The nationwide movement against police violence and mass incarceration have brought to light the repressive and coercive nature of the criminal justice system in the United States. Attention has been focused on both the egregious disparities in incarceration between the U.S. and other Western industrial states and a plethora of cases of lethal force used by the police against civilians. These are vital issues. But given less attention is the issue of how we have arrived at such violent, coercive, and repressive policies of social control in the United States. The following discussion focuses on neoliberalism and its impact on policing as a broader explanation of how we have become what Jock Young called a retributive society.
As defined by David Harvey, neoliberalism is “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” (2005, p.2). Neoliberalism has resulted in a series of social changes that have fundamentally changed the nature and purpose of policing in the US. First, it has required new modes of spatial use, development, and governance, particularly in urban areas. Second, it has created political, economic, and social conditions which resulted in the invention of new crimes and new actuarial patterns of crime control. Third, neoliberalism requires an unprecedented and enormous expansion of the criminal justice system and concomitantly requires a more repressive and coercive criminal justice system responsive to corporate and elite interests. Policing follows suit with violent repression directed at the poor and virtual immunity extended to corporate, white-collar, and political criminals.
Policing Space for Profit
Central to neoliberal policies have been rapid and massive changes in the spatial and socioeconomic characteristics of cities. Neighborhoods have experienced rapacious acquisition of properties by realtors and developers, resulting in skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification. As the federal, state and city governments withdrew support from social programs and services local communities experienced unprecedented levels of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, homelessness, and social crime, the profits from which helped to fill the voids created by a declining economy. At the same time the privileged, realtors, developers, businesses, and banks experienced a massive increase in wealth at the expense of the vast majority of urban residents.
The impact of neoliberalism in relation to rental housing costs is obvious and draconian:
Median Rents Unfurnished Apartments U.S.
While the median asking rent was $1,620 in 2019, “about one in five newly built apartments had an asking rent of at least $2,450, while only 12 percent had asking rents below $1,050” (Joint Center for Housing, 2020, p.2 ). According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (2020), apartment property prices have more than doubled since 2010 and Real Capital Analytics data indicate that private investors were behind 63% of all large apartment property acquisitions, with some investor segments breaking historical records in their access to capital (Joint Center for Housing, 2020, p. 25). Additionally, “although growing numbers of higher-income renters helped to lift median incomes, the share of renters with cost burdens edged up to 47.5 percent in 2018”, including a quarter of renter households with severe burdens (Joint Center for Housing, 2020, p. 26).
Concomitantly, more and more urban public spaces, like parks and recreation areas, were privatized. Now open spaces were under corporate financial control and those areas were subjected to draconian levels of police intervention. The banks and corporations did not want people singing, drinking, playing, or sleeping in those suddenly private places. All of these things became criminal acts, and all of these things became priorities for a new corporatized American police force that no longer owed any allegiance to the people but only to private capital.
Starting with the Reagan administration the federal government began to cease investment in urban renewal programs and urban development. Funds that had been made available to local city governments dried up and disappeared. The withdrawal of federal support had two main impacts. First, a wide range of positive social and development programs was terminated. Second, cities faced the problem of rapidly increasing debt. With the federal government’s retreat from governance to sovereignty urban governments increasingly looked to banks and financiers to cover their costs and obligations. The banks were only too happy to fill the void. They predicated their underwriting of municipal governance on three demands.
First, social welfare programs had to be ravaged. Second, municipal services and space had to be privatized. Third, order maintenance through aggressive policing had to serve the interests of land developers, realtors, banks, corporations, and private businesses. In other words, the municipal government had to divest itself from its own populace and as a result of the police no longer served the community, they served finance capital alone.
So, municipal governments are no longer governing. They became profit-producing, entrepreneurial, sovereign fiefdoms no longer serving their residents but totally focused on policies that made urban areas financially, socially, and politically attractive to corporations, developers, and banks. A combination of private and corporate financial investment and urban government policies created the conditions for a perfect storm of gentrification that deliberately displaced impoverished neighborhoods, massively widened wealth differentials, exacerbated class conflicts, and required a militarized, violent army of occupation. Gentrification turned police departments into privately-owned, violent, security forces that no longer answered to the people they allegedly served.
