No, the Response to Police Violence is not “Hire More Women”

Source: CNN

Listen. Please, CNN. 

The concept that to reform an institution that has a history of systemic racism, sexism, and classism is to add in more “diversity hires” is not the answer. 

The answer is to dismantle the institution. Not reform, not more trainings, not more money—and no, not hire more women. 

I have one name that can counter your argument that women de-escalate: Botham Jean. Well I have one name and an explosion in cases of police brutality where women have entered the police force to counter arguments that an increase to women’s participation would decrease police violence. 

Botham Jean was murdered by off-duty police officer Amber Guyger, after Guyger entered the wrong apartment and shot Jean in his own home. Where was the de-escalation? Where was the communication? There was none. 

To argue that the gender disparity within the police force contributes to the rise in police brutality (or, maybe a gender equal police force would lower instances of police violence), is not valid given the current climate on the excess in militarization of the police. Let’s also look into the essentialist notion that women are more socialized towards gentleness, compassion, and de-escalation with more gendered understandings of why women are not counted in police killings, reported in police violence statistics, or even reprimanded by the police force when excessive use of force is being reported. 

For every police force that has worked to close the gender gap for police officers, there are stories circulating around the country of excessive use of force, violence, and pepper spraying of protestors who are fighting to end the killings of Black people. 

In New York, videos have surfaced of police cars driving into protestors, pepper spraying people and arresting people who are working during curfew without a second thought after protests erupting in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

In Chicago, hailed for the second largest inclusion rate of women in the force, police were photographed spraying pepper spray on protestors on State Street, were accused of beating and slamming protestors to the ground after police began use of excessive force on peaceful protestors. Accusations also arose of them targeting darker skinned protestor, Malcolm London, chasing him and beating him with batons before charging him with aggravated battery. 

Detroit police officers are among the deadliest in the United States, leading the nation in the rate of fatal shootings by police. That rate Is 2 ½ times higher than New York’s rate and 1 ½ times Los Angeles’. An officer in Detroit was suspended for brutalizing a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest. 

These are only a few instances where correlation does not imply causation. Just because women are being hired into police forces, it does not mean that instances of force will decrease. Los Angeles has been notorious for instigating violence against anyone on the street during protests, most notably by hitting an unhoused man in the eye with a rubber bullet as a protest passed him. 

Source: 7 News

How could women be represented in such low statistics of police violence? Maybe it has to do with a combination of factors, including the gendered aspect of policing as well as survivors and victims being unwilling to come forward regarding their brutalization. Maybe it’s from the unwillingness of the department to investigate women police officers, because as the article ascertained, “Women generally tend to be socialized to talk rather than shout, negotiate rather than bully and empathize rather than order”. When we think that women are still gentle and all around harmless, the idea that they have hurt someone might not even warrant an investigation. 

And let us not forget, that “every person is different”. Women are not a monolith that are socialized to behave kindly and only with love; that is a form of liberal feminist jargon that argues the world can change if every part of public institutions is 50% women. White women all over this country have taken it upon themselves to police the very behavior of Black people and limit their access to the public safely. In that instance, they are not the empathetic, gentle ear that can de-escalate a situation (especially one that they started).

No, women did not invent de-escalation. 

Nor should the police, in all their forms and all their genders, be an operation for community care and healing. The everyday policing should not be, “About social services: domestic violence cases, dealing with people’s mental health problems, getting victims to open up, negotiating”. That is because police were never meant to be these things. They were never meant to help people with mental illness, they were never trained for social services, if they were even trained properly at all. The history of the police force, again, is a history of violent repression of Black people and laborers attempting to fight for better working conditions. They are the arms of the state to control the masses, to suppress any insurrection against the brutality of society. We have continued to fund and militarize police and then act surprised when they commit the acts that they have been sanctioned to use.

As liberals continue their call for reform, the liberal feminist mindset will be “We’ll be safe with women police.” The ultimate co-option will be reform that puts women in the police force at 50% and then call it a success even as police continue brutalizing protestors. 

