June 28, 2021

Matters of Democracy

To most aptly determine how well a democracy is functioning is to consider the relationship between...

Matters of Democracy

To most aptly determine how well a democracy is functioning is to consider the relationship between institutional accountability and the nation’s citizens. As it relates to the relationship between democracy and law enforcement, there seems to be an extreme imbalance that has existed since the founding of the U.S. — an imbalance likely rooted in societal expectations of material luxury and comfort but that also persists in large part due to the unequal application of laws and the unequal distribution of resources.

Slave patrols, America’s earliest form of law enforcement, were created to ensure that southern states maintained sufficient levels of free labor to spur economic development. As Jim Crow elites discovered that neither the law nor democracy itself would prevent them from acting with impunity toward Africans, a culture of oversight and aggression became embedded in the collective conscious of a nation. Despite the democratic ideals that the U.S. was founded upon, the nation’s initial failure to curtail the arbitrary use of power by early law enforcement had far-reaching consequences.

Today, with around 800 military bases located across the world, the U.S. has become the de facto police force. While the official justification for such numerous military bases typically relates to the need for defense from certain threats, the reality is that the bases are strategically placed to facilitate the accumulation and maintenance of resources, to ensure the surveillance of previously identified and potential threats, and to expedite military deployment when necessary. The national government spends more on “defense”, on a yearly basis, than Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union. The amount spent in 2020 on defense totaled $714 billion.

Bizarrely enough, various administrations have labeled other countries as a “police state” from time to time. Recently this label was applied to Iraq (2003), Syria (2011), Venezuela (2012), Ukraine (2013) and China (currently). Labeling another country as a “police state” imbues certain characteristics upon the country receiving the designation:

  1. It suggests that the country is lacking in its commitment to democracy
  2. It denotes a certain level of violence toward the country's citizens
  3. It brings to mind substantial police supervision, oversight, and oppression

While labeling another country as a police state often provides the propaganda necessary to obtain broad domestic support for a specific action, to make this assertion is to entirely ignore the domestic reality. Per capita, the U.S. spends more on policing than every country in the world except Luxembourg. Further, in terms of total budget expenditures, the U.S. ranks first in police spending. Spending is directly in proportion to the results: the U.S. holds the most incarcerated individuals in the world (2.1 million) and 70% of convictions lead to incarceration, also the most in the world.

So many black and brown individuals can attest to how effortlessly one can be arrested. The possibilities seem unlimited. We have seen police encounters escalate to arrests simply because an individual may be nervous, for trespassing, for speaking too aggressively, for possessing small amounts of recreational drugs, for driving a vehicle with an expired license, and countless additional minor infractions. Restrictions on personal freedoms continue even after release through the use of ankle monitors, probation check-ins and fees, drug rehabilitation programs, drug tests, and curfews.

Given the well-known fact that poverty and crime move in tandem, it is not surprising to see communities across the U.S. and abroad react negatively to law enforcement agencies that continue to execute law-and-order agenda’s entirely antithetical to the core values of democracy — liberty and equality. Calls to redirect funds from law enforcement, dissolve police agencies entirely, and retroactively apply law are the manifestations of a populace desiring a renewed commitment to democracy and justice.

Daunte Wright x Marvin D. Scott III protest | Dallas, Texas | 4.13.21 | Photo credit - William Sanders

Generally speaking, I find that Joe Biden’s brand of politics lacks the urgency needed to deal with salient domestic issues such as income inequality and law enforcement reform. However, I do occasionally appreciate his insights. A recent statement grabbed my attention:

Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will show you what you value.

True, individuals and institutions normally purchase or set aside funds for items they value. I subsequently found myself thinking about this statement in the context of budgetary considerations.

Consider this:

  • As indicated, at the national level the federal government has allocated $700+ billion dollars to the national defense budget. Defense spending constitutes the largest amount of discretionary spending in the federal government’s budget
  • Spending at the national level seems to set the stage for attitudes and spending at the state level. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has actually threatened to punish cities who defund law enforcement budgets through a process called “disannexation” under H.B. 1900. Also, recently passed S.B. 23 requires Texas cities to obtain voter approval before reducing police budgets. Unsurprisingly, voter approval is not required to increase police budgets
  • Locally, Texas’s largest cities — Dallas, Houston, and Austin — spend more on law enforcement than any other single area of spending. For those who are not familiar with Texas politics, these cities are relatively liberal! Each city spends at least $434 million on law enforcement, with Dallas dedicating about $540 million to law enforcement. For context, AT&T Stadium (Dallas Cowboys stadium) was only projected to cost about $650 million to build

I would be remiss if I did not mention qualified immunity here, as the defense provides meaningful financial benefits to law enforcement. Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, established by the Supreme Court in 1982, that protects law enforcement from being held liable for damages in a civil suit unless the plaintiff can show that the abuse in question violates “clearly established law.” In layman’s terms, what this means is that there must exist a similar case in which certain behavior was found to be unlawful by a court. Without delving into the difficulty this standard presents for individuals who suffer unique acts of brutality at the hands of law enforcement, it suffices to say that this specially-crafted defense provides considerable financial protection to law enforcement.

Not only have we dedicated the largest portion of our federal discretionary spending to national defense, many state and local governments have followed suit by making sure that law enforcement spending is a top priority, and the highest court in the U.S. has created a unique defense for law enforcement.

We called who a police state?

As the U.S. power structure has made clear its stance on law enforcement, we must question whether the actions taken on our behalf are truly reflective of the desires of the general population and aligned with what we expect from an aspirational democracy. The majority of federal revenue is from personal income and corporate income taxes. The majority of state revenue is from the same sources as well. As our tax dollars directly fund law enforcement, the question of whether we are working for or against ourselves naturally arises. That is, is it possible to have true democracy in a society where citizens labor to fund law enforcement agencies who exist primarily to criminalize certain segments of the population?

True justice and sound democracy is when the economic conditions that lead to crime are alleviated, when incarceration and convictions are used as a specific tool for a specific purpose, and when citizens can engage with law enforcement without a fear of their liberty being needlessly restricted or their actions permanently criminalized. A renewed commitment to these ideals are essential for the improvement of a criminal justice system that currently criminalizes individuals at a rate vastly disproportionate to justice.