America's Addiction to Cops
Professor Elizabeth Hinton on the roots of the insatiable American thirst for over-policing.
This piece was originally published on Skipped History, a Substack blog in which satirist Ben Tumin speaks to leading historians about the overlooked and under-examined events, movements, and people that shaped American history. To subscribe to Skipped History, please click here.
by Ben Tumin for Skipped History
Despite historic protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the police shot and killed more people than ever before in 2021, and law enforcement is on pace to match, if not exceed, the same gruesome milestone this year.
To understand the roots of this unreformable violence, I spoke to Elizabeth Hinton, a leading historian of American inequality and mass criminalization. Professor Hinton is the author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. She’s exceptionally good at explaining why having more police does not equate to safer streets.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here, as well as a written piece with more information about LBJ’s still-influential crime policies here. To sign up for free and paid content, click here.
Ben: Professor Hinton, thank you so much for being here.
EH: It is absolutely my pleasure, Ben. I'm a huge fan of the show and all the work that you do.
Ben: That is high praise, indeed. We can verify its accuracy a little later on.
I'll start with a couple of quotes from President Joe Biden, because what I'm most interested in talking to you about is the history of funding the police at the federal level, particularly from liberal administrations.
Biden says “the answer is not to abandon the streets. It's not to choose between safety and equal justice. It's not to defund the police. It's to fund the police, fund them with resources and training.” And, at the same time, he says we “need to invest in systems that provide adequate healthcare, counseling drug treatment, prevention, housing, education, and other social services to those that need it most.”
What first comes to mind for you in hearing about that dual-pronged approach, addressing safety and equal justice at the same time?
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EH: Well, it's straight out of Lydon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy's playbooks, which emphasized the root causes of crime, violence, and public safety—that is, education and employment and all of these other socioeconomic institutions—while simultaneously championing investments into law enforcement, investments into expanding police and prison systems.
Since JFK and LBJ, this approach has really been the hallmark of liberal social policy in the US. Biden is part of that tradition (which he extended through the crime control policies that he shepherded as a senator during the Clinton era), and the more things change, the more things stay the same.
Ben: Ugh. So going back to the 60s, LBJ launches the War on Poverty in 1964, and the War on Crime the following year.
EH: That’s right.
Ben: How does investment in the War on Crime affect investment in the War on Poverty?
EH: During the first year of the War on Poverty, from 1964 to 1965, the federal government funded local grassroots organizations targeting unemployment, education, and poverty directly. Local officials and conservatives in Congress didn’t like the idea that the federal government was empowering the grassroots in this way. So there came to be all of these new administrative and bureaucratic stipulations, and a big part of that, during the second half of the 1960s, was the increased role of local law enforcement in the administration of War on Poverty programs.
Consequently, almost from the beginning, the social welfare goals of the War on Poverty were infused with the social control goals of the War on Crime. The Johnson administration proposed community institutions like Youth Service Bureaus, as they were called, that would blend social workers with police officers and with municipal officials to offer counseling and recreational activities, job training, and remedial education programs for young people in the communities that had been targeted both for community action programs under the War on Poverty and new policing programs under the War on Crime.
Because these two ambitious initiatives were essentially deployed at the same time, they increasingly became fused. And in the end, the goals and programs of the crime war came to overshadow the programs of the War on Poverty. The transformation and modernization of not just police but the entire crime control apparatus in this country began in the Johnson administration and eventually made mass incarceration or mass criminalization possible.
Ben: Wow. One illuminating piece of your work that you're touching on a bit here is the idea that there was perhaps an alternate path to accomplishing whatever it is that LBJ actually wanted to accomplish.
That is to say, there were community-based solutions addressing inequality that did not involve increasing surveillance of communities of color. Would you mind exploring this alternate universe that could have existed further without the incepting of a war on crime?
EH: Well, there were all kinds of promising programs in the 1960s that had been devised by community organizations themselves.
In Chicago for example, the Woodlawn Organization empowered social workers and community residents to provide services for young people who today we would call “at risk,” and who in the 60s were called “potential delinquents” or “potential criminals.” The War on Poverty also supported tenants exploited by slum landlords and who were demanding better living conditions—things like rodent and cockroach removal in apartments, just basically to make housing livable for people.
We know that these kinds of non-punitive, community-based approaches to public safety have a measurable impact on crime and violence in various communities. The idea was okay, we recognize that all of these socioeconomic factors are the root cause of crime, and poor people know best how to address problems of poverty in their communities, so let’s support them and attack those problems. Let's provide people with jobs, let's invest in education, let's overhaul dilapidated housing as a way to meaningfully address these very real public safety issues.
