed on Monday that he wouldn’t support the dissolution of the force, the council has secured a veto-proof majority.

“Our commitment is to do what’s necessary to keep every single member of our community safe and to tell the truth: that the Minneapolis Police are not doing that,” city councilmember Lisa Bender said at a rally. “Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Although it’s unclear how the council plans to disband the police department, the move nonetheless marks a foundational shift in how many U.S. politicians talk about policing in the city — one that reflects the growing understanding that there’s something systemic wrong with the institution.

No other city has gone as far as Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd sparked global protests. The Minneapolis Parks Department, the University of Minnesota, some local museums and the public school system have already severed ties with the police department.

But lawmakers in at least 15 other U.S. cities have proposed or made pledges that would divest some resources from the police. Several more have proposed taking police out of schools. Many of the ideas are more incremental in their rhetoric than Minneapolis’s, calling instead for budget cuts or reductions in officer counts. Some are waiting to conduct firmer research or get more public input before making concrete plans. Even in Minneapolis, councilmembers haven’t yet laid out details about how their proposal would work, instead promising that they’d listen to locals before determining a path. But already, in the weeks since Floyd’s death, communities have been heard — in the streets and online — sparking an acute focus on funding as a reform vehicle.

“These ideas are not new, but what we are seeing today is the emergence of a groundswell of support for them from elected officials and — most importantly — from their communities and constituents across the country,” says Sarah Johnson, the director of Local Progress, an alliance of local policymakers that advocate for progressive reforms.

As the role and pervasive power of the police has been questioned, so, too, have bloated budgets: Even as crime has fallen across the country, police and public safety have consistently made up an average of 3.7% of state and local spending, a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of Urban Institute data found. Since the 1970s, spending on police has nearly tripled, reaching $114.5 billion in 2017.

By reducing the number of police deployed, de-militarizing them, and rethinking their role in prosecuting smaller offenses, advocates say cities could cut departments down to scale. With the money saved, cities could reallocate resources toward other public services — like schools, social workers and mental health professionals — and away from enforcement and incarceration.

Reducing police budgets

After peaceful protest in front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house and on the streets of Los Angeles, the city became one of the first where true police defunding will take hold. The mayor and the city council president plan to cut $100 to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget, and reinvest that, plus $100 million more, in black communities. Activists were encouraged by the move, but it falls far short of what they’re seeking: a dramatic slashing of the $1.86 billion budget to represent just 6% of the city’s discretionary fund, rather than 53%.

In New York City, despite initial resistance, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to propose a July budget that includes cuts to the $6 billion police budget, paired with more investment in youth and social services, though he shared few details. The city’s comptroller has urged him to reduce the budget by $1.1 billion, and councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Brad Lander have made clear they won’t sign a budget that doesn’t “meaningfully” redirect funds from policing to coronavirus recovery and social services.

And in San Francisco, supervisor Shamann Walton has announced his own plans to redirect funding from the police to black communities like the one he represents. Details there are scarce, too, but Walton has won the support of Mayor London Breed — who, in the past, has worked to increase police presence in the city.

Rerouting funds to social services

Where defunding efforts are still nascent, understanding the gaps between spending on social services and policing will be key to determining how much funding to redirect, policymakers say.

In Chicago, for instance, the public dollars that go to supporting public health, family services, the department for people with disabilities, and libraries combined is about $1 billion, says Chicago alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, who’s joined with the city’s progressive caucus to lead calls to defund the police. In contrast, the 13,000-member-strong police department’s budget has grown every year for the past eight years, reaching $1.78 billion in 2020; $153 million of the city’s budget is earmarked for police misconduct settlements.

“As we have created this austerity situation where poverty has increased and the gaps between the rich and the poor have increased, we’ve also created this really huge police department that has lots of military equipment and a lot of surveillance,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” Though she says more research needs to be done before the council identifies a target number for divestment, she says the city could start by getting Chicago police officers out of public schools, and halt plans to build a new $100 million police academy. (Mayor Lori Lightfoot has resisted calls to cut police funding in the past.)

Rodriguez-Sanchez says public support is growing for non-financial reforms, too, including a push to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council, which would introduce more public oversight over the police department. The ordinance is currently held up in the city’s public safety committee.

“Imagine the kind of support services we can have if we divest resources from punishment to funding basic human needs,” she wrote on Twitter.

Smaller cities have similarly disparate spending priorities. While more than 33.5% of St. Louis, Missouri’s general fund and 20% of its total city budget went to policing in 2019, only 2.3% of the city budget went to mental health according to an analysis by Local Progress.

“We’ve continued to underfund social services and human services while putting upwards of 50% of our budget into policing and jails,” said Megan Ellyia Green, a St. Louis councilmember who worked with Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson on an op-ed advocating for police divestment in January.

A sales tax passed in 2017 to hire more police officers and give raises to existing ones has raised $50 million a year; Green says she wants the city to divert those funds into “violence interruptors, social workers and substance abuse counselors,” and ”to start to go after the root causes of crime in our city.”

She’s also joining activists in calling on the city to close a medium-security jail nicknamed “the Workhouse,” where only about 100 primarily non-violent offenders are held, the vast majority of whom are awaiting trial but cannot afford bail. Recent reforms have already shrunk the jail’s budget from $16 million to closer to $8 million, but Green notes those funds could be saved if it was shuttered entirely. Incarcerated people could be transferred into St. Louis’ Justice Center, “but the goal should be to have the maximum amount of people not within our jails, and provide people with the supports they need to wait for their day in court at home,” she said.

Reducing officer counts

Where the cop-to-population ratio is especially high, lawmakers are emphasizing the need to shrink head counts. Washington, D.C., for example, employs about 3,800 officers. That means the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has 55 officers per every 10,000 residents, a proportion that city councilmember David Grosso notes is double the national average. In a proposed amendment to councilmember Charles Allen’s police reform bill — which would “find savings in MPD’s budget” — Grosso offered a plan to limit the number of sworn officers to 3,500, and to put a hiring freeze on the department if it exceeds that number.

Two city councilmembers in Hartford, a city of 122,000 in Connecticut, have proposed what Local Progress believes to be “the largest percent reduction currently being proposed among cities with largest police-to-population ratio.” The policymakers, Wildaliz Bermudez and Josh Michtom, are calling for a 25% cut of the police budget. That would translate into an estimated $9 million in savings cut from “areas within the department least likely to reduce violent crime and most likely to contribute to the criminalization of Black and Brown people.”

While the national momentum is unprecedented, city leaders like St. Louis Councilmember Green and Durham Mayor Pro Tempure Johnson, have been nudging reforms for years. Last summer, Durham’s city council denied a $1.2 million proposal to fund 18 new police officers, instead raising wages for part-time government workers in a city where crime has consistently declined. To determine future policing priorities, Durham created a community safety task force, charged with things like looking at how the city deals with crisis response and investigating alternatives to school policing.

“The police chief and the sheriff have been strong advocates of broad reforms to the criminal legal system, but the questions around defunding or divesting obviously go further than reform,” she said. “We can make policing better, but policing is never going to be the right solution for certain problems.”

Johnson is planning on analyzing the city’s 911 calls to gain more clarity on which could be fielded by community health workers or people trained in crisis intervention instead of law enforcement.

“If we could divert 20% of the calls that are currently being responded to by police to other agencies, that’s a huge difference,” she said. Redirecting resources doesn’t have to stop with 911, she added: “You don’t need to be armed to direct traffic or lead a parade through a crowd. What kinds of jobs could we create in the city for unarmed safety officers to be able to do that kind of work?”

Obstacles to reform

Even where political will is growing, obstacles to passing legislation at the city level remain. Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget, which the council will vote on this week, is set to allocate more than $500 million to the police — more than three times the spending on “housing and community development, employment development, homeless services, recreation and parks, art and culture, health, and civil rights” combined, the Baltimore Fishbowl notes. Although a few city councilmembers in Baltimore have expressed support for police budget cuts, the city’s strong-mayor leadership means that even if the council votes to defund, it can’t decide where the money is reinvested. Leadership change may accelerate things: In an upset Monday, councilmember Bill Henry — a longtime advocate for diverting police funds into things like supporting youth — won Baltimore’s comptroller seat, giving him the power to audit city agencies. And the primary election for Baltimore mayor will mean new leadership at the top, too.

Even in Minneapolis, it’s unclear what bold pledges to disband the police will or can mean in practice. Councilmembers haven’t yet taken a vote or elaborated on what a plan might look like and activists question whether eliminating the department is even a good idea without clear plans about what will replace it. Michelle Gross, president of the Minneapolis chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality, told the Associated Press the promise was “just plain optics.”

Getting police out of schools

While policymakers work to reduce the number of police on the streets, public school systems like Minneapolis’s that have contracts with local departments or employ their own officers are taking similarly bold steps in their hallways.

“We have such a dearth of funding in education and a lack of prioritization in education. We can’t afford to waste money by paying police officers to come in and not just disrupt education, but really funnel kids away from the educational system and into the criminal system,” said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California’s director of education equity. “Studies have shown that students are more likely not to graduate from high school if they are arrested. Every time law enforcement touches a student, they are more likely not to complete school.”

Public schools in Rochester, New York, cut five out of 12 “school resource officers” — agents from the Rochester police department — from its budget in May, and the city is pushing to cut the rest. Contracts between police and Denver public schools may be phased out, too, as reforms gain the support of the majority of the school board members and the superintendent.

And in Portland, the superintendent of public schools has decided to “discontinue” its use of school resource officers entirely, heeding the demands of the city council’s lone black member, Jo Ann Hardesty, has been making since she took office in 2019.

When the final city budget vote is cast on June 10, Hardesty wrote in an op-ed that she “will be re-introducing a series of amendments to not only disband the three aforementioned Portland police specialty units, but to move that money out of the Portland police budget and into policing alternatives such as Portland Street Response.”

“This is only the beginning,” she wrote.

The volume of messages from constituents supporting efforts to defund the police has never been higher, Green, Johnson, and Rodriguez-Sanchez told CityLab.

“I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re recognizing that policing does not equate [with] public safety,” said Green. “And that if we’re perpetually underfunding all these support services that can actually prevent crime, that’s actually causing us to have higher crime rates.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Josh Mishtom’s name.

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CityLab University: A Timeline of U.S. Police Protests

When a white police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck during an arrest on May 25, eventually killing him, the incident followed a longstanding pattern of unchecked police brutality toward African Americans. The civil unrest that has erupted in city after city is not unlike the protests that came after other high-profile police killings of African Americans such as Tamir Rice and Michael Brown in 2014, Freddie Gray in 2015, and Philando Castile in 2016 — as well as the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991. The following year, 1992, marked a turning point in calls for police reform, triggered by violent riots that came after the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen responsible for severely injuring King.  

In the years since, however, change has been incremental. And as with the most recent demonstrations that began on May 26 in Minneapolis, past peaceful protests often gave rise to violence as police responded with brute force.

“What protests have been effective in doing is raising the public consciousness about the level of public violence that communities experience,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of African American history at Georgetown University​​​​​​. “They have also exposed the amount of money that has been spent on police forces and weapons, and have helped expose the level of brutality.”