New Crime and Actuarial Policing
The simple fact is that almost everyone’s contact with the criminal justice system starts with the police. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans will have interactions with the police as their only criminal justice system contact. These interactions rarely result in arrest, let alone prosecution, conviction, or incarceration. In fact, of all those people who have been subjected to “stop and frisk” police tactics, 90% are never found to be engaged in criminal activity. That fact alone demonstrates that the police are not fighting crime but are engaged in a pattern of discipline and regulation directed at those targeted by neoliberal policies. The police are not protecting communities and keeping them secure, the police are playing a key role in destabilizing and reshaping those communities for the benefit of financial entrepreneurs.
Beginning in the 1990s many police departments abandoned “crime-fighting” in favor of an “order maintenance” policing strategy (i.e. policing informed by Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory). Rather than targeting serious crimes like assault, robbery, rape, burglary, theft, and homicide police departments turned their attention to minor, low-level instances of “disorder.” So, incivility and behavior which is somehow defined as annoying like homelessness, panhandling, public alcohol consumption and minor vandalism became the new “index crimes” targeted by police departments. For example, according to Autonomous Tenants Union (2018):
San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project documented a dramatic increase in arrests and citations for petty misdemeanors in gentrifying black and brown neighborhoods. In the Mission, a historically Latinx neighborhood, 311 complaints about minor infractions increased by 291 percent from 2009 to 2014 as wealthy techies moved in.
Such aggressive police tactics put some people at greater risk for injury and harm: i.e. increased police interactions can lead to greater violence against people of color. Black and brown bodies were added to watch lists and gang lists, increasing their future potential to be arrested. The death of Eric Garner, who was selling cigarettes on the street, was a product of this ‘order maintenance’ policing. The sum total result from this shift in policing was obvious. The police engaged in punitive, oppressive, and often violent tactics directed primarily at poor, inner-city communities. While communities continued to be devastated, the carceral system became bloated with mostly arrestees of victimless crimes. The net impact was that policing was no longer directed at serious crime; it was the new social engineering policy of the state to attack poverty.
Similarly, it was corporate real estate developers who pushed for aggressive policing and changes in police deployment strategies to clear out neighborhoods for gentrification. Once again new laws and aggressive policing strategies were aimed at the homeless, the poor, and the mentally ill. Corporate elites wielded their considerable political clout to reallocate police resources from “crime” to removing obstacles to their takeover of land and buildings and their subsequent profits from skyrocketing rents and sales of refurbished urban housing. Simultaneously, spending on social programs were gutted, pushing more people into financial crises. Simply put, the police were used to displace entire populations and sanitize the streets not for the benefit of residents, but for the profits of corporations.
Punitive policing has nothing to do with crime. It is, in fact, a symbolic representation of state power, a form of public humiliation, and public punishment. Order maintenance strategies were directed almost exclusively against the poor and people of color in the United States. Policing became the primary tool of neoliberalism to control, humiliate, and regulate the poor as well as protect private capital/profit.
Neoliberal Property Acquisition and Policing
The relationship between police and property acquisition has a long, racist history in the U.S. Using the term ‘Plantation capitalism’, Poe and Bellamy (2020) argue that the plantation system never disappeared and instead integrated into the economic system still present today, preserving the legacies of racism and classism:
“this combination of neoliberal capitalist urban redevelopment, plantation culture and plantation social management systems that create wealth through racial banishment, dispossession and policing of Black residents represent what we call plantation urbanism, and forms a straight, empirical line through to the legacies of settler colonialism and slavery” (Poe & Bellamy, 2020, p. 145).