Defunding the police is the aim; abolition is the goal. There should not be the closing of the gender gap of police because there should not be police to begin with. They are vestiges of an old world that just will not die. 

We need to reimagine who will be taking over social services because it should not be police; should not be policemen, should not be policewomen, should not be gay police, should not be straight police, should not be trans police, should not be police. Abolitionists have already imagined this world for us, and it is about time we listened

We do not need to reform the police: we need to abolish them. 

From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal. Who cares?

“In the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women serve three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. Women prisoners’ self harm is neither epidemic nor outbreak. It’s life. It’s part of the harm of being a woman in a neoliberal political economy. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, said as much in March, 2007. Behind the Corston Commission Report sits HMP Styal, `one of the largest women’s prisons’ in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal … That was then. This is now. February 27, 2009:  `The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal in January last year, asked: `How many more women have to die before something is done?’” That was then, ten years ago, to the day. This is today: From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal: Nicola Birchall, 41, February 2018; Imogen Mellor, 29, June 2018; Christine MacDonald, 56, March 2019; Susan Knowles, 48, May 2019. None of the deaths was treated as suspicious. BBC News reports, “The latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report, in May 2018, was positive.” 

Here is what “positive” looks like: “95% of women said that they had problems on arrival. 53% said they had a problem with illicit drugs on arrival and 27% had an alcohol problem. 72% reported having a mental health problem. There were 735 incidents of self-harm in the six months to March 2018. Four women were transferred under the Mental Health Act in the six months to March 2018. 65% of women released who were not on home detention curfew did not have sustainable accommodation. Some women had been in and out of custody up to 11 times in 12 months.” Positive.

According to the most recent Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales, the general picture for incarcerated women, including remand prisoners, is equally grim: “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender, with a rate of 570 incidents per 1,000 in male establishments (with incidents up 25% on the previous year) compared to a rate of 2,675 per 1,000 in female establishments (an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year). In the 12 months to December 2018, the number of self-harm incidents per self-harming prisoner was 4.0 for males, and 8.3 for females, increases from 3.5 and 7.0 respectively in 2017.” The majority of self-harm happens to those who have been in custody 31 days to 3 months. 

The latest Inspectorate report on HMP Styal was positive concerning the prison’s attempt to follow recommendations from earlier reports, but the situation remains dire, and that’s the point. The individual deaths of Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles are suspicious, as are the high rates of self-harm. 

In 2007, Baroness Corston noted, “There are many women in prison, either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences, for whom prison is both disproportionate and inappropriate. Many of them suffer poor physical and mental health or substance abuse or had chaotic childhoods. Many have been in care … I have been dismayed at the high prevalence of institutional misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of the things that matter to women and at the shocking level of unmet need … There can be few topics that have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system.”

That was 2007, sparked by conditions in HMP Styal. It’s 2019, and still few topics have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system. Every death, injury, harm, unmet need, vulnerability is suspicious and should be treated as such. What happened to Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles? Nothing. There is nothing celebrate here.

(No More Prison)

“Why can’t I quit you?”

In March, the Metro Police Department had a minor publicity issue when one of its own was arrested in an anti-prostitution sting targeting clients.  Officer Robert A. Schmidt was charged with solicitation after agreeing to pay an undercover female officer $80 for sex.  Solicitation is a misdemeanor in the District, however, solicitation tends to be treated completely differently within both the police department and the courts.   Like in most other U.S. cities with anti-john laws, D.C. still tends to focus most of its resources on policing the sex workers themselves.  Since most workers are woman-identified, these sort of tactics have been declared to be discriminatory on a few select occasions, though not most.  Women are the largest group arrested on charges of prostitution with transgender workers being the second largest groups.  Male workers and clients only make up about 2-3 arrests per night.  In recent years, a few U.S. cities, most notably San Francisco, have instituted reforms targeting clients in order to cut off demand for sex work altogether.  In Sweden, authorities have even gone so far as to decriminalize sex work itself, while criminalizing the act of solicitation.  The intent, however, remains the same: abolition.  Even when tactics target male clients and not workers explicitly, abolition still sends the statement that sex work is wrong and inherently exploitative; workers are victims worthy of pity rather than a safe and fair wage.

