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How a heavy police presence in high-crime neighborhoods hurts democracy

By a huge margin, the United States incarcerates a larger portion of its population than other developed nations. The comparative numbers are staggering, so before I get to the main argument made by Yale political scientist Vesla Weaver Tuesday at the Humphrey School, here are a few of the comparative numbers from the International Center for Prison Studies. Listed next to the nations below is the number of number of people in prison in each country per 100,000 population:

  • United States: 716

  • Russia: 502

  • Canada: 114

  • France: 102

  • United Kingdom: 96

  • German: 83

  • Sweden: 70

The U.S. incarceration rate declined over the last three years, but before that it increased for 35 consecutive years, Weaver said. In addition to those who are currently locked up, 16 million ex-felons are out of prison in the United States. Thirty percent of young males have been arrested by the age of 23, Weaver said.

The U.S. prisoner and ex-prisoner population is overwhelmingly disproportionately African-American. And the prisoners (Weaver likes to describe those who are or have been incarcerated as “custodial citizens”) are overwhelmingly drawn from predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods. That’s not much of a surprise, but Weaver offered one striking statistical illustration.

The highest incarceration rate by a Chicago neighborhood is in the predominantly black neighborhood West Garfield Park, and the incarceration rate among residents of West Garfield Park is 42 times higher than the highest incarceration rate in any predominantly white neighborhood, she said.

In the absence of a more thorough study, none of the above proves that racism per se is the explanatory factor, although many laws and policy decisions contribute to the racial breakdown of the prison population. But in her talk Tuesday, Weaver focused more on the impact of this situation on the functioning of democracy in America.

At the most obvious and direct level, the U.S. practice of canceling the voting rights of felons, coupled with the unusually high level of incarceration, removes a large (and disproportionately black) number of  citizens from the rolls of potential voters. The numbers are big enough to affect the outcome of many close elections.

Vesla Mae Weaver
Vesla Mae Weaver

(I asked Weaver after her talk whether the U.S. practice of depriving ex-prisoners of their voting rights for long periods after they leave prison was common around the world. No, she said. In fact, many countries allow convicted felons to vote from prison while serving their sentences, in the belief that this reduces the long-term impact of the inmates’ removal from and alienation from society. But she said it is extremely rare, outside the United States, for ex-felons to be deprived of their votes after release from prison.)

But the explicit suspension of voting rights was only the tip of Weaver’s larger argument, which is the subject of her forthcoming book “Policing Citizenship: America’s Antidemocratic Institutions and the New Civic Underclass,” which relies heavily on interviews that Weaver and her co-author Amy Lerman conducted in the high-crime/high-police-presence neighborhoods.

Not just among those who are arrested but among their families, friends and neighbors, the heavy police presence in those neighborhoods causes residents to see the police as the embodiment of the government and creates a fear of and hostility toward the whole idea of government in ways that undermines any aspiration they might otherwise feel to participate as citizens. It creates a common desire among young black men in such neighborhoods to keep their heads down, not be noticed and stay off the grid in the belief that getting noticed leads to getting at least hassled if not arrested.

Part of the theory behind a heavy police presence in high-crime neighborhoods — the zero-tolerance-for-crime approach, the focus on cleaning up graffiti and fixing broken windows — was to give the law-abiding citizens of those neighborhoods confidence in the police and a willingness to engage with the government in ways that might even help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

But Weaver’s interviews with residents of some of those neighborhoods suggest the policy is backfiring, that residents – especially in neighborhoods where police engage in a high-level of stops and searches of young men and especially in neighborhoods where a high portion of those searches do not find any contraband and do not result in arrests – create a mistrust of the police and an unwillingness to engage with the government.

“The stability of democracy depends on the losers, or least powerful, to still believe they can enter the contest, to still abide by the same system rather than seek to subvert it,” Weaver said. But her interviews convinced her that the opposite is occurring.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/01/2013 - 01:33 pm.


