I was on my way to work as a public defender when I heard that a seven-year-old girl named Jaslyn was shot to death in the back seat of her dad’s car while at a McDonald’s drive-thru. The shooting happened on Chicago’s West Side, near my office. I felt deep sadness for that young life lost — like so many others — to violence she couldn’t control and probably wouldn’t have been able to understand. I felt that same perpetual fear and anguish about my neighborhood, where shootings have long been so prevalent that my dog knows the difference between a gunshot and fireworks. Then I felt outrage.
But my outrage was not directed at the person who pulled the trigger. I know he or she was most likely a survivor of violence he or she could not control; of a daily, traumatic oppression by hyper-policing and surveillance; of being trapped with literally no way out. Of shame. Of isolation.
My outrage was about how a tragic death was once again being weaponized by the media, police, leaders, and lawmakers to scare the public into thinking reform is the culprit and more police is the answer. The TV reports and local news coverage parroted police talking points while exposing the criminal record of the little girl's father, who was seriously wounded during the incident. Meanwhile, Chicago leaders used the opportunity to become fearmongers about “violent criminals,” slamming modest reforms that have barely had a chance to take hold, let alone create any kind of causation.
It is simple, they told us, like every time before: We need more police officers, and more Black people in cages. Once again, this narrative became the prevailing one. And once again, people are accepting it.
The pattern of fear-driven policing is not limited to Chicago. For the past half century, politicians and police, enabled by an all-too-willing media, have weaponized tragedies, cherry-picked statistics, and become fearmongers over crime. They’ve done so to convince people that, somehow, it's a good idea to support the same costly, wasteful, racist, and, yes, violent strategies of policing and criminalization that continue to create conditions that allow little Black girls to get shot in what should be the safety of a parent's car at McDonald's.
Today, hysterical coverage is exploding nationwide as homicides have increased in some jurisdictions relative to recent years past, even as many other types of violent crime have gone down. It is impossible to attribute any kind of causation to short-term changes in crime statistics — it could be upheaval from COVID, mass unemployment, or a normal, random blip in the steady course of historically low and decreasing violent-crime rates — but much of the media has published unsupported, fear-based stories and lies from those with carceral interests.
The Washington Post recently published a lengthy piece linking — without any statistical evidence — the overwhelmingly peaceful movement for social justice and Black lives to violence in Portland, Oregon, calling the city “under-policed” despite the approximately $230 million annual budget. The New York Times, meanwhile, gave Bill Bratton, former police commissioner of New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston, and architect of the devastating broken windows policing, a massive platform with an interview in Maureen Dowd’s opinion column, peddling the blatant lie that defunding the police (they haven’t been defunded) has led to “rising crime, cops leaving in droves.”
The United States cages people at a higher rate than any other country in the history of the world, according to a 2014 report by the National Research Council. A 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report found that the U.S. spends at least $182 billion a year on systems of incarceration, including policing, prosecution, and prisons. If policing and incarceration really make us safer and healthier, we should be the safest society in history. We know that’s not the case.
As a public defender, a tax-paying Chicagoan, as a Black woman who is a survivor of crime and of police violence, who lives in an over-policed neighborhood afflicted by violence, I care deeply about public health and safety and making the right kind of investments to achieve those goals. Here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: Policing makes communities less safe and less healthy. Policing makes my community less safe and less healthy. Not only does policing fail to prevent violent crime, it creates conditions that allow for even more violence.
Let me explain.
The Chicago neighborhood where I live and have owned a home for the past 11 years has been identified as one of the most violent areas in the city. The city’s answer has always been to increase police presence. But the additional police officers I see driving the wrong way down one-way streets have not reduced violence. The police who close the parking lot to the park in my neighborhood at 2 p.m., when the park is open until 11 p.m., have not reduced violence. The police who look at me suspiciously while I'm on my morning run in my neighborhood have made me feel trapped, unwanted, and afraid — and I still hear those gunshots.
