Policing for Profit: How the Poor Are Being Robbed by the Politicization of Justice

In the last few decades, a vast expansion of federal criminal law in the United States now means that the police have power to formally charge innocent people for doing everyday activities. Most of us feel relatively secure in that we aren’t criminals, but through the politicization of justice, everyday citizens are now being targeted by the state.

According to James Rickards in his book The Road to Ruin, paramilitary style police raids in the United States went from 3,000 to 45,000 annually between 1980 and 2001. That’s over 100 raids per day across the United States in 2001.

The growth of police power in the United States isn’t just limited to raids. People in poor neighborhoods get targeted on the streets, and end up paying fines that essentially tax the poor to meet revenue targets outlined by the city. In neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York – where almost half the population is African-American – police patrol the streets to stop and search anyone that “fits the description”. This even happens to people that are walking the twenty yards from their car to their apartment after work, or people that are smoking a cigarette on their porch.

Poverty-stricken citizens have been known to be arrested, strip-searched, and then charged with crimes such as “obstructing pedestrian traffic” (on an otherwise empty street). Although unconstitutional, police deliberately choose poor neighborhoods because their victims don’t have the option to pay $1000 for a lawyer and take the time off work and find the transport to go to court to seek justice. Instead, their hand is forced to pay a $500 fine and accept a criminal record that harms their job prospects.

So why are the police doing this? In recent times, the United States has had a problem with the amount of sovereign debt they are taking on, and cities are running on budget deficits too. The police in the cities are therefore tasked to generate revenue from the poor. They’re even incentivized and rewarded, and competitions are held for officers to try to generate the most revenue.

Police in the United States also have the ability to seize assets after an arrest before conviction. Even if proven innocent, the accused often do not have the resources to fight to get their assets back. The assets get shared out among people involved in the investigation to boost revenue in resource-limited localities. Highway patrol effectively enact a state-sanctioned highway robbery.

Not only is there obvious cost to the poor, there can be a cost to police too. Violence against officers is much more likely when people know that the police are effectively corrupt and unconstitutional. The reports of police brutality in the United States don’t seem to be going away any time soon either.

It’s hugely disconcerting to know that the state has the power to formally charge anyone they wish to – we are all effectively felons. The ever-increasing surveillance state has been demonstrated by people like Edward Snowden, a whistleblower that worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. The government are able to collect data from social media websites, the NFC and GPS on your cell phones, CCTV with facial recognition and even toll booths you have driven through. The digitization we have experienced in our lifetimes means that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. The only question is whether your time has come yet.

How the CIA’s Collective Blindness Led to 9/11

On 11th September 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack of human history occurred as two passenger planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in New York. Two other passenger planes were hijacked – one ended up crashing into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and the other crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers courageously banded together to thwart the hijackers.

After the devastating events – which resulted in 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injured – an inquest blamed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for not seeing the warning signs that now seemed so obvious in hindsight.

Firstly, Osama Bin Laden had declared war on the United States as early as 1996, and reiterated this in 1998. Murmurings of airplanes being used as weapons had been circulating for around a decade. Al Qaeda was becoming more violent and gaining power in other areas of the world. An FBI analyst had even sent an email to colleagues warning that Bin Laden had been funding students to go to civil aviation colleges in the US. The students had been asking about flight patterns around New York, and how cockpit doors worked.

Historically, the CIA were notorious for hiring very similar types of people – white, male, middle or upper class, Protestant. Through the decades leading up to 9/11, homosexuals had been banned from working for the CIA and African-Americans were very rarely hired. The CIA even had lawsuits filed against them for discriminating against women. A Muslim CIA employee was just a pipe dream.

The CIA explained that they were hiring the best people – the best people just happened to be white males of a certain type. They argued that the best relay sprint teams simply choose the fastest runners, no matter their skin color, race or religion. It turns out that the way the tests and interviews were designed actually made it harder for more eccentric types of people to score well in the hiring process. The phenomenon is known as homophily, where people are more attracted to others that are similar to themselves.

So what’s wrong with hiring an extremely skilled team that are very similar in background? It’s because demographic diversity such as social class, religion, level of education etc. often leads to cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity is how wide-ranging the level of ideas and thoughts are in a group. The more wide-ranging the ideas are in a group, the fewer the blind spots and the likelier complex problems will be solved through a larger ‘collective brain’.

The lack of understanding from the CIA about Islam in the lead up to 9/11 is there for all to see. When Bin Laden released videos from a cave in Afghanistan wearing a simple robe and a beard down to his chest, he was not taken seriously whatsoever. To the Western world, he was the essence of backwardness.

In reality, Bin Laden was modelling the Prophet Mohammad, who had visions of the Koran in a mountain cave. Bin Laden fasted on the same days that Mohammad fasted, copied the same postures and struck up imagery that resonated with the Islamic world. He recited poetry, considered to be holy by Muslims. Bin Laden was conjuring up supporters at an alarming rate.

The homogeneity of the CIA gave them gigantic blind spots that would have been brought to light had they focused on more diverse recruitment, in particular of Muslims. The CIA have since began diversifying their workforce.

Until I read this story, I didn’t see the importance of diversity in the workplace. It was in fact a blind spot of my own. Reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed gave me a new compelling insight that shows how important cognitive diversity is in many different applications.