    I’m curious if Weaver talked about the proportion of the incarceration that is due to the drug war and how that compares to other countries. I’m also curious how much of the ‘stop and frisk’ approach is drug prevention and how much is related to actual violent crime. If we stopped focusing on the more victimless crimes, we’d be better off in many ways.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/01/2013 - 02:44 pm.

      Stop ‘n’ Frisk

      Stop and frisk has little relation to violent crime. The Supreme Court has held (Terry v. Ohio) that law enforcement can “stop and frisk” a person (ask for ID, pat them down for weapons) if they have a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that criminal activity is afoot. In other words, if a police officer can string together the proper words, he/she is allowed to stop you and pat you down.

      So yes, stop and frisk is more about drug crimes, especially minor possession offenses. The idea seems to be that the recreational users will be deterred from their victimless indulgence if they think they may be subject to an arrest any time they are out and about. I think we know how that has turned out.

      One consequence of the practice has been a dysfunctional court system. Defendants in some cities (New York, especially The Bronx) can wait for months or years for their misdemeanor marijuana possession cases to be called for trial. Often, prosecutors end up dropping the case. This would seem to work out fine, except for the extended legal limbo the defendant has been in.

    • Submitted by Al Leibbrand on 05/02/2013 - 08:24 pm.


      Legalize pot like other states and watch N Minneapolis become a place of pride instead of a Gestapo presence.

  2. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 05/01/2013 - 02:09 pm.

    black victims

    There is more black-on-black crime than there is black-on-white crime. This means in a high crime area there will be more black victims than white victims. If I were a black female with small children living in a high crime area I would feel much safer with heavy police presence, because it would lower the chances for me and my children becoming victims. Law enforcement decisions shouldn’t be made on the basis of percentages of blacks or whites incarcerated, but on who is most vulnerable.

    • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 05/01/2013 - 04:25 pm.

      If you were a black female you most likely would have a more nuanced view of this, since it would be your brother, cousin, boyfriend who is being stopped and frisked for no reason at all.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/01/2013 - 09:05 pm.

      I thought that

      law enforcement decisions were supposed to be made on the basis of guilt and innocence.

      And I don’t think that the black-on-black crime rate is 40 times as high as the white-on-white rate.

      I agree that the war on drugs has become a war on Americans, and that is a major part of the problem. I don’t think that Americans are ten times as likely to use drugs as Swedes.

      Another feedback loop is recidivism: incarceration has been shown to make the commission of crimes more likely.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/01/2013 - 02:39 pm.

    It’s a great insight

    …and I’d like to see more about it. I, too, have wondered why we seem to go out or our way to generate hostility toward the society in general by treating every criminal (unless it’s a truly white-collar crime) as persona non grata. Years ago, the notion that one paid one’s debt to society in prison, and that, once released, you were essentially being given another chance, a “do-over,” to start a second, better life, was reasonably widespread and also reasonably popular, or at least it was widely accepted. That no longer seems to be the case, and Ms. Weaver has come across some consequences that deserve some serious thought from economic and political leaders.

    Creating a permanent underclass, with no investment in the society, is a prescription for doom.

  4. Submitted by Roger Clegg on 05/01/2013 - 02:41 pm.

    Re-enfranchisement should not be automatic

    If you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website here [ ] and our congressional testimony here: [ ].

    The fundamental reason for racial disparities in criminal convctions is not racism, btw, but the fact that 72 percent of African Americans now are born out of wedlock. If you grow up in a home without a father, you’re much more likely to face poverty, to do poorly in school, and to get in trouble with the law — whatever your skin color is.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/04/2013 - 10:12 am.


      Correlation does not imply causation.
      The rich are more likely to cheat on their income tax and commit other major financial crimes.
      Does this mean that being rich makes one a crook?
      I’ll leave the more likely explanation as an exercise for the readers.

  5. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 05/01/2013 - 04:33 pm.