In advance of Memorial Day weekend and the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, the Chicago Police Department canceled all days off and required officers to work 12-hour shifts, supposedly to combat violence. These armies of officers were predominately deployed to Black and Latinx neighborhoods and patrolled neighborhoods on foot as if we were the “enemy.” We didn’t feel safe. We weren’t kept safe. Shootings still happened.
We often hear and, increasingly with smartphone footage, see the physical violence that is inflicted by police. But we don’t talk as much about the psychological violence of policing: the fear, anxiety, depression, and trauma to citizens.
Imagine feeling imprisoned in your own neighborhood, on your own block. Every time you look out your window you see police cars rolling down your street, one after the other, watching you and your neighbors; surveilling your homes, cars, your person; looking for any opportunity to stop and search you, to invade the sanctity of your body and home. People I represent have told me that Chicago police call this “wolf packing.”
I have had countless conversations with my clients in court about being beaten, harassed, or witnessing the police beat or harass a family member or friend. As a public defender, I have had the displeasure of watching countless hours of body-camera videos in which officers stop people walking down the street, tell them to “come here,” search them — moving their hands through their clothes, touching their bodies — and then send them on their way without charge because no crime had occurred. I feel their pain, because I and my family have literally felt that pain. We live in invisible cages.
I have lived in Chicago for 16 years. I am an attorney who holds multiple degrees. I am a homeowner. But when the police see me or my husband, they just see another Black person. An example: My husband asked me to drive with him to the pharmacy blocks away because he was afraid to drive alone after having been stopped so many times by the police. He thought that being in the car with me, a lawyer and public defender who knows the Constitution front and back, would protect him. It didn’t.
After leaving his car, two white officers approached him in the parking lot and asked my 40-year-old husband if he was driving his mother’s car. After that night my husband stopped driving his car. The persistent racism, paternalism, and shame had become too much to bear, and he changed his behavior to appease his abuser.
No wonder police spectacularly fail to prevent or solve crime. The people I represent frequently echo the same sentiment: They run from the police because they are afraid of the police. Like most survivors of violence, including most of the people arrested for violence and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, the people I represent don’t call the police for help because when they do, they are often treated like suspects and the situation escalates.
As restorative justice pioneer Danielle Sered has pointed out, the primary characteristics of prisons — shame, isolation, economic deprivation, and violence — parallel the primary drivers of violence itself: shame, isolation, economic deprivation, and violence. The kind of policing that our leaders want more of, that happens in Black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago and around the country, has that same effect. We are investing billions of dollars in “solutions” to violence that are instead “criminogenic,” that actually cause violence.
Given all of this, perhaps the most damaging and enduring consequence of continued investment in the police — despite their proven (and admitted) inability to prevent crime even with the billions we still send their way — is that communities continue to not get the kind of investments that truly do prevent violence and promote health.
Studies show that communities that have more access to resources have less crime. In Lincoln Park, a predominantly white neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, there are few police patrolling the streets; they have restaurants with various cuisines, coffee shops, and grocery stores. You never realize how important a grocery store is until there isn’t one around for miles. In Lincoln Park, the public schools are highly rated, while schools in my neighborhood are at the bottom of the barrel. In Lincoln Park, city parks have baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and tracks for families to enjoy. The park in my neighborhood has some grass and a track locked behind a six-foot-tall chain-link fence that is always locked and constantly patrolled by police. The Chicago mayor just announced that the first Boys & Girls Club in a generation in Chicago will be built on the campus of a new $95 million police and fire training academy.
How do we get to a more rational place that is better for all of us? We need to refuse to continue being duped by the fearmongers, by a self-interested police force, and the leaders beholden to them. We need to call out the media and journalists for repeating and spreading the cynical lies that tragedies will somehow be prevented by investing more in the same strategies that have allowed those tragedies to happen. We need to understand that more police on the streets would not have saved young Jaslyn’s life, but smarter investments might have.
Most importantly, we need to have patience for change. It is hard to imagine a society without, or with substantially less, policing, prosecution, and punishment because it is all we have known for so long. These black-and-white responses are baked into our culture and public consciousness and are so easy to understand. Today, though, it should also be easier than ever to understand that those responses just don’t work. So let’s try something new.