The 1960s marked the beginning of an increased militarization of police forces, according to Chatelain. The U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign was also used as a justification for increased policing, as was terrorism after the attacks of 9/11, she said. But the widespread use of mobile-phone cameras and social media now allows the public to witness more abuses firsthand.  

The following is a timeline of major protests in response to police brutality, especially instances where officers remained in their jobs or weren’t held accountable for violent or fatal arrests. These demonstrations are part of a broader movement against systemic racism in America, and don’t include the killings of people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin by fellow civilians. Arbery was chased and shot in February by an armed white resident in Atlanta, and Martin was shot by neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida back in 2012.

This list also doesn’t encompass many others who were killed by police or while in police custody, such as Sandra Bland, whose death in jail was ruled a suicide after she was pulled over by an officer in Texas, in 2015. That officer was later put on leave, but never charged, prompting renewed calls for her case to be reopened amid the protests for Floyd.

Los Angeles, California

Rodney King (25 years old — died 20 years later) — March 3, 1991

Rodney King in Los Angeles, California, in April 2012, in front of the Eso Won bookstore, where he was signing his new memoir. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Events: Rodney King was driving away from police officers who were trying to arrest him (King was allegedly under the influence). When they finally did get him in handcuffs, the officers proceeded to beat him with their batons more than 50 times, leaving him with permanent brain damage, among other health problems. The beating was filmed by a bystander. The four officers involved were acquitted in 1992. King survived and died in 2012, at the age of 47 years old.

Protests: The footage of the beating sparked protests in Los Angeles, but after the officers were acquitted , they turned more violent. Over the six days of riots, more than 50 people were killed, 6,000 arrested, and thousands wounded. The violence of the protests fed upon the deep racial inequalities entrenched in the city, and the National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps were summoned.

Aftermath: Two of the policemen who bludgeoned King were later jailed after federal prosecutors filed their own charges. President George Bush, who had called the actions of the officers “sickening,” opposed the riots that unfolded and called the actions of the protesters “revolting.”

In the wake of the beating, the Christopher Commission (also known as the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department), was created to examine the methods of the LAPD, including recruitment, training and the use of force. However, the impacts of the commission on LAPD operations were limited. Its most important achievement was perhaps that it ended lifetime terms for police chiefs — and Daryl Gates, the police chief during that period, resigned.

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New York, New York

Amadou Diallo (23 years old) — Feb. 4, 1999

Kadiatou and Saikou Diallo, parents of Amadou Diallo, address the press after the officers were found not guilty on all charges. (Will Waldron/Getty Images)

Events: Four plain-clothes officers shot Amadou Diallo near his home. They fired 41 shots, thinking he had a gun. It was his wallet. They were acquitted of second-degree murder.

Protests: Thousands marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after the officers were acquitted, and protests were mostly peaceful, even though hundreds of police officers wearing helmets met the protesters in the streets.  

Aftermath: The Street Crimes Unit of the NYPD, of which the four officers were members, was disbanded in April 2002. The unit had been heavily criticized for stopping black Americans and Hispanics in high numbers, and was the target of a civil rights action. It was only years later that the city released hard data that showed the degree of racial disparities in police stops and frisks.

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New York, New York

Sean Bell (23 years old) — Nov. 25, 2006

A protester is arrested at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in May 2008 following the acquittal of three police officers in the Sean Bell shooting trial. (Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

Events: A group of five police officers opened fire on Sean Bell and two of his friends in Queens, New York, a few hours before Bell’s wedding. The officers fired a total of 51 shots, killing Bell and wounding Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were with him. The two survivors were shackled to their hospital beds, which drew massive outrage. Charges were pressed against three out of the five officers, but they were found not guilty.

Protests: The acquittal of the officers involved in the case sparked peaceful protest. Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton addressed the press during the demonstrations, saying: “Some in the media seemed disappointed, they wanted us to play into the hoodlum, thug stereotypes. We can be angry without being mad.”

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St. Louis, Missouri

Anthony Lamar Smith (24 years old) — December 20, 2011

The third day of protests in St. Louis, Missouri, in September 2012, after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, who shot Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011. // Scott Olson/Getty Images

Events: Anthony Lamar Smith was shot dead by police officer Jason Stockley, after Smith tried to run away from him — Stockley suspected him of dealing drugs. Stockley wasn’t charged until 2016 after a recording of him surfaced saying he was “going to kill this motherf—er.” He was acquitted of first degree murder in September 2017. Stockley said he saw a gun before he opened fire, which in the eyes of the law, was enough to justify the shooting.

Protests: The decision to acquit Stockley sparked days-long protest in St. Louis, with police forces responding in riot gear after “agitators” started “throwing rocks and breaking windows,” according to the police forces on the ground. Demonstrators marched toward the house of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and were stopped by police in riot gear. The officers used rubber bullets on the crowd, and made hundreds of arrests.

Aftermath: Though Stockley never faced jail time, the St. Louis police settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 with Lamar Smith’s family for $900,000. In 2018, a judged allowed the family’s lawyer to reopen discovery in the civil case after learning the defendants had withheld DNA evidence that indicated Stockley had planted a gun in Lamar Smith’s car. A year later, the family was awarded an additional $500,000.

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New York, New York

Eric Garner (43 years old) — July 17, 2014

Demonstrators hold a “die-in” in Grand Central Terminal protesting the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Undercover police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a prohibited chokehold — quite similar to Floyd’s death —  after accusing him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Protests: Peaceful protests erupted after after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo. They lasted several nights, with thousands congregating in Times Square, carrying fake coffins and chanting “I can’t breathe.” Protesters also held “die-ins” in public spaces, often moved by police forces wearing riot gear. Some demonstrators flooded highways and bridges, effectively shutting down traffic. Protests were also held in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Aftermath: Pantaleo was fired five years later, in 2019, after a trial that was started by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). This trial was the first opportunity for public testimony in the case, after both a Staten Island Grand Jury and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. On June 8, 2020, the New York Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill named after Garner that criminalizes the police use of chokeholds — more than five years after the first version of the bill was drafted in response to Garner’s death.

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Ferguson, Missouri

Michael Brown (18 years old) — August 9, 2014

Police officers in riot gear and National Guard troops in Ferguson on November 28, 2014, during protests after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Events: Police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he was leaving a convenience store, in which a security camera had recorded him stealing small cigars. He was unarmed. Wilson fired 12 times, and was never charged for Brown’s murder. A grand jury decided not to indict him, citing the lack of a probable cause.

Protests: A wave of violent protests erupted after Brown’s death, and after the grand jury decision. The police used particularly violent methods to repress protesters, from tear gas to an extended arsenal of military weapons received through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, created to give surplus military weapons to local law enforcement agencies.

The protests over Brown’s killing gave rise to a new generation of young black political activists and to the cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” They also led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had initially begun as only a hashtag on social media following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

Aftermath: In March 2015, legal reforms were started in Ferguson, after the Department of Justice started an inquiry. And as the police use of military weapons increasingly came under scrutiny, President Barack Obama canceled the 1033 program, ending the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments, in a move to demilitarize the police. (President Donald Trump fully restored the program in 2017 through an executive order.)

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists launched “Campaign Zero,” a platform detailing policy proposals to limit the police use of force.

Not long after Brown’s murder, two Cleveland policemen approached Tamir Rice in a park, where one of the officers shot and killed him under the belief that the 12-year-old was wielding a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and when Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced in December 2015 that both officers would not be charged, he called the incident “a perfect storm of human error.” That didn’t sit well with the community, which led a peaceful protest of more than 100 people to McGinty’s home demanding his resignation. He didn’t resign, but in the 2016 elections, Cleveland residents voted him out.

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Baltimore, Maryland

Freddie Gray (25 years old) — April 12, 2015

Protesters marching in Baltimore, on April 30, 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers for the illegal possession of a “switchblade” — though his attorney said he had a legal-sized pocket knife — and thrown into the back of a van. Police then subjected him to a police practice known as a “rough ride”: Cuffed at the hands and feet but not put in a seatbelt, Gray slammed into the walls of the van when drivers suddenly braked. He died a week later from a severe spinal cord injury.

Protests: The Department of Justice opened a civil rights case into Gray’s death, and protesters led a peaceful march in Baltimore. Those demonstrations turned more violent after his funeral, on April 27. The police started using pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, and policemen in riot gear were deployed. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and the Maryland National Guard was deployed. The police arrested more than 200 people. Protests eased as local authorities brought charges against the six policemen involved — ranging from second degree murder to reckless endangerment — but three officers were eventually acquitted while the other three had their charges dropped. When the DOJ refused to bring civil rights charges against the officers in July 2017, it lead to more protests, though they were mostly peaceful.

Aftermath: According to Samuel Sinyangwe from Campaign Zero, police brutality has decreased slightly in Baltimore, but progress has been slow. The police department followed some of the recommendations from the DOJ, after an investigation into the police department’s methods. President Barack Obama said after Gray’s death that “it isn’t new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired, and Rawlings-Blake abandoned her re-election campaign as criticism mounted over her handling of the protests. The unrest after Gray’s death also gave rise to Baltimore’s social activist community comprised of young black leaders who have largely kept the current protests over Floyd’s death peaceful.

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Alton Sterling (37 years old) — July 5, 2016

Protesters in front of the Louisiana Capitol, after Alton Sterling  was shot to death by officers from the Baton Rouge police department, in July 2009. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Events: Two white officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department pinned Alton Sterling to the ground after an anonymous caller reported Sterling for selling CDs outside a convenience store. After shouting that Sterling had a gun, one of the officers shot him dead. The officers claimed that they felt threatened by what they believe was Sterling reaching for his gun, but videos of the shooting showed Sterling seemingly immobile before the killing.

Protests: The weekend after the shooting, non-violent protests erupted in Baton Rouge, where multiple protesters were arrested. They confronted heavily militarized police. The protests led to one of the most iconic photos of anti-police protest: the arrest of a lone woman, with her calm demeanor and flowing dress juxtaposed against the line of officers in riot gear in front of her.

Aftermath: The DOJ opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting. The officers were not charged in the killings. But Blane Salamoni, who shot Sterling, was fired from the police department. Barack Obama spoke out about the shooting and Philando Castile’s (Castile was shot dead the day after.)

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St. Paul, Minnesota

Philando Castile (32 years old) — July 6, 2016

Protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 16, 2017, carrying a banner commemorating Philando Castile, after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Castile in July 2016. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: Philando Castile, a school nutritionist, was driving in the St. Anthony suburb of St. Paul with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter when police officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled the car over and asked him for his license and registration. In complying, Castile alerted the officer that there was a gun — one that he was licensed to carry — in the glove compartment where his documents were also placed. As Castile reached over, Yanez shot him multiple times. Reynolds live-streamed a video of the aftermath on Facebook but it wasn’t enough to convict Yanez of manslaughter. In 2017, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Protests: The first round of protests started soon after the shooting, bringing out teachers and children, and spreading across the U.S. They escalated in the Twin Cities as demonstrations spilled onto the highway and blocked traffic, with projectiles thrown, police injured and multiple arrests. Castile’s family and members of the Black Lives Matter movement denounced the violence. A year later, protests resumed after Yanez was found not guilty. Once again, they started in St. Paul, spreading to Minneapolis, New York, and across the country.