    Racism is systemic

    Racism is not just prejudice — it’s prejudice plus the power to enforce the prejudice, and it operates through systems. Including ones that are in theory color-blind. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow makes this all very clear in the context of incarceration rates, and I recommend it.

    So when Roger C says the fundamental reason for disparities in convictions is not racism, he is incorrect. The reason is not prejudice, but it is systemic racism as to how the broken windows theory is applied to neighborhoods dominated by blacks and Latinos.

    The most compelling stat is this: “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are *made* criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct… studies suggest white professionals may be the most likely of any group to have engaged in illegal drug activity in their lifetime, yet they are the least likely to be made criminals.” (Alexander, page 197)

    If the police were interested in intercepting drug users, they would be busting college dorms and other campus haunts. But they aren’t in any significant numbers.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/02/2013 - 08:09 am.

    Minnesota Nice? Think twice…

    I do wonder, if Dayton’s recent hostile, negative reception in Shakopee had been one of a black audience response venting in a similar manner, would it have been listed; consistantly labeled as a high crime area and so ‘classically’ received?

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/02/2013 - 08:41 am.

    Other Options

    It seems like adding a higher police presence to a high crime area, would be an obvious solution. I can understand the objections though. I’m curious about alternative methods. Do we have any other tried and true options? Perhaps Weaver has mentioned something in her book, but I haven’t read it.
    My fear is that if we lessen the police presence in an already high crime area, we would see even more crime. We’d also see longer response time to calls for help. I’m guessing we’d see assaults turn into homicide.
    But I don’t have any data. Has this been tried somewhere?

    • Submitted by Pat McGee on 05/02/2013 - 08:53 am.

      Tried elsewhere-it’s called Newark


      REED: It was 162 officers who were let go, out of more than 1,200. And NPR obtained internal crime data for the city for six and a half months since the layoffs took effect. If you compare those statistics to the same time period last year, murders are up 52 percent. Car thefts, 33 percent. Robberies, 16 percent. And the number of shooting victims saw a 66 percent increase. During all this, cops performed about 4,000 fewer arrests.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/02/2013 - 12:12 pm.

        Thanks Pat

        That seems pretty bad. I’m curious if Weaver, or any of her fans, have a response on this.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2013 - 01:38 pm.

          Pretty bad, indeed

          I thought her issue was with a heavy police presence that concentrates on minor crimes, such as possession of a small amount of drugs, or loitering.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2013 - 09:11 am.

    It should be automatic

    I have to disagree with Mr. Clegg.

    If you’ve done a crime so serious that parole is out of the question, then it’s a non-issue, and I can’t say that I have strong feelings about denying the franchise to people who are currently in prison, and seem likely to spend the rest of their lives there.

    I’d have to know more, and it would be a more nuanced conversation, if the focus of the discussion were people now in prison who had a reasonable expectation of parole, and whose crimes were of lesser severity, so that, if things went according to plan, they’d be returning to society. I can think of circumstances (our draconian drug law enforcement of the past generation, “three strikes” laws, and similar situations) where I’d be OK with at least some current prisoners exercising the franchise while still in prison.

    Once your “debt to society” has been repaid, however — you’ve served your time, made your restitution, if it’s called for in the sentencing — and are no longer a prisoner, then it SHOULD be automatic that your civil rights are restored. It should NOT be on a “case by case” basis, which allows far too much room for some prejudicial civil authority to get in one more level of punishment. You committed ‘x’ crime. You were convicted and sentenced. You’ve served your time and are being released by the state. Ergo, your civil rights are being restored forthwith.

    Without that restoration, we’re creating our own version of India’s infamous “untouchable” class — people at the very bottom of society, with no rights, unable to own property, etc. Not only does creating that sort of underclass fly in the face of both the Constitution and the spirit with which it was created, it is, as I said previously, a prescription for a doomed society. Without rights, those people have absolutely no stake in the success of society, no reason to keep on anything approximating the “straight and narrow,” and no reason to respect the institutions of civil authority. We’d be creating our own domestic terrorists.