With the intent of seeming more even handed in enforcing the law against engaging in and soliciting prostitution, D.C. utilizes “rehabilitation” programs for individuals charged as clients of prostitution called “john schools” as a means of teach clients about the ‘inherent’ harms of prostitution like “crime, fear, and health disorders”. School is one day long and consists of testimony from “a psychologist, survivors of prostitution, prosecutors, police, health professionals, local residents, and business owners”.  The finger is pointed at these clients instead of pimps, police, and other abusers; it also virtually ignores systems, which not only perpetuate the practice but make it dangerous. These schools, with a fine, are offered in lieu of the typical penalties for first time offenders.  Officer Schmidt’s charge was dismissed after he completed “john school” and his record is clean.  It is a safe bet that workers arrested that same night had a different experience.

Despite the fact that the law itself is written indiscriminately, policing practices and the ability to expunge one’s record and avoid jail time through “john schools” signify that anti-prostitution policy remains discriminatory in practice.  Authorities have acknowledged a legitimate interest in keeping clients, especially middle-class white men, out of jail and their records clean, yet, the state seems disinterested in considering that the lives of workers would also be improved by not having convictions, police harassment or their daily lives disrupted by jail time or fines.  The practice of the law quite literally values the lives of men over women.  Low arrest rates of clients, likewise, means that there are generally low recidivism rates compared to workers and recidivism often leads to harsher sentencing.  Workers who are unable to pay increasingly high fines are more likely to spend as many as 180 days in jail.  Street workers often come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and often are parents or are supporting others.  The criminal justice system tries to see these individuals apart from their relationship to the larger community and fails to acknowledge that jail time is an unpaid absence from work.  It’s a loss of income for the worker and often for their families that is further complicated by court fees and fines, which require them to work more.  Separation from family, especially children, has problematic short and long-term complications. Children whose parents serve time in prison are often left vulnerable to higher incidences of abuse, neglect and rape; if unable to stay with extended family they are placed in state care not because their parents are necessarily unfit but because they were working.  How can advocates of criminalization claim that these practices are in the best interest of women?

Imprisonment is especially complicated in regards to transgender workers, a group, which has been disproportionately targeted for harassment and arrest in D.C.  With the passage of the amendment adding gender identity and expression to the D.C. Human Rights Act in 2007, the Department of Corrections has had to change its intake and housing policy.  Previously there was no system in place to change a person’s gender in the criminal records database, even if they had undergone transitional surgery and/or had their name and gender legally changed.  This caused many women to be automatically placed into holding cells with males and led to high incidences of sexual assault.  The new policy ostensibly would allow for transgender persons to be housed in either the general population or protective custody of the gender they are deemed by the Transgender Committee. Transgender inmates must also be allowed access to hormone treatment under the new policy even if they had not started prior to arrest.  The new policy also requires strict nondiscrimination.  It has yet to be seen, however, how the policy will be carried out and though seemingly benign, the daily reality of imprisonment poses its own dangers.  Genitalia are still the primary indicator used for determining housing and it is unlikely that many transwomen would be housed with biological women or that they would even choose to be.  Likewise, protective custody is simply euphemistic for solitary confinement; these inmates are placed in single-person cells and only given two hours outside of these cells a day to shower and exercise.  Because of this, few knowingly choose protective custody even when they fear violence among the general population.  Transgender men and women are not passive victims of a system which hasn’t yet ‘caught up’, but they have been targets of a system which bent on eliminating them.  Disproportionate and violent targeting of transgender workers, as well as all woman-identified workers, sends precisely the signal it intends: abolition.

(Image Credit: DC Trans Coalition)