Aftermath: The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was starting a review of the police department of St. Anthony in December 2016. According to the police department, all officers went through additional training starting January 2017, and put together additional plans for increased data transparency, body cams for all officers, and banned a controversial police training that encouraged officers to shoot if they felt threatened. However, even though the Justice Department drafted objectives for the police department in March 2017, “it never followed through with recommendations on ways to improve the police force,” according to the Star-Tribune.

President Barack Obama gave a speech after the shooting, sending his condolences to Castile’s family and calling the police violence an “American” issue. “These are not isolated incidents,” he said. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

George Floyd (46 years old) — May 25, 2020

A portrait of George Floyd on a streetlight pole, in front of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a protest on May 27. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: When convenience store employees called the police on George Floyd for using a counterfeit $20 bill, Derek Chauvin and three other now-former officers quickly escalated the situation in trying to arrest him. The full eight minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground with a knee to his neck played out in several videos recorded by bystanders watching in horror. Before he died, Floyd repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and when Chauvin and his team did not relent, he pleaded for his late mother.

An independent autopsy would later show he died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Though a separate report from Hennepin County Medical Examiner attributed his death to underlying heart disease, it concluded his death was a homicide. All four officers were fired.

Protests: The protests came swiftly, spreading from Minneapolis to dozens of cities across the U.S. as the public called for the officers to be arrested. But as demonstrations continue, they have evolved into a national uprising over police violence and the lack of police accountability. They’ve also included a cry for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot after forcibly entering her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March. Protesters have taken to cities, to major highways, and even out in the suburbs, shouting, “No Justice, no peace.”

The protests began peacefully, with several demonstrators urging police to take a knee in support of the movement. But some intensified as cities enacted curfews and officers enforced them through the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and — in an escalation of events in the nation’s capital — a heavy military presence. Meanwhile, some people began looting and rioting, injecting confusion and disorder into the early days of the demonstrations.

Protests have spread to all 50 American states, bringing out people of all backgrounds. They’ve even reached global cities like London, Sydney and Paris. The demonstrations have been multi-racial in a way we haven’t seen before, according to Louis Hyman, a historian of work at business at Cornell University. “White people are starting to get that their experience is so different from black people’s experience,” he said. “Whether you’re a wealthy African American or a poor African American, you’re still black in the eyes of the police.”

Aftermath: These protests come at an unprecedented time, when the U.S. is in the midst of a highly charged election year and an active pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities. The ongoing threat of coronavirus has complicated the voting process as election dates are pushed back and as states consider the use of mail-in ballots. But on the local level, officials have started promising some changes. In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to cut as much as $150 million from the local police department’s budget and invest it into programs that benefit black communities. And in the city where the protests began, the majority of the Minneapolis city council has pledged to disband the police department. Meanwhile, all four former officers involved in Floyd’s death have been arrested and charged; Chauvin with second-degree murder and the other three with aiding and abetting murder.

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Now What?

The unfolding of the George Floyd protest feels familiar to those that precede it. And while it’s not uncommon for these events to spread across multiple major cities, it is worth noting that the scale of the current demonstrations is unprecedented. By the third week, they had spread to more than 650 cities across all 50 states — including small, majority-white towns, according to the Washington Post.

That’s an optimistic progression for protesters who are not only demanding justice for Floyd, and police reform in Minneapolis, but a complete overhaul of America’s justice system. They want the police to be disbanded, and for their funding — which often takes up the bulk of cities’ total budget — to be diverted into black communities. They want to replace President Donald Trump and his administration, which has flatly denied the existence of systemic racism in the U.S.

The similar timing to this year’s presidential election, as well as the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression due to Covid-19, hold some promise that the demonstrations could have far-reaching effects in U.S. policy. At the same time, racial attitudes have shifted over the last four years, reports the New York Times: According to a new study from Monmouth University, 57% of Americans believe that police are using excessive force against African Americans, compared to just 34% of registered voters in 2016 after the police shooting of Alton Sterling.

And while killings of African American men have sparked the most protest, it’s important to note women haven’t been spared from police violence either — most people know the stories of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, but there are many more, including Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis and Shelly Frey. The hashtag #SayHerName has been sprouting up across social media to draw attention to these women and make sure their deaths don’t go unnoticed and unpunished. That said, men of any color are far more likely to be killed by police, with black men, American Indians and Latinos the most at risk, according to research released last year.

It is perhaps too early to say for sure what happens next. Deep-rooted racism requires policy changes across the board, from housing to transportation to food security, which some advocates argue is still low on America’s priorities. But the current momentum offers hope that maybe this time really will be different.

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How Cities Offload the Cost of Police Brutality

The uprising in Minneapolis that started in response to the police killing of George Floyd will leave the city with millions of dollars of damage in its wake. The city may be poised to spend millions more on the legal costs associated with the trials of at least one of the officers responsible for Floyd’s death, especially if civil lawsuits gain traction.

Other cities should be paying attention. The triple-combination shock of pandemic, social unrest, and potential police legal fees seen in Minneapolis could very likely be the future many cities will face, especially those that have a history of police violence. Add in the additional shock of climate change — floods, hurricanes, torrential winds — in a city already pummeled by the public health crisis and riots, and a city could find itself critically underwater, financially and otherwise. Storms, disease outbreaks, and other acts of nature are unpredictable; but the costs of police violence are much more manageable to rein in on the front end.

In Minneapolis, a metro that has been plagued by several other prominent police brutality incidents in recent years, there are actions the city could have taken but weren’t. The Minneapolis police union blocked the city from incorporating new reforms for the police department — including new rules for the deployment of neck restraints, as was used to kill Floyd.

Instead, cities like Minneapolis make taxpayers pay for police violence on the back end, after a police officer has already injured or killed a civilian, and after he’s been tried or the case has been settled. This is true for most large cities, where the legal costs for defending police are usually paid out of the city’s own general funds, or through issuing bonds, either way paid with taxpayer funds. Cities are effectively using their residents to mortgage police violence — a proposition that may grow less and less palatable as families’ finances are depleted by other circulating disasters.  

“The question is: How commonly known is the money spent by cities to pay for cases to go away?” says William D. Green, history professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “The fact that that’s unclear is a problem, because it allows the city to pay this thing off and then flip it under the table. This needs to be clarified. I suspect that there are very few taxpayers who have any clue how much the city pays out annually for settling cases and how that payment is covered, if you’re talking about accountability.”

Minneapolis is already very familiar with how how much this could cost the city — it paid more than $25 million for police misconduct between 2003 and 2019, including $20 million in one 2019 payout alone for the police killing of Justine Ruszczyk. The city agreed to pay nearly $800,000 for the police killing of Terrance Franklin in February.

Paying out any amount for police violence in the months ahead — including the social unrest Floyd’s killing triggered — will be a hurtpiece for Minneapolis coffers while Covid-19 is still running amok. The city was already forecasting that it would lose as much as $125 million this year for closures mandated to help stop spread of the coronavirus.

For Minneapolis, police misconduct settlements normally come out of its self-insurance policy, which is filled and replenished by city departments and agencies, which are themselves funded through property taxes and fees paid by the public. Property taxes increased under former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in part to pay off a huge deficit in the city’s self-insurance fund.

But this isn’t the only way that cities cover the expenses of reckless policing. Oftentimes cities — large ones in particular — issue bonds to cover these costs. Such bonds have been crucial for the city of Chicago, which has been plagued with police violence and misconduct lawsuits over the last couple of decades. In 2017, Chicago took out $225 million in general obligation bonds to pay off police settlement debts, according to a letter to one of the bondholders from the Action Center on Race & the Economy [ACRE]. The letter was part of a campaign ACRE launched to raise awareness about how banks profit from these settlements through the fees and interests that they charge cities for underwriting the bond.

ACRE calls them “police brutality bonds,” and describes them in a 2018 report as financial instruments that transfer resources and extract wealth from black and poor communities to Wall St., through the fees banks charge cities for the bonds. These bonds are mostly used when a city is already suffering from revenue shortages — as is the case with plenty of cities right now under Covid-19 pressure — but “leave the root causes of the revenue shortage unaddressed,” reads the report.

Police reform advocates argue that the money from these police lawsuit bonds — along with outsized police budgets — would be better used for fixing infrastructure, schools, and hospitals in black and low-income communities.

“Police budgets, not only in Minneapolis, but in most major cities, are an enormous percentage of the budget, and before the pandemic there were lots of groups on the ground in Minneapolis that were calling for a divestment from the police — and not just because of incidents of police misconduct, but also because of the effect that it has on all sorts of other programs when cities are struggling,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of ACRE. “You can remember that after the last recession everything was cut, but police budgets weren’t.”

According to Local Progress, a coalition of local elected officials, funding for Minneapolis’ police and corrections department grew 41% between 2009 and 2019 — outpacing the growth of the city’s general fund in that time period — and made up 37% of the general fund in fiscal year 2019.

Like Green, Weeks says there’s not enough transparency in bond issuances, for the public or even for the bondholders, which is troubling for a city’s financial health. Bonds issued by cities are assigned a particular credit rating assessing a city’s ability to pay, and this rating can affect borrowing costs. Traditionally, rating agencies focus on factors like a city’s tax base, liquidity, and budgetary performance to determine a city’s creditworthiness.

But police brutality bonds don’t adequately account for non-financial shocks to the systems — what’s called environmental, social, and governance risks (ESGs), such as a city’s risk from climate change, according to Activest, an organization that advocates for racial justice in municipal finance. It’s not even clear that rating agencies adequately consider climate change risks when dealing with sustainability or “green” bonds. Former Moody’s SVP Bill Harrington addressed this in an op-ed he wrote earlier this year:

To direct debt capital to sustainability projects, the bond world should tell each credit rating agency to overhaul methodologies so that, at the very least, exposures to physical risks such as fire and flooding are core inputs in assessing issuer ability to repay their bondholders. … No existing methodology requires a credit rating committee to include physical risks, let alone other ESG exposures in baseline determinations of issuers’ ability to pay. Nor does any methodology specify how physical or other ESG exposures will drive issuer upgrades and downgrades today, let alone sector upgrades and downgrades over time.  

Activest is pushing for ratings agencies to downgrade credit ratings based on things like a history of police abuses, the potential for riots, and the sturdiness of a city’s health-care system, particularly in a pandemic. This is similar to when Moody’s downgraded Michigan State University’s credit rating just before the school issued a bond to pay off legal settlements related to its gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser’s sexual assault cases.

“The rating agencies cited the ongoing need for improvements in risk management, uncertainty of additional liability, and the need for greater investment in risk management as factors in the downgrades,” reads a white paper Activest published last year. “Yet to date, it does not appear that rating agencies have downgraded communities that have failed on risk management with respect to police misconduct.”

Activest and ACRE are in partnership for a campaign to stop cities from using bonds to cover police misconduct debt. They contend that if a city has to borrow money to cover legal costs related to police violence, banks should not be allowed to profit off of that, in terms of interest and fees. The organization is also calling for police officers to take out their own individual liability policies to pay their own settlements.