For example, Poe and Bellamy (2020) trace the first quarter of the 20th-century city planning, beginning with Hoover’s declaration that people of color decrease housing values and thus realtors should protect housing values by managing the color of neighborhoods. Segregation of neighborhoods was enforced by the literal removal of buildings and neighborhood divisions by large streets/highways and backed by national legislation such as the Housing Act of 1949 (use of eminent domain in property appropriation). Banks also facilitated such segregation and demolishment of poor neighborhoods by denying black ownership of property. Instrumental to all of this were police reports: police-reported which neighborhoods were not just dilapidated, but also socially inadequate, i.e. had ‘too much crime’, thereby justifying the razing and/or seizure of a given neighborhood. Neighborhoods such as the Russell neighborhood in Louisville, KY were razed/seized and became white-owned. This neighborhood is now almost entirely occupied by black renters (with white absentee property owners) with an average income of less than 20k and in some areas, less than 10k. Land grants are given to private investors who increase the rent prices and home values, pushing lower-income people outwards away from the city (a $100 increase in rent correlates to a 15% increase in homelessness).
Furthermore, the city installed street cams to increase surveillance in neighborhoods. In particular, the Louisville Metro Government had been purchasing properties on Elliot Ave where Breonna Taylor’s friend/alleged partner Jamarcus Glover lived. Louisville Metro has used the Louisville & Jefferson County Landbank to acquire these properties through foreclosure and outright purchase and using a combination of police terrorism and code enforcement to take properties in key areas of the West End” (Bailey & Duvall, 2020 in Poe & Bellamy, 2020, p. 158). The surveillance and (mis)tagging of Glover as a suspect for drug violations lead to the no-knock search warrant that ultimately led to Breonna Taylor’s murder. This particular home at 2424 Elliot Ave was one of the “primary roadblocks to the development project” (Poe & Bellamy, 2020, p. 158). By no coincidence, there was an exchange of notices from Metro to the property owner of 2424 Elliot Avenue stating that the property could be “deemed a public nuisance by the city if the additional criminal activity were to occur at the property… The owner … responded that he would abate the problem and asked if there was a donation process for the property to be handed over to the city” ( Poe & Bellamy, 2020, p. 158). Such relationships between policing and property acquisition extend nationally, afflicting cities across the US (see Roy, Graziani, & Stephens, 2020 on LA, for example).
Broken windows policing and the neoliberal policies on which it is based represent a policy of vilification of the poor. It is an invasion of privacy, it is public humiliation, and it is a denial of liberty. Neoliberalism has resulted in punitive, order maintenance policing which is nothing more than the symbolic assertion of state coercion and violence. It is a spectacle created to assert state power and discipline in the service of private capital.
Adrienne L. McCarthy
Gary W. Potter
Autonomous Tenants Union, “Policing and Gentrification,” ATU, August 11, 2020.
Center on Race, Crime and Justice. Stop, Question & Frisk Policing Practices in New York City. John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2010.
Gilmore, Ruth W. Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. California: University of California Press, 2007.
Hackworth, Jason. The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. New York: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Harcourt, Bernard. Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Harcourt, Bernard. The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. America’s Rental Housing 2020. Harvard Kennedy School, 2020.
Mcardle, Andrea. and Tanya Ezren, eds, Zero Tolerance, Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City. New York: NYU Press, 2001.
Moody, Kim. From welfare state to real estate: Regime change in New York City, 1974 to the present. New York: New Press, 2007.
Poe, Josh, and Bellamy, Jessica. “Plantation Urbanism: Legacy, Property and policing in Louisville, Kentucky.” Radical Housing Journal 2, no. 2 (2020): 143-164.
Roy, Ananya, Terra Graziani, and Pamela Stephens. “Unhousing the Poor: Interlocking Regimes of Racialized policing,” The Square One Project’s Roundtable on Justice Police, August 2020.
Sampson, Robert and Stephen Raudenbush. “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods.” American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 3 (1999): 603-651.
Simon, Jonathan. Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Smith, Neil. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1996.
Swank, Duane. “Tax policy in an era of internationalization: Explaining the spread of neoliberalism.” International Organization 60, no. 3 (2006): 847-882.
Wacquant, Loic. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Young, Jock. The Exclusive Society. London: Verso, 1999.