    To my knowledge, there’s no secret island to which we can send convicted felons we simply don’t want to deal with any more. Except for the most serious offenders, who won’t be getting out at all, most criminals eventually have to re-enter society, and we have to figure out how to live with them, just as they have to figure out how to live with us. That so many DO end up going back to prison is more than some sort of “criminal mind set,” it’s a reflection (and a poor one) of the way our society deals with criminal behavior, and the puny ineptitude of our “rehabilitation” efforts while those people are in prison. Be that as it may, however, I’m simply saying that restoration of civil rights should NOT be up to the discretion of some parole officer or other civil authority. It ought to be automatic upon one’s release from prison.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/02/2013 - 09:23 am.

    It’s what they do

    If the extra police are used mainly to stop and frisk randomly or racially chosen individuals (as in NYC under Giuliani), then it is starting to look like occupation by a foreign army. It’s true that NY’s crime rate dropped, but it also dropped in other cities that did not use aggressive police tactics.
    On the other hand, if the extra police are used in community outreach functions, then it can be productive.

    The other number that hasn’t been given much attention here is the -duration- of incarceration (the length of sentences). Here again, our sentences are longer than in the civilized world; providing postgraduate education in criminal methodology.

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/02/2013 - 09:58 am.

    Felons and voting rights

    A few years ago, I saw a film at a local “fringe festival” type event that addressed the issue of voting rights of felons. The subject or name of the film was “The last time I voted was in third grade.” It was about a young man who looks up his third grade friend after many years and learns how his friend last voted for class president in third grade. The reason was he had been convicted of marijuana possession in Ohio which carried a felony penalty. The friend either had a long wait for his rights to be restored or may be it was never, I forget. But the point was to show how complicated it is for an ex-felon to have these rights restored because every state has different laws for when and how you can get your civil rights restored. Apparently in some states you can never get them restored. And the restoration must be with the state which imposed the conviction. If you are convicted of a crime in say Ohio, you can’t move to Minnesota and vote because Ohio must restore your voting rights.

    This is a problem which highlights our screwed up voting and election laws. Is there a federal right to vote? I think not. The “Voting Rights Act” only established the right to an “equal right” so that your federal right is only the right to have equality not the right to vote. Why shouldn’t there be a single law and procedure throughout the land for individuals who have served their time and paid their fines be restored to their civil rights? This strikes me as something which ought not be handled in a such a confusing patchwork way.

    Meanwhile, we have scores of artificial “persons” or entities called “corporations” who routinely commit crimes and remain unapprehended and punished. To paraphrase the old saying “why does crime really pay? because if it pays, no one calls it a crime.”

  11. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 05/02/2013 - 10:18 am.

    I disagree…

    I have to respectfully disagree. Our crimes have punishments attached, and after the punishment has been served you’ve paid back your debt to society. Full citizenship rights should be restored at that point as you don’t owe anyone anything at that point and are once again a full member of society. By creating more barriers and hoops to jump through, (along with the possibility that your request to have rights restored can be declined) you are just denying rights to someone who has already paid back their debt for whatever they did. You shouldn’t have to prove to anyone that you’ve turned over a new leaf or are now a model citizen.

    If you did the crime, and did the time, you’re back to being a citizen. It’s hypocrisy to demand a certain character level be achieved to get your rights back when there’s no test for them in the first place. There are plenty of terrible, scummy people out there who haven’t committed a felony and get to vote already. The rights of citizenship shouldn’t apply to just to people with a certain moral character as approved by a small subset of others. For better or for worse, we’re Americans and endowed with these rights. Having these review boards to decide whether or not someone can have their rights back, after someone has already served their sentence is just a way for one group of people to keep another group down.

  12. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/02/2013 - 11:04 am.

    Suggested syllogistic sophistry…

    High police presence are used in high crime areas

    Republican Convention – not too long ago- used high police presence

    Republican Convention was a high crime area…

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