According to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, who authored one of the most comprehensive studies on how cities pay for police legal expenses, it may not be a good idea for police to pay for their own misconduct. They may not be able to pay if left to their own financial devices, which means the people injured or the families of the people killed by police wouldn’t collect justice. She recommends a hybrid system, where both the city and individual officers split the costs of legal expenses and settlements related to misconduct.

“The city would be required to impose meaningful consequences on their officers,” said Schwartz. “Whether that means the officer needs to pay some portion of the judgment, or whether the officer needs to have some sort of employment consequence, or some other consequence, so that the officer is meaningfully deterred and punished without compromising the ability of the plaintiff to be made whole.”

Police reform activists in Minneapolis actually suggested the city do something similar to this in 2016. They wanted a system where the city would pay law enforcement liability insurance premiums for each individual police officer, but if an officer acted recklessly such that the insurance company increased their premium or deductible, the officer would be responsible for paying the difference. It was proposed for a ballot referendum, but the state legislature blocked it from happening, saying that it violated laws mandating that cities wholly indemnify police officers. The Minneapolis city council sided with the state and voted against the ballot referendum, which the state supreme court also supported.

But for ACRE, Activest, the Movement for Black Lives, and a growing network of organizations calling for cities to divest from police, it’s imperative that police officers and departments bear some part of the costs of their own wrongful actions, rather than making taxpayers foot the whole cost.

“We understand this issue to be a systemic issue and not one of just a couple of bad apples,” says BP-Weeks. “But [making police pay] would bring a transformative shock to the system of funding the police, and call into question real systemic issues about how police violence happens and how police training happens. That’s what we’re looking for ultimately.”

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To Defund the Police, Activists Rewrote City Budgets

Hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully outside the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday as part of a national wave of uprisings against the death of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality. But the LA demonstrators were assembled for a more procedural purpose as well.

“Defund the police!” the crowd chanted. Demonstrators and supporters on Twitter declared, “CARE NOT COPS.”

On Wednesday, it appeared that the people were heard: Garcetti announced that he intended to cut $100 million to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget and reinvest those dollars — plus another $100 million from other departments — into the black community. “We all have to step up and say, ‘What can we sacrifice?’” he told the L.A. Times.

But while activists were encouraged, they weren’t satisfied. Officials “need to know that we’re fighting for truly transformative change here and won’t be bought off with just this minimal amount of money,” Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a leading organizer of Black Lives Matter LA, told a Times reporter.

Abdullah is part of a movement to ask for much more. Last month, organizers with Black Lives Matter, K-Town for All, and other activist groups solicited online feedback from more than 2,000 LA residents about how they’d like to see the city spend its money. At that point, Garcetti’s 2021 fiscal year plan called for a $120 million increase to the LA police department’s $1.86 billion annual budget, which meant spending more than 53% of the city’s total discretionary funds on law enforcement. Other city services, including affordable housing, “Vision Zero” traffic safety, and gang prevention programs, were set for cuts, due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

In contrast, the proposal from the activists, which they dub the “People’s Budget,” would devote its largest share — 43% — to what it calls “universal aid and crisis management,” which would include affordable housing, homelessness services, and public health and emergency responders. “Law enforcement and policing” would be reduced to less than 6% of the total.

The national protests of the past week have been particularly loud and widespread in LA, which never fully healed from Rodney King’s brutal beating by LAPD officers in 1992 and the uprisings that followed. In recent days, here and around the country, law enforcement officers have unleashed batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and their own vehicles to suppress demonstrators, in several cases apparently unprovoked. A 9 p.m. curfew expired on Thursday morning in Los Angeles. Many activists say that the mayor’s response to these events has been inadequate, including in terms of his spending priorities.

“This mayor, who pretends to be a progressive, has called in the National Guard, watches as the LAPD continues to brutalize people every night, and has put out one of the most stringent and repressive curfews in the country,” Abdullah said in an interview with CityLab. “When he writes his budget, he just decides what he’s going to spend without consulting the people of LA, and expects city council to push it through.”

The LA City Council can still vote on additional budget amendments until July, and has set up four hearings to receive additional comments; Abdullah’s group plans to keep up the pressure.

While #PeoplesBudgetL.A. was launched before the outrage over George Floyd’s death rocked the nation, the campaign has received a surge of attention and support as a result. So have other efforts like it. In Nashville, a People’s Budget campaign that started earlier this year has gained significant traction in the past week: On Tuesday evening, a city council hearing stretched until 4:30 a.m. as hundreds of residents expressed their disdain for the mayor’s plan to increase the police budget while cutting support for social services.

“I stand here in opposition to racism, anti-blackness and any budget that does not radically change how our city views public safety,” one North Nashville resident said at the city council dais.

“This budget fails to address the needs of black people and working class people in Nashville,” said another speaker. “Our people deserve better.”

Many citizens who dialed into the meeting referred to a budget alternative created by local Black Lives Matter leaders, transit rider unions, and other community groups. Their process mirrored the one in Los Angeles: On Sunday evening, more than 200 Nashville residents gathered online to express their hopes for the city’s future. That led to a budget proposal focused on reinvesting in schools, transit and housing, while dismantling police and judicial systems that many activists, academics and regular Americans believe perpetuate racism by disproportionately harming black people.

Similar campaigns have also been launched anew or refreshed in response to the events of the past week. Inspired by the efforts in LA, graduate student Rik Horoky set up a People’s Budget social media campaign for his own city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. While they don’t have a proposed budget yet, Horoky and his co-organizer Dom Damron dialed into the Grand Rapids city council hearing on Tuesday to announce its future existence to local officials. “We are here to ask city council to call an emergency meeting regarding the budget set to begin July 1 to discuss the People’s Budget, which advocates for reduced police funding and increased funding for services that improve quality of life for all, particular for those in the black community,” Horoky said.

Fight for NYCHA, an advocacy group for New York City public housing tenants and organizers, had already created a People’s Budget in February to show that more funding was possible for residents’ needs. On Wednesday, they revised it to include a $2 billion “Defund the NYPD” line item. Louis Flores, a lead organizer, said that his group had sent Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo their budget as of February but had not received a response.

“We are looking for a way to restore justice in New York City,” said Flores. “I think all the other groups are doing the same thing: Let’s take money away from institutions of racism like policing and give it to new policies that will address racism instead.”

On Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer called for a $1.1 billion budget cut to the NYPD over the next four years, and to shift those dollars “toward vulnerable communities most impacted by police violence and structural racism.”

Although many of these People’s Budgets campaigns are young, the philosophy behind them is not. The concept of participatory budgeting, where local residents discuss and vote on their city or state’s fiscal priorities, originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, following decades of military dictatorship. “They were trying to figure out what their new government would look like,” said Celina Su, a professor of urban planning at the City University of New York who studies community organizing and collaborative governance. “It was explicitly a pro-poor, social justice project.”

The democratic process set up by the newly elected Workers’ Party resulted in a vast expansion of sewer and water connections, as well as spending on schools and healthcare; the concept was so popular that it spread to hundreds of cities around Latin America. One 2014 study found that the consequent social improvements brought about a national reduction in Brazil’s infant mortality rate.

Today, participatory budgeting is a feature in more than 2,700 cities around the world, including in New York City, where each city council district receives a small amount of annual discretionary funding for citizen groups directly. That program came about in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when citizen frustration with bank bailouts was at a high point.

Yet as the concept has spread around the world and become incorporated into centralized government processes, it has often lost its emphasis on grassroots social justice goals. In Brazil, under current president Jair Bolsonaro, the process is being dismantled in many cities. And in New York, while citizen participation in budgeting has brought about some meaningful investments, it hasn’t led to the kind of transformative change that the residents of Puerto Alegre achieved, Su said.

But the recent campaigns by Black Lives Matter groups and other activists in U.S. cities are different: They use community-led processes to produce spending plans that their governments could still choose to ignore. Yet their motivation seems like a nod to participatory budgeting’s roots, Su said: “It feels like they’re going back to the spirit of the original participatory budgeting experiments, where it was linked to social movements and protest, rather than this new ‘good governance’ thing that is a state-led initiative.” Still, if their efforts succeed in getting cities to adopt their visions and incorporate participatory budgeting into their regular fiscal processes, Su recommends that activists work to set policies to maintain the anti-racist focus and grassroots nature of their efforts, lest they turn into “astroturf” politics instead.

That is Abdullah’s hope for Los Angeles. The People’s Budget campaign is not only a call to defund the police department, but a broader call for a refreshed local democracy. “I absolutely conceive of this idea where people have some say if it’s their money that is being spent,” she said. “We should not be spending people’s tax dollars without moving forward in partnership with them.”

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How Nextdoor Courts Police and Public Officials

Charles Husted, the chief of police in Sedona, Arizona, couldn’t contain his excitement. He had just been accepted into the Public Agencies Advisory Council for Nextdoor, the neighborhood social networking app.

“You’re the best!!! A great Christmas present,” he wrote in a December email to Parisa Safarzadeh, Government Relations Manager for Nextdoor.com Inc., obtained by CityLab through a public records request.

As part of the chosen group, he would be flown to San Francisco on President’s Day, along with seven other community engagement staffers from police departments and mayor’s offices across the country. Over two days, they’d meet at Nextdoor’s headquarters to discuss the social network’s public agency strategy. Together, the plan was, they’d stay at the Hilton Union Square, eat and drink at Cultivar, share a tour of Chinatown, and receive matching Uniqlo jackets. All costs — a projected $16,900 for the group, according to a schedule sent to participants — were covered by Nextdoor. Confidential information was protected by a non-disclosure agreement.

The all-expenses paid trip for these eight public officials is one of the ways Nextdoor has been looking to promote its network of online communities to government agencies. It reflects a trend that’s worrying to civil rights and government accountability experts: that local law enforcement and other types of government officials are closely collaborating with private companies whose interests don’t always align with the public’s. Corporate NDAs also have the potential to limit the transparency of those relationships.

Nextdoor and the public agencies it works with say that close ties between the social media platform and the government can help them both do their jobs better. The Public Agencies Advisory Council was convened to give input on Nextdoor features, by providing “a forum for [public agency] partners to share their expertise and experiences with each other and our product development team,” Nextdoor said in an emailed statement.

“As we look to build a product that best serves all of our customers, it is critical to engage with them and gather direct input to inform our product development decisions,” the statement said. “Nextdoor greatly values this best practice and, as part of that, we work closely with experts such as academics, community leaders, and sociologists as they bring diverse perspectives and advise on important areas of Nextdoor like civic engagement, neighborhood vitality, and member experience.”

Since its launch in 2012, Nextdoor — an advertising-supported social network of hyper-local online groups where neighbors post real-time updates — has acted as a sort of digital “neighborhood watch” for its users, and a megaphone for the public institutions that serve them. On neighborhood feeds, municipal agencies can share urgent alerts and community events, just like they might on other sites like Facebook and Twitter. Unlike other platforms, though, Nextdoor allows agencies to geo-target their posts to reach particular residents who have verified they live in the area.

Husted says that leaning on social media — not just Nextdoor, but also Facebook or Twitter — in the line of duty is an inevitability of the current age. “It’s naive to think as public safety folks that we can keep doing our work the same as we have for years and years,” he said. “We have to evolve with the times, and the times have to do with social media: That’s where our communities are at. We have to find a way to be there too.”

