From Tottenham to Baltimore, policing crises have been sparked by rising inequality

A policeman stands in front of a burnt-out building after the 2011 Tottenham riots. Image: Getty.

West Baltimore, 8.39 am April 12: Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, stood on the street talking with friends. Police officers approached on bicycles and made “eye contact” with Gray, who then attempted to leave. The police chased him and video footage shot on neighbours’ mobile phones shows police holding Gray face-down on the pavement. One witness described how an officer pressed a knee into Gray’s neck as he was handcuffed, while another bent his legs upwards: “They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami”.

By the time the police van arrived with Gray at the Western District police station some 45 minutes later “he could not talk and he could not breathe”, according to a police officer quoted in the Baltimore Sun report. It was only then that police called medics who transferred him to hospital. Doctors determined that Gray had three fractured vertebrae and a damaged larynx, his spinal cord 80 per cent severed at his neck. Gray died of his injuries a week later on April 19.


“No Justice, No Peace” has echoed through the streets as thousands of people have protested Gray’s death. Protest marches on April 25 and walk-outs of students on April 27 were followed by what some call rioting, others unrest or rebellion. Officials and mainstream news coverage have decried property destruction, including burning of police cars, and theft.

 It is telling that there is no comprehensive data on homicides by police in the US

Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, declared that “violence will not be tolerated” and the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, called city residents “lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets” before declaring a state of emergency, suspending habeas corpus, implementing a 10pm curfew, and deploying National Guard troops.

Crisis over policing

Gray’s death at the hands of the police was the latest to provoke protest. Natalie Finegar, the deputy district public defender said that it was a “daily occurrence” for her clients to describe some sort of mishandling by the police. These range from “jump outs” where officers spring from patrol cars and shake down a suspect, to serious assaults. The city of Baltimore has paid out more than $5.7m in undue force lawsuits between 2008 and 2011.

According to Baltimore resident Kane Mayfield the conflict has:

been mis-characterised pretty much by mainstream sensationalists who come down here to soak up the angel dust of civil unrest and sell it to white America. It’s fun. I get it. You know? Look at them. Black rage. It’s nice.

But property destruction is not equivalent to death – particularly in a context where so many black people are killed and harmed by police with near impunity. It is telling that there is no comprehensive data on homicides by police in the US. A partial snapshot from recent FBI data reveals a white police officer killed a black person in a “justifiable homicide” about twice a week between 2005-2012.

Mothers from around the country protest against police brutality in Washington DC. Image: Getty.

The protests communicate a crisis over policing in the United States. A cycle of renewed dissent against state racial violence has become increasingly visible since July 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “Black Lives Matter”, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Shut It Down” have become protest slogans after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.

Stop-and-search

Across the Atlantic, “No Justice, No Peace“ was also the cry of protesters gathered to hear a verdict of "lawful killing” in the case of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in London, 2011.

Duggan’s death sparked the most extensive riots in recent British history. As with recent events in the US, the English summer riots of 2011 raised serious concerns about policing within inner-city communities. The findings of the 2011 Guardian-LSE research project, Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder, suggested that the riots were motivated by a sense of “poverty, injustice and a visceral hatred of the police”. Some 73 per cent of people they interviewed said they had been stopped and searched by the police at least once in the previous year.

Time and again, anger over perceived misuse of “stop-and-search” has been one of the causes of rioting in Britain. In 1981, riots in Brixton sparked three months of rioting by black, Asian and white youths across most of the country’s inner-cities. The Brixton uprising was triggered by Operation Swamp 81, which saw the police employ ancient vagrancy legislation, called “sus laws” (suspected person) laws’, in a mass stop-and-search operation.

The Scarman Report into the causes of the 1981 riots stated that the black population of Brixton had been subject to “disproportionate and indiscriminate” policing. Sus laws were repealed yet stop-and-search substantially increased.

Fifty years since the civil rights movement, austerity and welfare retrenchment has created even deeper divides.

An estimated 1m stop and searches are carried out in the UK each year and in 2009-2010, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission: “Black people were stopped 23.5 times more frequently than white people and Asian people 4.5 times more frequently.

In 2014, a revised code of conduct on stop-and-search was introduced; recent figures show a 12 per cent reduction, but more radical reform is required.

Race to the bottom

Stop-and-search is a day-to-day expression of violent relationships between police and communities. People interviewed by StopWatch detail the enduring stigma created by these policing practices. Police harassment of black citizens communicates authoritative messages about the place of ethnic minorities in society.

Racial discrimination intersects with other inequalities: poverty, rising economic inequality (between the richest and the poorest and between ethnic groups), joblessness (in 2012 the unemployment rate for black youths in the UK was 55.9 per cent, double that of their white peers), high levels of incarceration, inadequate housing, unequal access to education and healthcare.

Fifty years since the civil rights movement and the ostensible end of state-sanctioned discrimination, austerity and welfare retrenchment has created even deeper divides. A recent special issue of Feminist Review on the politics of austerity details the multiple ways in which “divides of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class” are intensifying. The UK and US are relying on the same forms of policing to resolve the resulting economic and political conflicts. Racial and economic inequality fuelled the riots in London 2011 and the same thing has sparked the unrest we see in Baltimore and other US cities today.

The Conversation

Imogen Tyler is Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University.
Jenna Loyd is Assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.