Last summer I was visiting my hometown. I was at a friend’s place at a nearby lake for the day. After a great day of catching up with old friends and spending some time on the boat, it was time to get home. I rode my motorcycle there, but another friend also needed to get home that night, so I borrowed our host’s truck and left my bike there until the next day.
As I entered town on a stretch of four-lane highway, I was coming up behind a semi-truck traveling slowly. It was dark, and its lights were bright, so I changed lanes to pass.
And then -lights!
The car behind me was a police car! It just so happened that this section of highway switches from a 100km/h speed limit to 80km/h and then 60 km/h quickly – within a kilometre or so.
Now I had a couple of drinks at the lake that day, but many hours earlier – I wouldn’t drive if I thought that I wouldn’t be doing so safely and legally. My friend in the passenger seat was a different story, having continued indulging throughout the day. So it wasn’t surprising when the officer said he smelled booze, and asked me get out of the vehicle and sit in the back of theirs (with the door open) while we waited for another unit to show up to conduct a breathalyzer test.
We waited, and he asked if I had any issues with driving under the influence before, and I told him no. When the test arrived, I completed it and blew 0.0% blood alcohol.
He seemed a little annoyed and told me to return to my vehicle while he kept the paperwork to write me a speeding citation.
Several minutes later, he returned to my window, apparently disappointed, and said “Just a boring ol’ speeding ticket!”, passing me the paperwork and citation.
This all happened quickly and I was just happy to be on my way. But the more I thought about it the more things just didn’t seem right. By tailing me so closely at night, only to pull me over once we reached a speed zone change, it almost seemed like the officer was trying to force me into speeding. And it bothered me for months afterwards that he was so disappointed by my relative innocence.
Was he really trying to make the roads safer by stopping me from speeding? Or was he fishing? What irked me most was his attitude. He seemed excited to bust me, just a few minutes from home, and impound my friend’s vehicle for the week while revoking my license. I think he used a known ‘speed trap’ in town to pull me over, hoping to meet his quota.
This wasn’t serving and protecting anyone, this was paying someone with tax dollars to collect more money.
Of course, in the end, I was OK. But we hear all-too-often about instances where an otherwise minor interaction with police seems to escalate extraordinarily. Beyond George Floyd, Freddie Gray and those whose deaths happened to be caught on tape, there are countless others whose lives were upended because of discriminatory police officers and police tactics.
White Americans’ median wealth is 10 times that of black Americans. This has been the case for over 30 years. Black Americans are 3 times more likely to die in child birth, a prime indicator of the standard of living and accessibility of health care in a given area. When even your most basic needs aren’t addressed, how can one be expected to succeed on merit alone?
On May 25th, 2020 a New Jersey State Trooper had a similar interaction as mine described above with a man named Maurice Gordon. After being in the police car for over 30 minutes – guilty of nothing besides being unable to re-start his car when asked to move it to a safer part of the roadway – he was shot multiple times, THEN handcuffed. He received no urgent first aid or medical attention.
I was annoyed for months while recalling the conduct of the officer who pulled me over. If I lived in that town still, I would have reported him. If I lose my license and my job because of an overzealous cop, what would become of my hopes and dreams? An event like this can entirely rob one of their prospects of reaching financial independence.
But many people aren’t even lucky enough to be able to ask themselves these questions after an interaction with police. They will never have the chance to reach financial independence, let alone all of the much more important things in life.
Because where I was annoyed, they died.
The “Little” Things
Of course there is a lot in between a positive interaction and an unjust death at the hands at police. For many, this systemic discrimination comes in the form of fines.
Crime has been dropping since the mid-90s. But many municipalities rely on fines and fees for up to 20% of their spending budgets. Therefore, it is only fitting that as the police budget continues to increase (despite the decrease in crime), their political power also grows. The very cities they serve come to depend on them to balance their budgets.
A Matter of Incentive
So how did we get here, you might ask? Well it all started with tax cuts in the ’80s. Then, while increasing the amount that cities rely on these revenues only further, more politicians over the decades saw the short-term political gain in committing to even more tax cuts.
If you prioritize meeting quotas over nourishing community trust, you develop police efforts like the one I described above. It is not a complicated concept. Policy, like finance, and most other things related to human behavior, is all about incentives.
In any agency where impunity is normal and accountability scarce, how is it that we might expect that agency’s performance to ever improve?
Indeed, it is more likely to worsen instead.
Policing in Canada was created to remove First Nations from their lands. In America’s South, policing was borne out of ‘slave patrols’, in which every white man was required to serve. They had full dominion over any black person found outside of their place of enslavement.
We are people keen to celebrate our legacies and identify with our pasts. But we interpret our own histories of genocide, slavery, exploitation and discrimination erroneously as only honorable and glorious. This strengthens our egos and sense of infallibility while we learn nothing of value from our mistakes.
This cognitive dissonance is necessary to support a rosy world view that modern society is already fair and just. Honestly reckoning with the past would also require us to stop ignoring the inhumane foundations these agencies are built upon.
This is a post to meet the moment. But in reality it is a timeless post, for these issues have been present since the beginning. Tragically, it is a post that may seem ‘current’ at any time in the past. But unlike most pieces I write, I hope that it will seem foreign and dated soon.
A rising tide does lift all boats*. But the tide always rises from its lowest point first. Companies and societies are slowly realizing this. They are learning that if they encourage diversity they will be more resilient and relevant than their counterparts who do not.
The statues of slave traders around the world are finally falling. Colombus stands headless in Boston. It seems we may finally be shining a light on the reality of the past. We are learning en masse how our ignorance of it has caught up to us yet again.
It is past due that we learn to acknowledge that ‘the Greatest Economy on Earth’ was built on free labor. We stole entire society’s civility, culture, stewardship and independence. And now we are offended that they demand we return the loot.
Of course, we must keep up this charade in order to justify the maintenance of these broken systems. But one can only hope that the time for playing with people’s prospects and opportunities is finally and forever over. Because there is a lot of real work to do to right the ship.
*this phrase has often been perversely associated with defending tax cuts in necessitated by now largely debunked ‘trickle-down economics’ which actually led to the current situation. Instead, it should be considered in defense of helping people the economy of the past left out, or ‘bottom-up economics’.