The concept of city agencies trying to build trust with their communities is not new, nor is a police department’s impulse to tap into local eyes on the street. What’s different is that these communications are circulated within a more limited online group, and being facilitated by a private company.

The platform shines in times like the present pandemic, by connecting isolated people with resources, solidarity, neighborly advice and updated health information: Since the Covid-19 crisis began in the U.S. at the beginning of March, Nextdoor says the volume of posts by public agencies has tripled. Along with his daily press conferences, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been posting occasionally on the site as part of Nextdoor’s new partnership with the National Governors Association. On a local “Help Map,” users offer free assistance to immediate neighbors, such as grocery runs or phone check-ins.

But in calmer times, Nextdoor has also been a hotbed of racial profiling and tattling. Its “crime and safety” pages host unverified speculation about wrongdoers prowling outside, sometimes accompanied by photographs or doorbell videos taken without a subject’s knowledge; though the company rolled out an algorithm to spot racist language on the site, coded assumptions still proliferate. Now, these issues are more coronavirus-flavored: Descriptions of package thieves (“tallish dark skinned male”) appear next to arguments about whether 5G wireless technology caused Covid-19 (it didn’t) and photographs of rude joggers.

Pursuing relationships with local governments, especially police departments, has become a key part of many tech companies’ playbooks, says Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice. Motherboard has chronicled how Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service courts local cops with parties and discounts, encouraging them to use the video surveillance product themselves and to push it on people their jurisdictions; Buzzfeed reported that Clearview AI, which has created a repository of images that can be searched using facial recognition, has credentialed users at “hundreds of local police departments.”

Nextdoor is following this lead: Robbie Turner, a senior city strategist with Nextdoor, wrote to Husted that when expanding Nextdoor’s reach to Canada, the company was using “the same strategy we used when we first launched in the U.S. — recruit the major Police Departments and have them help us grow membership and engagement quickly.”

The stakes of asking people to buy a $100 Ring doorbell are different than nudging people to use a free online service that public agencies say helps keep cities more connected. Ring is a novel surveillance tool; Nextdoor can be a platform for the video footage that cameras like Ring helps neighbors take. But both partnerships raise questions about how private companies can push officials to conflate private gain with public interest.

“Police are supposed to be impartial civic servants,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital civil liberties. “You want a police officer who has the best interests of their specific community at heart. You don’t want a police officer who’s brand loyal.”

“Most Connected Neighborhood”

Husted first started using Nextdoor during his time as an officer in Sacramento, California, where he said the app helped reinvigorate apathetic people who may not have otherwise reported crimes, and enhanced community trust of the police. When he started his new gig in Sedona last year, he hurried to get the department signed up for the app.

“I am a paid employee as of tomorrow (4/22), and I’d like to get a jump on setting up an agency Nextdoor page for Sedona P.D. I’m SO excited about this!!!” he wrote in an email in April. “I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the fabulous ‘N’ Team, and seeing how we can expand community connectivity in Sedona, and beyond.”

Throughout last year, Husted supported the company’s outreach efforts. In November, he organized a local Nextdoor event where he gave out “neighbor and neighborhood awards,” like “Most Engaged Neighborhood” and “Most Connected Neighborhood,” based on Nextdoor metrics. Husted also expressed a desire to hand out Nextdoor-branded bags to the more than 90 attendees of a Women in Law Enforcement Celebration, but Turner said they didn’t have enough swag. “If we had enough, we would have definitely sent them to you,” she wrote. They connected in person at the 2019 International Association of Chiefs of Police. (Nextdoor declined to make Turner or Safarzadeh available for comment.)

Other police officers were called upon to serve as references for departments interested in using the app. In October, Joseph Porcelli, Nextdoor’s public agency lead and ambassador of community, asked Major Ed O’Carroll, a commander in Fairfax County Police Department’s Major Crimes Bureau, if he would talk to a Canadian police department about his experience with Nextdoor. After the conversation, emails show, O’Carroll updated Porcelli: “Very positively received.”

The Public Agencies Advisory Council appeared to have recruitment efforts as its goal, too. To qualify for the invite-only group, officials were asked in December to fill out a questionnaire gauging participants’ willingness to promote Nextdoor publicly. “We look to you as influencers in your industry,” one of the questions read. “Are you comfortable referring agencies or colleagues to begin using Nextdoor?”

Another asked each member if they could commit to writing one blog post “showing how you/your agency is using Nextdoor.” Members of the group could be asked to participate in regional conferences on Nextdoor’s behalf, join calls with Nextdoor staff quarterly, and meet in person at least once. “[W]e know that peer-to-peer yields a stronger approach and more credibility,” wrote Nextdoor’s Safarzadeh in an email to Janelle McGregor, Tampa Bay’s community partnership manager and the former spokesperson for the city’s police department.

The advisory council’s February meeting included discussions with Nextdoor’s marketing team, according to the agenda sent to members: Day two included sessions on “product vision” and “product marketing best practices.”

Nextdoor’s broader objective was to earn the trust of more public agencies, and to eventually pitch a paid version of the app. “As we continue to build out a monetized, ‘premium’ version of Nextdoor for Public Agencies, the feedback we will receive is critical to our strategic product roadmap and brand positioning,” the plan read.

In the application, Nextdoor also asked if any endorsement policies would prevent their cooperation, and if there were any ways the company could recognize officials’ efforts that weren’t in violation of their agency’s policies.

Several public officials who were part of the Public Agencies Advisory Council say that the trip didn’t conflict with any city policies. Lara Foss, a corporate communications marketing consultant for the City of Austin, told CityLab that since the trip was work-related, it did not violate the city’s gift policy. Sedona’s Husted also said there were no endorsement regulations that prohibited him from participating. Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in California, said that because the city’s policy prohibits taking paid trips on clocked time, she took a few days off from work to participate in the San Francisco meet-up. (She also did not receive plane tickets, since she lives within driving distance of San Francisco; instead, she took a Lyft and was reimbursed by Nextdoor.)

Greg Licamele, who directs external communications for Fairfax County, Virginia, joined the group to discuss the “tenor and tone” of conversations shared in the county, and to share his perspective on how Nextdoor could be improved as a resource for governments. “It’s up to the team at Nextdoor to consider that feedback and implement changes (or not) as Nextdoor sees fit,” he said in an email.

For Nelson, being asked to be join the council is part of the reason she appreciates the platform so much: Nextdoor is the only social media company that cared enough to include her in its decision-making processes. “Being able to have that voice and a seat at the table, not only as a public official but as a woman in a public role,” she said, was a “breath of fresh air.”

Nelson said that though the team met people from the marketing department during the February meeting, they were not instructed to market any of Nextdoor’s products. “I would say that if you don’t have it, and if your community is not on it, you are perhaps losing out on a huge opportunity to have your voice heard and be a primary source of info,” she said. “But I never felt like I had to go out and tell everybody that.”

Signing the NDA

Before convening, the group was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement — a contract that plunges the relationship between Nextdoor and city officials into murkier ethical territory, says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who specializes in government ethics.

Tech companies are notorious for serving NDAs to everyone from lunch guests to City Hall officials, particularly during corporate real estate negotiations. During Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, for example, NDAs signed by bidding officials allowed governments to dangle large tax incentives without public oversight; when Google worked with San Jose to buy space for a new campus, the local labor organization Working Parties USA found that 18 city employees had NDAs barring them from discussing the deal. NDAs between the FBI and local police departments shrouded the details of officers’ use of StingRay cell-phone trackers.

In the terms of Nextdoor’s NDA, advisory council members are not allowed to release public statements about the partnership without the consent of Nextdoor, nor are they able to follow a court order to disclose any information deemed confidential by Nextdoor without alerting the company first. The document is the same one it gives to all business partners, the company said, and is meant to protect confidential information like product ideas.

Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, says that if applied appropriately, such an NDA would be used to protect trade secrets. “Of course it’s normal, in the sense that within [the tech] sector there are NDAs all over the place,” said Clark. “It doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in that sector … or appropriate with regards to government officials.”

Husted, McGregor, Foss, Nelson and Licamele confirmed that they had signed the document. David Hicks, a sergeant with Montgomery, Alabama’s police department who runs the department’s social media, declined to confirm whether he had, but confirmed that he is a member of the Public Agencies Advisory Council, for which signing the NDA was a prerequisite. (The police department declined to respond to a public records request.) Warren Kagarise, the digital engagement manager for King County, Washington, also signed the NDA, according to a CityLab review of the documents, but did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Foss and Nelson said they didn’t think the agreement was unusual for a software company that has proprietary information it wants to protect, and said they have not signed NDAs with any other tech company. McGregor said that the NDA did not preclude her from being transparent about their partnership. Francis Zamora, the director of external affairs for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency management — the last member of the advisory council — did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Though there are few rules prohibiting them from signing such a document, the practice could help shroud government decisions from the public, says Guariglia from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And the NDA’s “heads-up” clause could give agencies the leeway to alert the company before complying with freedom of information act requests.

After CityLab requested public records from Husted’s department, he alerted Nextdoor spokesperson Edie Campbell-Urban, though he said that he wasn’t doing so because of any terms of the NDA. When CityLab requested similar records from Kagarise, the county’s Office of Risk Management services informed CityLab that it was delaying its answer, in part because they were busy dealing with Covid-19. They said they would also be informing Nextdoor Inc. of the public records request, pursuant to a state law protecting third parties from information “not in the public interest” that would “substantially and irreparably damage” the third party or the government.

“There are compelling reasons for transparency around the activities of public employees in general, but the need for transparency is at its height when it comes to law enforcement agencies,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It would be quite troubling to learn that police officers were investigating and arresting people using data from private companies with which they have signed an NDA.”

Privacy advocates say that alone, Nextdoor isn’t the most powerful surveillance tool out there, but there’s a growing “mosaic of apps” police departments and local governments are relying on, Guariglia says. And together, these doorbell recorders, surveillance cameras, and virtual neighborhood watches are affecting the sense of public safety in some communities.

“Our entire country — and California, and the Bay Area specifically — we’re at a 40-year historic low for violent crime … and yet people are walking around like we’re living in the most violent place in the world,” said Secure Justice’s Hofer. “These vendors are doing a really great job of creating a sense of fear.”

Forward to Police

As coronavirus creeps through communities, real fears are not in short supply. And as the radius of public life for many people shrinks down to their zip codes, Nextdoor has become a lifeline.

These days, scrolling through the platform offers heartwarming reminders of the power of neighborhood ties: Informal barter systems have cropped up, along with mask donation banks, words of support for essential workers and updates on favorite local restaurants’ delivery policies.

For its part, Nextdoor has risen to meet the coronavirus crisis with new features and rules. To stop people from using stigmatizing or stereotypical language when talking about the pandemic, the company rolled out a new speech policy. To limit misinformation, searching for coronavirus-related terms prompts a pop-up with a CDC and WHO-sourced tip sheet.

