Saturday, December 27, 2014

How dangerous is policing?


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

December 27, 2014


                At the December 26 memorial for the two murdered police officers in New York City, Vice President Biden highlighted the dangers of policing, citing how families of police officers must worry every day whether their loved ones will come home safely.  The FBI reports that in 2013, 76 police officers died while on duty, 49 in traffic accidents (not counting one officer intentionally run down), 27 feloniously killed.  The quadrennial FBI census reports that in 2008, there were 765,000 sworn officers in the US, an increase of 9,500 over 2007.  That suggests that there were approximately 800,000 officers in 2013.  That suggests that the occupational death rate for police officers was approximately 9 per hundred thousand officers, 6/100,000 traffic deaths, 3/100,000 killed by murder or manslaughter, while the rate of all US inhabitants killed by murder or non-negligent manslaughter was 4.7/100,000.

                Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2013, the on-the-job death rate for construction workers was about the same as for police officers, 9.4/100,000, roughly equal to the risk of dying while policing.  For those working in construction and warehousing, and in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction was 13.1/100,000, and for those working in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, the rate was 22.2/100,000.

                In sum, family members of those working in construction have as much reason to fear their loved ones dying on the job as do family members of police officers, and police officers are less likely to be criminal homicide victims on the job than to become victims simply for living in the country.  The FBI only reports “justifiable” homicides by police, 320 in 2013, more than 10 times the rate at which they were unlawfully slain.

                Fortunately, the number of police officers killed on duty has steadily declined in recent years.  Any wrongful homicide or death on the job is a tragedy, but occupational risk scarcely accounts for patterns of police use of excessive force in communities of color.  Love and peace, hal

Friday, December 19, 2014

Celebrating US-Cuban Normalization


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

December 19, 2014


                President Obama has just finished his last press conference of 2014 in a good mood.  The agreement to normalize US-Cuban relations is indeed a milestone in making peace between two countries whose formal state of war began in the Bay of Pigs more than two months before this president was born.  As far as personal credit goes, the agreement he and President Castro announced this week, this will surely rank as his major foreign policy peacemaking accomplishment.  It belies the historical reality of how many Cuban and US individuals, groups, and no doubt many diplomatic contacts have connected to rise from grassroots peacemaking to formal diplomatic recognition of the Cuban state, including, ways that individuals persuaded Pope Francis and the Canadian government to do their parts to persuade the two presidents and their advisers to announce what amounts to an unratified treaty of peace.  It took two generations for that formal and informal peacemaking force reached a tipping point at the top of the political culture.

                By contrast, in our domestic war on crime and excessive use of police force against people of color, and in our wars to “destroy” the Islamic State and “combat terrorism,” the prevailing logic is one of fighting warfare with warfare, with punishment, with containment if not extermination.  Causes for public recognition and celebration of turning away from war toward peace such as this week’s agreement between the presidents of Cuba and the US, including exchange of prisoners of war, come seldom.  In the spirit of Hanukah and Christmas, I take this moment to enjoy the light of peace and mutual understanding that now shines on our relations.  Love and peace, hal

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Beyond Incrimination


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

December 9, 2014


                The main problem I see in the recently highlighted wave of white police killings of unarmed young black men is that the police don’t know the people they are policing.  How hard would it be to arrange for police to be trained in part by spending time in civilian clothes in the neighborhoods they will police, at community gatherings, participating in community projects, visiting schools, getting to know the people they will police in their full humanity, rather than as suspects and complainants?  Police on patrol are not so bombarded with calls for service that half shifts could not be arranged once or twice a week for patrol officers to continue their civic engagement.  As Nils Christie suggested in his book Limits to Pain (1981), people who know one another in more respects are less likely to treat one another according to stereotype.

                The US stereotype that poor young black and brown men are especially suspect and violent will not fade.  No amount of punishment of police officers who have killed unarmed black men and boys will change that prejudice so deeply within us, including among my fellow criminologists.  On the contrary, a belief that punishing homicidal police does justice, rests on the premise on which the criminal justice system operates, the system that has given us mass incarceration.  The police cannot be regulated and supervised into overcoming the ignorance of those they police that they bring to bear.  They can be taught to know the real people they police.  Love and peace, hal

Friday, December 5, 2014

policing driven by the numbers


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

December 5, 2014


                Since my dissertation on police decisions to report offenses (summarized in July 1976 in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency), my criminological focus has been on effects of how we measure crime and criminality.  The latest great awakening to police brutality in communities of color is at hand, the underlying fear, demonization, and use of excessive police force against young members of today’s dangerous classes is in our faces once again.  I believe that a police accountability system called CompStat, first utilized for officer and precinct evaluation in 1995 in New York City in 1995, now adopted by police departments across the country, has further institutionalized and rewarded arrests, especially on felony charges, and punished crime reporting and recording.  I wrote an early critique of CompStat and its early effects in a 2001 book chapter, “living criminologically with naked emperors,” under books (A Criminologist’s Quest for Peace) at; a summary of my conclusions also appears as an epilogue to Myths That Cause Crime, another book at the same website.

                Under CompStat, every shift sergeant gets a monthly printout of his or her officers’ patrol performance: how many arrests they have made, and how many reports of any of seven federally defined offenses: murder and non-negligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, arson, and auto theft.  Most arrests are for public order or drug offenses that don’t count as index crimes.  From the individual officer on up the managerial chain, the pressure is on to keep arrests up, and crime counts down.  When I rode with police forty years ago in a “high-crime” area, some officers already recognized that their opinion of those they supposedly served was distorted by hearing complaints and by seeing people at their worst all the time.  Doing the paperwork was an added burden on those who filed offense reports.  CompStat further discourages officers from what little opportunity they have to get to know people they police personally, from being at all responsive to those among whom they patrol.  Meanwhile, what counts most is finding bad guys out on the streets where it is relatively safe.  As CompStat heightens attention to law enforcement, policing becomes more proactive, and for better or worse, less reactive…more impersonal, more subject to stereotypes, more self-fulfillingly dangerous in police minds and to black and brown bodies in police practice.

                Now, from NYC Mayor De Blasio and from President Obama, we hear calls and movement to get police to know, feel and respect the full humanity of people of color they work among.  Since the late 1960s, there have been models of “service-style” policing cited, notably in middle-class neighborhoods with children, for treating community members in the manner of social workers who know their clients and the groups to which they belong.  The perceived and learned needs of community members play a larger role in officers’ lives and professional advancement than crime-fighting numbers.  But where CompStat has taken hold, it will take conscious effort to substitute the importance of community members’ police evaluations, in their own terms and words, for the importance of CompStat numbers they create.  Here as elsewhere, peacemaking entails letting go of attachment to counting crime and criminality.  Love and peace, hal