Unfortunately, those larger goals gradually get sidestepped by the increased reliance on policing, and eventually incarceration, to manage the material consequences of poverty and racial inequality as they appeared through crime and violence.
Ben: So, you’re saying there are underlying socioeconomic conditions that lead to crime. JFK tried to address these conditions, and LBJ did, too, but—
EH: We hear Biden too acknowledging these underlying conditions.
Ben: Right, and Biden, similar to JFK and LBJ, also seems to be responding to the manifestation of those poor conditions, which is crime or urban rebellion, rather than the roots of them.
Ben: So could you talk a bit about—hmm, well, a lot of things—but could you talk about the urban rebellions that occurred in the 60s, and how the urban rebellion that we've seen over the last few years connects to the earlier unrest?
EH: So through every summer of the Johnson presidency and beyond into the 1970s, American cities, large and small, burned. There were some 2,300 rebellions between 1964 and 1972. As the rebellions increased in intensity and frequency, policymakers, liberals very much included, embraced the LBJ administration’s increased arming and funding of the police as the most viable immediate solution.
Of course, these rebellions were all set off by some kind of violent police encounter. For example, the first major rebellion, in Harlem in 1964, began after a New York City police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old Black high school student named James Powell. Although the rebellions were about educational opportunities, better housing, employment, and all the things that we've been talking about, like today they were also about an end to police brutality.
And instead of taking a step back and saying, okay, let's think about what's going on in our country that makes people feel like they’re being policed to the point that they have no other option but to respond with violence; instead of really thinking about what these rebellions suggested about racial and class inequality in the US, Johnson and other policymakers immediately said the rebellions were “criminal and lawless,” devoid of meaning. And since the rebellions were “criminal and lawless,” the only solution was more police, which was of course the very thing that led to the rebellions in the first place.
So, one of the things I note in my work is that we've been caught in this cycle of over-policing and rebellion and then more policing that we haven't quite gotten out of. Even though rebellion hasn't been as common as it was during that 1964-1972 period, it's remained a part of American life and it reemerged in the context of exceptional and really tragic police violence during the pandemic and the summer of 2020.
Ben: A chilling synthesis of decades of policing. It reminds me of a quote of yours “that history is an attempt to break up cycles. We're never going to get out of this until we understand how we got here.”
EH: Yeah, for me, history is a political project. Across my work, I’ve attempted to show the sets of decisions that got us to this point; that the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are behind bars are not just the result of “the natural order of things” but rather the outcome of decisions made at the highest levels of government over time. If we identify those decisions, then we can think about how they might be undone.
What I’ve also striven to show is that all the things that we've been talking about, Ben, like the decision to invest in policing and prisons, and expanding the carceral state at the expense of all of these other really vital social programs, hasn't worked. Gun violence hasn’t gone away, especially in our most vulnerable communities.
We should look at the homicide spike in 2020 as a reflection of that; as further evidence that policing is not the answer; that, if we're serious about getting at root causes, we have to go beyond the police and think about major structural transformation. I think that's one of the things that's most frustrating about Biden's fund the police thing—we know this doesn't work. History has demonstrated time and time again, that funding the police does not curb gun violence or social harms in our communities, and in the long term, it's far more expensive than community-based public safety programs, yet funding the police is what we keep going back to.
Ben: Maddening. I have to ask: if funding the police doesn't work, why does the government continue to do it?
EH: Well, I think the short answer is racism. Liberal social policy has been based on sets of assumptions about people of color, Black people in particular; based on the idea that Black poverty and crime can be best explained by Black pathology or Black behavior, right?
And I think, in this country, there’s been a real unwillingness to address racial hierarchies and class inequalities. Elites have been very resistant to supporting the kind of redistributive programs that are really necessary to foster a more equitable, humane, and just society. The Democratic Party and Republicans alike seem, at the end of the day, most concerned with protecting their own interests and building wealth for the few at the expense of the many, and using race as a way to continue to thwart the major mass mobilization and class solidarity that is necessary to challenge that power.
Ben: Maybe next time we can dive deeper into some of the roots of those underlying assumptions of race and talk about our best friend, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
EH: Yeah, I would love that, but you've already done it in the Moynihan episode!
Ben: Well, he can’t be dissected enough, both metaphorically and literally.
Ben: Until then, thank you so, so much for being here. It was a joy.
EH: Thanks for having me. I'm always happy to talk with you, Ben.