Nextdoor also makes it clear that users cannot file an official police report through its platform. But while police officers can’t monitor conversations on private groups, a feature launched by Nextdoor in 2016 called “Forward to Police” allows users to send copies of their posts directly to the officers monitoring the account. Every police department in a city using Nextdoor is eligible to activate the feature, but the company wouldn’t reveal how many departments currently use it; a cursory review by CityLab showed at least 30 departments had announced they were using the feature, from California to Virginia. On Feb. 12, the company released a new app designed specifically for cities and police departments, allowing them to access the site on a mobile platform, streamlining the communications between citizens and authorities even more.

Nelson clarifies that Mountain View, which has used Forward to Police for years, does not use any social media platform to generate a call for service. “If someone were to send us a DM or message or Forward to Police … that’s to alert us that there is a conversation happening in our community that they would like us to be aware of,” she said.

Still, the company’s Public Agencies product marketing materials draw a causal link between crime decline and Nextdoor adoption in neighborhoods: It claims that by doubling Nextdoor users in Sacramento, crime fell by 7.7% in a year, with no proof of correlation. (A Sacramento official contacted by CityLab in February said it would be hard to make that connection.) The platform also claims responsibility for six arrests for break-ins in Phoenix, and stopping a local crime spree in Nashville. Presenting these case studies echoes Ring’s strategy: Amazon says that Ring’s entrance into a neighborhood is associated with increased public safety, but an NBC News investigation showed that footage “rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.”

Making the process of small reporting crimes even easier — and asking people to do more of it — could lead to over-policing in areas of high Nextdoor usage, Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco, told CityLab in February. Paired with users’ propensity for racial profiling, these effects might be felt more acutely among black and brown communities.

Montgomery’s Hicks sees increased reporting as a valuable byproduct of the platform. The department has 32,000 people in its network. “If they see suspicious activity in their neighborhood, or someone in a yard they shouldn’t be in and they know the neighbor, they call us,” he said. “We’ve built that relationship.” And in Sedona, Husted says Nextdoor helped apprehend a machete-wielding vandal last year.

In Mountain View, the Silicon Valley city home to Google, Nextdoor adoptions is already high: 45% of city residents use the platform, Nelson says. “This is the audience that matters most to us,” she said, referring to those who live within city boundaries.

The kind of widespread agency and neighborhood adoption Nextdoor is pushing for will benefit the public by increasing civic engagement and getting more accurate information out to the public, proponents say. “It is conceivable that a company might want government officials to know about a service that is available,” said Clark, the government ethics professor. “And the benefit to the public might outweigh any concern of a private benefit to a public official, like receiving a trip for an educational program.”

Before coronavirus, Foss told CityLab that it would help if more neighboring agencies signed up for Nextdoor to share information about disasters like wildfires, which don’t know city or county boundaries. Neither do infectious diseases.

Regardless of its utility in the public realm, the Project on Government Oversight’s Laperruque says that an endorsement by a public official can easily cross a line. “It definitely troubles me when you see any sort of situation where a vendor is not just being treated by someone who has a product to sell, but as a collaborative partner they might lean on,” he said. “The interest of a technology company is to their bottom line, it’s not to the public welfare.”

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A State Besieged by Coronavirus Asks Police to Slow Arrests

As coronavirus cases multiplied across the U.S. this month, states including New Jersey, Michigan, and Colorado were releasing some nonviolent offenders from jails, hoping to avoid a catastrophic health crisis in already overcrowded facilities. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, New Orleans police were still out in the streets making arrests for minor crimes — even as the state had the fastest rising rate of new Covid-19 infections.

Yesterday, the Louisiana Supreme Court asked New Orleans and all cities in the state to slow down arrests, in an effort to mitigate the virus’s spread. Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson sent a letter to judges across the state beseeching them to work with prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs to “conduct a comprehensive and heightened risk-based assessment of all detainees,” and to begin releasing people who’ve been deemed low risk.

The new guidelines state that people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses should be given very low bail amounts or be released on recognizance, while those convicted of misdemeanors should be considered for release or supervised probation. For other crimes, judges are asked to “re-examine the nature of the offense and criminal history” to determine if bail amounts should be reduced. The state’s top bench is also asking police to issue summons or citations for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses instead of arresting them “whenever practicable.”

That’s not what New Orleans police had been doing. Up until the court’s ruling, New Orleans refused to make changes to its arrest and jail policies amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are just as concerned as everyone else is about the spread of Covid, but we are also trying to assess each case on a case-by-case basis,” said New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson on a telephone press conference, Nola.com reported.

Just this past weekend, police arrested a man for hosting a Second Line jazz funeral and detained him at the city jail. According to records gathered by Court Watch NOLA — a network of people who monitor and collect data on court hearings — there were 116 criminal bond hearings made in New Orleans between March 19 and 26 this year, up from 62 in the same period a year ago.

Many of the arrests were for drug possession, mostly cannabis, but also crack cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. One person was in court for possession of alprazolam, the anti-anxiety drug known as Xanax. The person’s bail was set for $2,000, but they were released on his own recognizance. Several arrests were for simple burglary, possession of stolen items, or unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. One person was charged with two counts of obscenity, with bail also set for $2,000.

What makes these kinds of police actions especially risky now is that they trigger a series of intimate connections between those who are arrested and those who come into contact with them as they pass through the system: the ride with police officers to the station; the officers who process them at the station; the people they are detained with; and the sheriffs, bailiffs, attorneys, and judges they may encounter as they shuffle through the courts.

Lawyers and judges have been trying to protect themselves by holding teleconferences and video conference hearings with defendants, but just yesterday, criminal defense attorney Carol Anne Kolinchak announced on Facebook that she tested positive for Covid-19. She can’t say for certain whether she contracted it through her contact with the criminal justice system, but she is concerned that it is the only thing operating while just about everything else in the city is closed.

“The biggest thing is we shouldn’t be arresting folks for low-level offenses because we’re putting their lives at risk,” Kolinchak said in a phone interview before the Louisiana Supreme Court’s order. “It just makes no sense. We simply can’t afford to put people in jail right now.”

The Brennan Center for Justice states in its latest report on appropriate law enforcement actions during the Covid-19 pandemic that the “police should issue warnings whenever possible” and serve summons or tickets for more severe infractions that don’t cause an immediate threat to public safety.

“Courts and municipalities should waive collection of all court-imposed criminal fees and fines for six months, with no assessments of new debt, and additionally, vacate warrants for all unpaid fees and fines,” reads the report. “Courts and municipalities should also clarify that interest will not accrue during this period and ensure that tax refunds are not garnished, liens are not placed on housing, and access to benefits are not denied.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has issued Covid-19 guidelines that state that police “agencies should carefully consider whether discretionary interactions with the public can be minimized and arrests limited to offenses that are immediate public safety risks.”

For misdemeanor offenses, the IACP suggests that police departments find “alternatives to arrests,” such as citations, summons and tickets, and it recommends the same for nonviolent felony offenses that don’t pose an immediate threat to the public. The association even advised that police limit enforcement of “non-critical concerns” such as parking violations and expired car registration tags — a situation that was recently put to the test in Pittsburgh, where, on March 17, local musician Byron Nash posted on Facebook that he received a parking ticket. This triggered a flurry of calls to and tweets at city government leaders. The following day, the city suspended parking enforcement.

Philadelphia and Chicago have also suspended most parking ticket violations. The pandemic seems to have inspired police departments in other cities to finally embrace reforms that criminal justice advocates have been pushing for years. In San Francisco, police are issuing warnings rather than arrests for low-level offenses. Nashville police were told to “maximize their discretion” in issuing citations. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, Sheriff Chief of Staff Rob Allen has instructed officers to “look for underlying issues in neighborhood disputes” instead of making arrests.

“If we put people on the phone with social workers, might we be able to defuse some future problems as well?” he said in a discussion with the Police Executive Research Forum.

This is the kind of tack that activists in organizations like the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition have been pleading with New Orleans police to take for years now, to help stem the city’s world-high incarceration rates. Pointing to the incarcerated people and jail staff who recently tested positive for the virus, the coalition called on March 31 for New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell to “order an arrest protocol” to stop police from making arrests for nonviolent offenses. The mayor did not, but it could be moot now. The Louisiana Supreme Court made that call.

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Nextdoor Wants to Be a One-Stop Shop for Police

In September, a man carrying a machete and a crowbar walked into the Chapel of the Holy Hill in Sedona, Arizona, and started destroying things. He turned out to be a follower of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group behind the 2016 “Pizzagate” shooting, as The Daily Beast later reported. His vandalism rampage was captured in photos and video by tourists; hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was arrested by police.

How did the cops close in so quickly? Sedona police chief Charles Husted credits Nextdoor, the neighbor-to-neighbor social-media platform. Within 20 minutes of the incident, Husted posted an “urgent alert” with a photo and description of the suspect on Sedona’s Nextdoor account. That post swiftly circulated through the city as neighbors shared it, reposted it on other social media platforms, and sent it to their friends. Soon, a shopkeeper who’d been sent the post by her mom realized she’d seen the man in questionand called 911. “It was perfect,” Husted said.

This wasn’t the first time Husted leaned on Nextdoor in his police work. As an officer at the Sacramento Police Department from 2013 to 2019, he’d used the platform to keep the community informed and build trust. When he moved to Sedona last year, he immediately pushed the department to create a Nextdoor account, he says. And a few months ago, he started beta-testing the company’s newest product: a mobile app tailored for local governments.

That’s how Husted posted his Sedona-wide alert for the machete-wielding QAnon assailant—right through his smartphone.

The new Nextdoor for Public Agencies app, which launched publicly on February 12, enables police and fire departments, public schools, and City Hall agencies to post updates, push out alerts geo-targeted to reach specific neighborhoods, and read their messages on the go. “It allows the public agency folks to be in the field, be engaged in an incident, and share info quickly as needed,” said Husted. He calls the new app a “game changer.”

For Nextdoor, the feature brings another tool to what has proved to be one of the social network’s most compelling use cases: crime monitoring. Launched in 2011 as a Facebook-style social network built on actual physical proximity and real-world relationships, Nextdoor is a variation on neighborhood listservs and homeowners’ groups, offering a digital stage for the holiday celebrations, sidewalk sales, lost-dog alerts, and the random grievances of urban and suburban living. City agencies equipped with public Nextdoor accounts can also publish community event alerts, deliver extreme weather warnings, and launch public education campaigns. But the site is also well known as a clearinghouse for neighborhood drama: Nextdoor’s many eyes-on-the-street fill the site with reports of car break-ins, suspicious characters, and other local-level threats.

Such citizen reports are increasingly being directed to the responsible municipal agencies. Nextdoor’s “Forward to Police” feature, for example, was introduced in 2016, allowing users in participating jurisdictions to send crime and public safety reports directly to law enforcement.

With the launch of this new app, Nextdoor is making its alignment with public institutions more explicit. “Neighbors turn to Nextdoor every day to find trusted, relevant information about what’s happening where they live,” said Tatyana Mamut, Nextdoor’s head of product, in a statement. “Now, our agency partners can send information to their constituents with the tap of a button anywhere and anytime—even when they are away from their desk, after hours, or in the field.”

For years, public agencies using Nextdoor requested such a feature, Mamut told CityLab. The company’s new partnership push also reflects a broader and more controversial trend: Private tech companies are forging stronger relationships with police departments.

