How America became over-policed and under-policed at the same time

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, American cities are grappling with the role of law enforcement as never before. Calls to “defund the police” are heard from protests across the country, especially as an increasingly bleak fiscal situation forces dramatic cuts across municipal budgets. 

As the United States reconsiders the role of the police, policymakers would do well to read Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by former Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. This 2015 book highlights a bleak irony of U.S. cities, which Leovy witnessed up close: Black communities are simultaneously under- and over-policed. 

As Leovy notes, Black men represent 40% of America’s homicide victims but only 6% of its total population. The United States government has functionally failed to extend state protection equally to all of its citizens. This cardinal failure of the criminal justice system, and American governance generally, means that residents turn to alternative forms of justice. Mixed with an abundance of firearms, the result is a plague of violence. 

 “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder,” writes Leovy.  “It hauls masses of Black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

Ghettoside was published amid the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, at the beginning of our current reckoning with policing in America. As the movement picks up again five years later, CityMetric spoke with Leovy about the American state’s failed monopoly of violence and why cash assistance should be a part of the answer.

Your book is about how American police have failed to deliver, especially for Black Americans. I want to start by asking you to describe the central argument of Ghettoside. How can Black communities be simultaneously over- and under-policed? 

I can remember the moment when I crafted that sentence in the book about over enforcement and under enforcement. I was reading Josh Sides’s history of African Americans in Los Angeles and he was summing up the nature of complaints in the early 20th century, which was always either that policing was inadequate or overzealous. I remember reading that sentence over and over and it suddenly hit me that those things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they're complementary. A lot of historical reading helped me refine that idea, that the severity of punishment and lack of control are actually things that go together.

Violence is very difficult to mount an enforcement response to. It's expensive, it requires lots of institutional chops, lots of different elements of the system have to come together. It is difficult because it is all about process and, in some ways, the public never quite sees or appreciates that. But what you're looking for is not an outcome, what you're looking for is a process that works.

When I'm trying to keep it simple, I say violence is the keystone of an arch. If you are building law, enforcement of violence is right at the centre. There's not a lot of violence. It's a marginal area of police activity to investigate these crimes. But if you don't do it, if you let the violence get away from you, and there's no state response to violent actors, then everything else is tainted by that. It undermines the whole structure.

Murder rates in Black communities have been higher than in white neighbourhoods since homicide rates were measured. How is that tied into this larger picture of systemic racism and white supremacy? 

I think the post-Civil War period really matters. The kind of homicide pattern that emerged out of the Civil War, and the decades afterwards, looks a lot like the environments of insurgency and sectarian violence that simmer for long periods after civil wars in other places in the world. It is a very typical high-homicide environment, with a divided state and an unresolved political schism. 

Baghdad in 2005 is very similar, in some ways, to reconstruction in the South. The post-Civil War environment is a homicide machine. That's somewhat distant history, although not that distant. I met people in the '90s, when I was reporting in South Los Angeles, who actually were part of the rough edge of the sharecropping system when they were children in the South. It's not that far away. 

Then I think residential segregation is central to all this. It takes away something that might have changed things for a lot of Black Americans: mobility. That's something more affluent people use all the time. That's what suburbs are. Suburbs are moving away from the neighbourhood you don't want to be in, moving away from crime. Suburbanization has been so successful for some people in the U.S. that they can't even relate to having homicides in the neighbourhood, or even a lot of police.

Your research about the Jim Crow South was really telling. The state would come down really hard on Black men for theft, vagrancy or other minor crimes. But then if they killed another Black man, it basically wasn't investigated. Still, you reference Gunnar Myrdal’s study of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and note that he found Black communities even in that context said they wanted more police presence to protect them from violent crime. Essentially, they wanted the kind of police presence white people could expect in their neighbourhoods. 

The point is it's a criminal justice system that completely lacks any legitimacy for a lot of people. Then they came to Los Angeles in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The question is what was done to create legitimacy then? I don't think you can find answers in the places that matter, like responding to the murders of Black men. 

It's not necessarily for the same reasons as the Jim Crow South. One of the things that happens late in the 20th century is police departments are just completely overwhelmed, the courts are overwhelmed. The system was so overwhelmed and so inadequate against that tidal wave of violence in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, that there were actually murder cases filed in which the victims weren't dead. They lost track of things to that extent, that is how dysfunctional that system was. 

Another idea in Ghettoside is the idea of proactive versus reactive policing. Even today there's this idea that proactive is better than reactive. I think it came from the public health movements that were evolving at the same time that police were developing in the U.S. But crime is not like germs. Being proactive does not have the same effect. You're talking about human beings, committing acts. Instead, it's very important that the weight of the system be reactive, responding to what has happened in the real world and not what you've guessed might happen. 

What it does when you're effectively reactive is that the system is responding to people being hurt and killed. You get pretty broad support from the public when you're investigating a murder. Not necessarily cooperation, but the idea of it makes sense to a lot of people. That is a much stronger foundation to build law on than saying, “well, you looked like you were up to something, that's why I patted you down.”  

If policy makers were to refocus law enforcement on solving murders, what would that look like? Do we know how to increase clearance rates? And are there any changes that can be made beyond reducing the workload of each homicide detective, so they have more time to focus on each particular case?

There's a lot of problems here, but one of [the answers is that detectives should have] five cases a year and not 10 or 20. Then witnesses are hugely, hugely important. There's not a lot of focus on them, there aren't a lot of academic studies. But people are extremely afraid to testify, which I think is quite understandable, and that should be looked at more.

As with all policing, who you choose to do the job and their qualifications are very, very important. But the pressure on the other side is you don't want excessive zeal, because there is constitutional due process. You want to get the right people and you want good cases that are clean and legal. You never want to say to detectives, “you gotta solve all your cases this year.” That's how you get another whole set of problems. 

What do you make of the current call to defund the police?

I certainly hope that crime victims are seated in the process. They are a stakeholder group that does not have a loud voice. People think they do because there's this offshoot “victims rights” movement that crops up from time to time. But really, people who live in the kind of police divisions that I covered – whose sons, brothers and husbands were shot – they were not very present at the city-level debates about the police department. But those people who are hurt by crimes suffer a lot. They suffer and suffer and I hope they're not forgotten. Any alternative should take their suffering into account. 

There's a really interesting part at the end of your book where you write about seeing the greater availability of cash benefits in the form of the Supplemental Security Income program, which was tweaked in 2005 to help recently released prisoners gain access to it, allowing some low-income single men to get cash aid. You argue that social welfare systems of that nature are a means for the state to intervene in a way that liberates people, at least to some extent, from the underground economy. 

That's a huge part of my thinking and a huge part of what Ghettoside is getting at. I think that autonomy is very important. And I think one of the unseen tragedies of American life is the way that some men are coerced and trapped into criminality that they don't have a strong inclination to be part of. It's life-ruining, of course.

The year I wrote the Homicide Report blog for the L.A. Times, I had at least two teenagers who were murdered because they refused to join local gangs in their neighbourhood. There's a kind of desperation that forces people to seek recourse in informal horizontal economic relations. In the 77th Division, where I was, single men who didn't have dependents didn't get any welfare. They had no money. Especially people out of prison, they didn't have jobs, they were desperate to survive. They didn't have places to live, they were staying with people and couch hopping.

That is not a situation that's going to work against the forces of the underground economy. It's a situation that encourages people to clique up horizontally. And it encourages disputes. On a practical level, I think that if people were more autonomous and had to rely less on cliquing up or forging economic ties horizontally, that it would result in fewer disputes and less crime.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.