Effects of a Militarized Police Force in Urban Areas

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In recent years, racial tensions across American cities have been steadily increasing, causing everything from violent riots to planned marches and peaceful sit-ins. Unjust killings of African Americans by law enforcement appear to be at the forefront of this racial divide. However, these killings are merely an effect of a larger problem facing cities. In his journal “Police Militarization in Urban Areas”, Daryl Meeks, a professor at California State University, elaborates on the systemic oppression faced by individuals who live in poor urban areas caused by changing policy. These changes in policy started decades ago and were meant to isolate urban inner-city areas from full participation in the economy and smother their political voice; which could only happen with a large police force keeping residents disempowered. Journal entry, “Anything Can Happen With Police Around” by Michelle Fine and others, looks more specifically at how the youth are affected by the large law enforcement presence that govern cities across the United States. A strong law enforcement presence and strict zero tolerance policies in urban areas weakens democracy and creates a sense of betrayal in residents that the police are there ironically to protect.

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Since the 1992 Los Angeles riot there has been a major shift in urban policy away from empowering the lower class to isolating them from the rest of American society. Recent controversy on the deterioration of inner-city urban areas mainly centers around the claimed stereotypical criminal and promiscuous behavior of the urban lower class and the necessity for stronger police presence to control such behavior (Meeks 34). One such example, is the misappropriation of the funding for a program named “Weed and Seed” created by George Bush to combine law enforcement efforts with social service policies to revive unproductive, crime ridden urban areas. The “Weed and Seed” program allocated 20% of the funding to law enforcement to eradicate the remaining crime in inner-city areas. The other 80% was reserved for urban revitalization. In actuality, the designated funds for urban revitalization were spent by law enforcement to eliminate crime and only 20% remained to revive urban areas. Instead of investing in cities to make them industrious again the government helped with the migration of companies and a viable labor force from inner-cities to more productive suburban areas. (Meeks 34). Residents that chose to stay or were not able to move out of inner-city urban areas were left with few options. Elevated levels of unemployment and lack of jobs made it almost impossible for citizens to have adequate housing, access to proper healthcare, and public education. In return, many males who live in these urban areas turn to crime to make a living by selling drugs or theft.

As a result, many get arrested and end up getting placed into prison. One in five incarcerated people are locked up in for drug offense which creates a prison population that is now well over two million incarcerated. According to Meeks, “The majority of those behind bars are comprised of the inner-city urban underclass, which depletes urban communities of fathers, male role models, potential husbands, and a main source of economic support” (33). Ultimately, Meeks found that over the past thirty years as police militarization in cities increased the community support for policing in urban areas has sharply declined according to public opinion polls (37). The opinions held by those who live in urban areas can have far-reaching affects; including a lack of faith in the American justice system, a reluctance to cooperate with the police, and a cynical view of the law that perpetuates crime and victimization for those who live in urban settings.

Michelle Fine and her colleagues set out to find how the youth of New York City felt about the police presence in their urban area. They interviewed 911 youth aged 16 to 21 who lived in the city and found that a staggering 58% of African Americans do not comfortable when they see police on the street (149). They also found a major portion of the urban youth interviewed had problematic relationships with police and security guards in the past (150). These findings are shocking to myself as a teenager who group in a suburban area an hour outside of Philadelphia. Although I have had limited interactions with police in my area they all have been relatively positive. The officers used respectful language and gave me a chance to explain my side before taking making any judgments. In the town I grew up in the police were very active in the community and helped with many events at my school. A significant proportion of police officers in my area had children that attended a school district in their jurisdiction. This extension of the community that includes law enforcement fosters an enriching environment for youth to grow up in. Unfortunately, with the increasing militarization of police in urban setting it makes it difficult for police to be apart of a community because they are rarely from the community they protect and are outsiders. Thus, children who grew up in an environment where they do not trust authoritative figures such as police or security will have a challenging time following laws put in place to protect them. At almost all stages of life there is someone who has more power than you whether that is a teacher, professor or a boss.

Residents of these high-crime, heavily disadvantaged communities witness and experience intensive police presence, high rates of incarceration and community supervision, and concentrated violence and question the intent, effectiveness, and equity of the criminal justice system. Indeed, police may carry out aggressive strategies that target quality-of-life infractions and drug, gun, and gang-related violence in ways that undermine public confidence in areas such neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas with elevated levels of mistrust tend to be those that are heavily policed, where police use tactics such as pretextual stops that damage their relationship with the people they are charged to protect. The results can be far-reaching: a distrust of the criminal justice system, an unwillingness to cooperate with the police, and a cynical view of the law that can perpetuate crime and victimization.

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