Nextdoor is already a valuable social media ally for public agencies, Mamut says. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, agencies don’t have to first collect followers to get their message out, and Nextdoor allows them to target their posts to specific neighborhoods. Site members are prompted to confirm their address via postcard or landline, so agencies have more assurance that they’re sending and receiving relevant info to and from real people who live where they say they do.

Updates about development projects, safety, and preparedness get a lot of engagement on the site, Mamut says, along with missing person alerts, community meeting times, and school closing announcements. But it’s hard to ignore the overall prominence of public safety chatter. Yesterday, for example, the first post on the Crime and Safety page for San Francisco’s Noe Valley described an encounter with a man who rang her doorbell “under the guise of looking for someone named ‘Wendy,’” who she felt was “casing the house.”Another post stoked suspicion about a man strolling up the street, “taking photos of all the license plates of the parked cars.” There’s a blurry picture of a guy with a backpack, and a question: “Any idea what he’s up to?” Some neighbors accompany their posts with photographs of suspects or video clips from Ring doorbells, and pleas to call 911 if the perpetrators are spotted again.

As a recent Atlantic feature by Lauren Smiley detailed, Nextdoor can inspire informal neighborhood watch groups: The story recounts how several San Francisco homeowners banded together via the site to nab an alleged package snatcher. But Nextdoor has played down the role its crime-spotting features play. Sarah Friar, Nextdoor’s CEO, told Smiley that only 5 percent of posts are slotted into the app’s Crime and Safety category. Mamut says Nextdoor’s intent is to facilitate the sharing of “positive, engaging” good news, not just reports of local misdeeds.

Police officers are unable to view any of these posts through their department view of the site, which means they can’t scan the platform for public safety concerns like a mini-blotter (unless they they make personal accounts). But there are other ways of getting in touch. Police departments can receive direct messages from users, and non-emergency numbers and the street address for the local police department are prominently featured on many communities’ Crime and Safety pages. When users post about a crime on the platform, neighbors are usually quick to encourage the poster to formally report it, Mamut says.

With the help of Forward to Police, it’s easier for users to heed those suggestions. In neighborhoods where the feature is activated, any post uploaded onto Nextdoor’s Crime and Safety tab can be sent directly to a local police department’s Nextdoor message inbox—but only by the original poster. The platform’s new Public Agencies app expands the Forward to Police feature by allowing departments to access these messages from mobile devices.

“This feature is just streamlining all of that and allowing, with a very simple ‘click click,’ to forward that post to the police,” Mamut said. “We take the approach that proactive safety and preparedness and positivity is a better way for law enforcement to engage with local communities than just reactively, when something bad happens.”

Mamut wouldn’t share how many police departments in the 1,000-plus cities and 11 countries worldwide in which Nextdoor operates are currently using Forward to Police. All departments are eligible, and several California jurisdictions, including Ventura, Chico, Glendale, and Los Altos, appear to have activated the feature; so have Mobile, Alabama, and Richmond Heights, Missouri. DCist reports that Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department formalized its relationship with the app in January.

Emily Graves, a community outreach specialist for Ventura’s police department, says that she checks the agency’s Nextdoor inbox frequently and usually receives one to two messages per day. Most concern suspicious activity or loitering, and she rarely sends officers to the scene just off of a Nextdoor complaint. “If someone were to send us a message in reference to loitering or a homelessness issue, we’d give a few tips on how to respond and then encourage them to call the non-emergency number,” she said. “We do follow up on everything people send us.”

The effectiveness of Nextdoor’s use in community policing isn’t clear. In its marketing materials, the company draws a correlation between department platform use and crime reduction. “In just one year, [the Sacramento Police Department] grew their Nextdoor membership from 10,000 to over 20,000 residents, which was accompanied by a 7.7% reduction in crime and a 30% decrease in shootings,” a case study document reads. The stat appears to come from a 2013 article, in which Sacramento’s then-chief of police Sam Somers said that the crime drop “is partly a result of new crime-prevention programs that began this year,” including Nextdoor. Carl Chan, the Sacramento Police Department’s Public Information Officer, said this week that Nextdoor serves a valuable public engagement role. “In general, our crime stats, they’re fluid, and there’s a lot of things that affect them,” he said. “It would be hard to say it’s solely because of Nextdoor.”

Civil rights and privacy advocates have expressed concerns that Nextdoor’s growing integration with law enforcement could fuel more “broken windows”-style policing, spurred by amateur police reports that use the language of a social media post and reflect a skewed vision of a city. Despite efforts to tamp down on racial profiling using algorithmic moderation, Nextdoor is still criticized for facilitating vague, racially coded, or racist posting.

Streamlining the process of crime reporting down to a click can also end up escalating minor complaints that wouldn’t otherwise be deemed worthy of police involvement, says Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco. As routine police checks can turn deadly, the stakes of calling even a “non-emergency” law enforcement hotline can be high. “I’m concerned about the general trend of these murky or opaque private-public partnerships with police or other core government services that were traditionally more publicly managed,” she said.

Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Macomb Community College who researches digital privacy, makes a similar point. “Surveillance often encourages ‘solutions’ that far outstrip the level of the infraction,” he recently wrote in Urban Omnibus. “[T]he existence of footage—the fact that people have potentially actionable evidence they feel compelled to use—turns a minor instance of vandalism into a situation involving law enforcement.”

Such concerns have been fanned by news that Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service has partnerships with more than 750 police departments across the country. In August 2019, Vice reported that Amazon has been helping officers view Ring footage without warrants. Amazon makes it easy for police to ask Ring owners to send along recordings, GovTech reported, regardless of whether the subjects being filmed have offered their consent.

“When we get into the private world … Fourth Amendment protections might disappear,” said Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice.

Clips from Ring doorbell devices are a Nextdoor staple, but the company has no plans to develop its own camera hardware, Mamut says. “We take our members’ privacy very, very seriously,” she said. “We are committed to making sure that neighborhoods are strong and resilient and that neighbors get to choose what info they share.”

Husted says that he understands the worry that using Nextdoor might encourage the over-reporting and enforcement of smaller crimes. During his time in Sacramento and now in Sedona, he saw how the platform helped restore confidence in local law enforcement among residents who were “tired of calling dispatch and having officers take a long time to get there, if at all” in response to quality-of-life crimes.

He stresses that Nextdoor is good for more than just calling the police. He’s been able to use it for fostering better community-police relations, and for better inter-community relationships. ”Not all things that get reported as problems in the community have to be a police response: There are other strategies that can be brought to bear,” he said. “It’s really empowering people to take some ownership in their space.”

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The Problem With Research on Racial Bias and Police Shootings

Last September, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, a longtime foe of police reform, testified before a U.S. congressional committee that the reported “epidemic of racially biased police shootings of black men” is false.

In fact, “if there is a bias in police shootings, it is against white civilians,” she said, citing a recent study released by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Mac Donald’s take on the study was generous. Its authors, University of Maryland psychology professor David Johnson and Michigan State University psychology professor Joseph Cesario, weren’t actually making a point about police bias at all. The study was about identifying the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings and showing whether or not it matched the race of their victims, not shedding light on motive, Johnson told CityLab. But after the study came out, other scientists in the field criticized its methodology, prompting Johnson and Cesario to concede a mistake in the way they characterized the study.

Despite the apology, the study has continued to fuel a long-running debate of great significance as localities grapple with how to improve disproportionate rates of police violence against African Americans: Is police violence towards African Americans mostly explained by cops’ racial prejudice? The short answer is that it’s difficult to arrive at a scientific conclusion, because the data is lacking.

Princeton University politics professors Jonathan Mummolo and Dean Knox were among the academics who criticized the study and questioned the value of knowing the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings at all. In January, they published a letter in PNAS and an op-ed in The Washington Post stating that the Johnson-Cesario study “was based on a logical fallacy and erroneous statistical reasoning, and sheds no light on whether police violence is racially biased.”

To determine whether racist motivations are fueling police shootings, you would need to know the race of the people killed by police in a given department, and also the race of all the people who police shot, but didn’t kill. Perhaps the most difficult datapoint is that you would also need the race of all the people police came in contact with, but did nothing to at all. This cumulative data is called the police encounter rate, and the scientists who have been studying police violence say that it is the most critical yet most elusive data needed to register racial bias.

In explaining why the encounter rates matter in this discussion, Mummolo and Knox offer a thought experiment with an unrealistic but easy-to-follow fact pattern: Let’s say an all-African-American police force encountered 90 black civilians and 10 white civilians in a given week, and among those encounters, the officers shot and killed five African Americans and nine white civilians. Then, imagine a white police force encountered 90 white and 10 black civilians in a week, and also killed nine white people and five black people.

Both departments are responsible for an equal number of lives from both races taken. However, the percentage of lives taken in each race is different when the encounter rates are considered: The black police force shot 5.6 percent of the black civilians and 90 percent of the white civilians they encountered, while the white police force shot 50 percent of the back civilians and 10 percent of the white civilians they encountered.

Viewed through the lens of the thought experiment, one can see why it’s inaccurate to say there is an anti-white bias or any other kind of bias in police shootings, as Mac Donald testified.

“I’m not happy with the way that [Mac Donald] characterized our study,” said Johnson. “She characterized it as if we gave information about bias on the behalf of officers. We’re not trying to make statements about the likelihood of being shot by police officers if you’re black, and we don’t have the data to do that.”

But he and Cesario made the mistake of writing in the study’s statement of significance that “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.” In a response to critics published last August, Johnson and Cesario wrote:

We should have written this sentence more carefully. … What we should have written was a sentence about what we did estimate: As the proportion of White officers in a [fatal officer-involved shooting] increased, a person fatally shot was not more likely to be of a racial minority. This was our mistake, and we appreciate the feedback on this point.

While Johnson says their study was not intended to infer racial bias, Mummolo is concerned that leaving the bias question unresolved has consequences, such as leading policy influencers like Mac Donald to make their own incorrect inferences.

“I don’t know what [Johnson’s study] teaches us,” says Mummolo. “It does not teach us that one [racial] group of officers is more or less likely to shoot, and we all seem to agree on that now. They say there’s this absence of a correlation, but that could mean any number of things. Without the other information and the data that are missing, there’s just no way to say what it means.”

Johnson agreed that having the encounter rates is important, but not for the purposes of his study, and he and Cesario are standing by the utility of the analysis, as seen in their reply to Mummolo’s PNAS letter. What the study tells us if nothing else, said Johnson, is the racial demographics of the police officers involved in fatal shootings, which he says has not been previously accumulated in any nationwide studies on police violence.  

“I want to stress how hard it was to get information about these police officers,” said Johnson. “It took over 1,800 hours requesting information from police, looking at legal cases and legal documents as well as media accounts. We didn’t know any of that before we started on this analysis.”

It’s debatable what simply knowing the race of the officers tells us. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, people are concerned with how to eliminate anti-black prejudices, if that’s what is driving cops to be more violent towards black people. And an anti-black bias can come from a cop of any race, including black. According to Phillip A. Goff, president and co-founder of the Center For Policing Equity, the data on officer characteristics are neither unprecedented nor necessary for understanding police violence.  

“Nobody who had done responsible analyses of this would be surprised by that,” said Goff, “because as they admit in their paper, black officers are more likely to be patrolling in black neighborhoods. So of course they’re more likely to shoot black people because of proximity. If that is their only argument, then they are saying, ‘We have nothing novel to say.’”

What they all agree on is that there is too little data collected on police violence—the Calvary hill that almost all studies that attempt to address police brutality and racial bias get crucified on. Mummolo said that it is possible that there are ways for academics to get close to police encounter rates, such as by using traffic camera footage in some instances, or using responses from the Police Public Contact Survey. But these would still fall short of the data needed to draw solid conclusions about race and policing.

“The rigor around the science of racism and discrimination is less than it should be, on all sides, and it reduces science to conversations about ideological entrenchments rather than about novel discoveries about the way that the world is shaped,” said Goff. “That makes us all less well-positioned to improve the world as we find it. We should feel badly about that, and we should do better.”

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Is There a Better Way to Police Public Transit?

In a video posted on Twitter by New York City subway rider earlier this month, a tearful woman is seen surrounded by four NYPD officers.

“What’s she doing?” Sofia Newman, the rider, asks.

The woman was selling churros—she’s one of several vendors with carts who sell the fried pastries to riders in the city’s subway stations. “It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway station,” the officer replies. “We warned her multiple times, and she doesn’t want to give it up. That’s it.”

“Can’t she just go outside, and keep her stuff?” Newman asks. No, the officers say. Eventually, the officers handcuff the vendor and take her cart away.

The churro vendor’s arrest, followed by the arrest of another vendor, Maria Curillo, in the following days, was retweeted by the advocacy organization Decolonize This Place and quickly went viral, leading to demonstrations at Broadway Junction, one of Brooklyn’s busiest subway stations, last week. That capped off what has been a spate of attention given to policing America’s largest transit system. The MTA has launched a new campaign to combat fare evasion, which the agency claims cost them $300 million this year in lost bus and subway fares. That has been coupled with the hiring of 500 transit officers underground—which could cost the system more than it saves in recovered fares. With the new cops came viral videos of “hyper-aggressive” tactics they used. In late October, thousands of riders jumped the turnstiles en masse in a protest against the stepped-up police presence underground.

But New York City is not the only city whose transit systems have become theaters for protest. In Chile, more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago in October after a fare hike sparked larger discontent with the ruling party, with many demonstrators attacking the subway stations themselves. Hong Kong protesters and authorities alike have focused their attentions on the city’s vaunted Mass Transit Railway system. And in London, the climate-crisis protest group Extinction Rebellion made a controversial effort to disrupt subway service last month. Talk of cracking down on fare beaters is on the rise here as well.

Why does public transit so often play a starring role in protests? And how do questions about who gets to access it collide with gentrification, police violence, and racial disparities? To find out, I reached out to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at the City University of New York at Baruch College who studies the intersection of public transportation and equity in cities around the world. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

We know that transit is linked to traditional means of equity, when we think of access to jobs, leisure, and social inclusion. What else did you find in your research that specifically links transit to equity?

The experience of using transit—where we all feel like we’re in it together—is quite different from the experience of driving in a car independently. There’s an egalitarian aspect to being on a subway car, or on a bus; you are in community automatically with the people around you in a way that is unlike any other way. It’s a public space, but it’s a special kind of public space that everyone has opted into. In the sense that a community is a team, it’s an immediate team that has been built up.

This community aspect is often overlooked when we think about transit, so it doesn’t surprise me that we see uprisings around transit issues in places where there are deeper problems around equity and poverty. Transit is the place where we can actually come together. To threaten transit with a higher fare or service cuts will immediately spark a kind of community-driven anger.

In Chile, we saw subway fare hikes serve as a trigger for protests. In New York, viral videos of aggressive enforcement have led to demonstrations, most recently after the arrest of a churro vendor. But what conditions lead to this? What do you think is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back here?

Any incursion into the space of transit is going to feel like an affront to people for whom that it is an important space. [The subway] is an important space for everyone who uses it, but I think in a way it’s an even more important for very low-income people or people who are outside of conventional communities. Cops entering into that space presents a feeling of exclusion. Raising the fare presents a feeling of exclusion.

There’s a lot of other issues in Chile that are obviously much more salient than just the subway fare. But I’m not surprised that it was the fare that was that straw; it was immediately galvanizing, because that’s a place where we actually come together.

A part of the fare evasion issue in New York may be a sense that the social contract has been broken—the subway is no longer reliable, and therefore riders may feel less inclined to pay for it. But do you need that context for protest?

No. When I talk to people about fare beating, I find that there is the occasional person who feels justified in fare beating because the level of service is so low. But for the most part, that’s an anomalous reason. It’s generally people who are in dire straits, who are in a rush and can’t get the money together. And it’s also broken equipment, frankly.

Putting cops in that space highlights a problem not with transit and level of service, but rather the police themselves, and police-community relations. We have a major problem with police in New York City; it’s an institution that has a very poor reputation, and people are afraid of the police. We also have a policy, equity, and poverty problem. People often find themselves without enough money to even get the $2.75 together to ride the subway, but still need to go where they need to go, so they’re beating the fare. That is a problem that is not appropriately solved with weapons of any kind. That’s precisely why the police’s reputation has declined over time: outsized uses of force. It’s happening in the transit system, but I think it’s a problem with police-community relations.

That, of course, marks a lot of the sentiment towards a potential presidential run by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, and recent statements by Governor Cuomo regarding a supposed lack of safety underground.

I think the impetus for this policy may have come from a fear of our system returning to what it had been in the 1970s and ’80s. When we see unsheltered people down in the subway system, there’s an immediate visual trigger that might happen to people of a certain age. They might say, ’Oh, this is the type of system that we had in the past. We need to prevent this from happening again.’

But it’s 2019, and we’re not going back in time. There’s no reason why we can’t have an improving subway system, with cleaner stations, better-working fare machines, shorter headways, and a city that’s still growing. Sometimes there will be unsheltered people sleeping in stations, and they need mental health help and homelessness assistance. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean that suddenly there’s going to be, like, Guardian Angels and graffiti. It’s not like 1975 is going to happen again.

I’m concerned that urban policy in New York City, and urban areas everywhere, is produced because of a fear of a declining inner-city, when that has not been the reality for at least 20 years. People are poor now for different reasons, and in different ways.

In your research, you interviewed a wide spectrum of riders about how they pay for transit. What is the perception you found that is held by low-income individuals towards accessing transit, and who can be a transit rider?

[For those who sometimes evade paying the fare,] it’s ‘I need to go, I’m going to get there, but I don’t have the cash. I know what the risk is, and I can take the risk.’ It’s a woman who gets on the back of a bus with her kids so she can get them to school on time, who didn’t have the fare that day. It’s someone whose family member took their MetroCard, and they still have to get to work or else they’re going to lose their job. They’re looking at that moment in their lives, and they’re assessing the risk versus the benefit. It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

And for people who live on the outskirts of a city, for example, and who have to travel considerably in order to get to work, it’s not an option to just go ahead and walk. Although I also spoke with people who do that: people who will spend their last couple of dollars or fare-beat to get where they need to go during the day, knowing that they’ll just be walking for hours and hours that night so they don’t fare beat again, and don’t have the money.

So what should the role of enforcement be in transit systems?

Those same people I spoke with said that every person should have to pay the same, and nobody should be in there without paying. People get angry, for example, when they see a bus driver go ahead and let someone on the bus, even though they didn’t pay, after they just went ahead and spent the fare. They like the procedural fairness of everyone having to pay to enter.

But there are ways to enforce fare differently, without bringing in an institution like the police. Those 500 officers, for example, can be trained in community relations and procedural fairness, and then practice that underground. They can stop every 20 people on Select Bus Service [express buses], and explain that they’re the twentieth person and that’s why they’re stopped, to check their tickets. That’s a nice way to get training of procedural justice into the police system, which is not something that I know they do right now. Instead, when an officer approaches you, you feel targeted, and put down by the situation, as opposed to, ‘Hello, sir or ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you’re the tenth person that has come on the bus, and that’s why I’m checking for your SBS ticket. OK, you don’t have it—let me get your information, in case you do have it later.’ There are no guns, no threats, and no getting kicked off or anything like that.

It’s also worth thinking about the rest of our transportation system. The 14th Street Busway, for example, is working so well because there are human beings standing in the middle of 14th Street telling cars that they can’t turn down there. That’s one thing that those officers can certainly be trained to do easily. There are plenty of other places to put uniformed officers. The subway stations need to be safe places, and that may sometimes involve removing unsheltered people who are using the space inappropriately, but none of this has to involve guns. You can definitely police these spaces; they’re not public in the sense of a park, with a gate and curfew. They’re quasi-public: There’s a fare, not everyone can go in, and there’s a reason to be there. Enforcing that is appropriate. But there’s a way to do it that is actually for the public safety, as opposed to terrifying the public.

In Hong Kong, we see an inverse scenario—highly reliable service, but protests focus on larger structural issues with the Chinese government and society. Same can be said about the Extinction Rebellion protests on the London Tube, to a certain extent. How does that fit into the equity conversation?

It’s not surprising. Again, it’s the public square in many ways. It’s where people gather because they all have to, and not because of any particular agenda. You don’t always go to Trafalgar Square or into the middle of the Sogo Mall [in Hong Kong] or whatever city you’re in; you go to the transit system because that’s where public attention is. For groups who are trying to gain attention to make a point, it makes sense.

Of course, destroying those places disrespects those places as public spaces. But if those spaces have been managed in the way that New York’s are starting to be, then those otherwise public spaces are managed in such a way where people think they’ve been taken from them. That they’re no longer really public—they’re just instruments of a police state, or some kind of oppression. And people will absolutely fight back against that.

I’m not surprised that they’re starting to do that. That’s pretty much the case with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, those stations are funded by real estate development, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the protesters there are quite aware of that. They’re state-owned, and sort of global capitalist statements.

What implications do these protests hold for the future of mass transit, and cities?

Gentrification is sometimes defined as the production of urban space for increasingly affluent users. By making a transit system more amenable to people who don’t want to see the homeless, or people who don’t fit in what their idea of what the public ought to be, by removing those people and putting in cops who make some people feel comfortable and not others, you are taking a space that was once egalitarian and public and making it for more affluent users. It’s the gentrification of a subway system.

We’ve seen it happen in other public spaces, like parks and sidewalks in some neighborhoods. I think this is the next step of gentrification, in transit systems—to create those spaces for people who have more affluent sensibilities. And I think it’s inappropriate.

But I think they say something more about cities. The voices of people in the face of oppression can be difficult to hear when we’re too far apart from each other. Where’s the place that we all have to go in cities? We all have to go underground at some point, or on public transit. We all kind of work around each other, and that becomes unique to our own city, and our own bit of a subway line, sometimes. That’s special. And that’s us doing it. We’re creating it ourselves.

The prospect of that being taken away, or overpoliced, or the fare going up, can really arouse deep-seated anti-oppression sentiments that are there for other reasons. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going after my family. You’re going after my community; a place where I am me, where I have the support of everyone around me.’ It can really feel that way. And anything that gets in the way of that, basically gets in the way of what a city does well.

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