Black Lives Matter. With one short phrase I probably caused you to have some kind of emotional response. The truth is that our country will never be the same because of this phrase and the movement that it represents. I have spent the better part of 2 years trying to learn as much as I can from my friends and acquaintances who work for racial justice in Denver. What has this felt like for me? In the words of a friend of mine:
I’m standing at the fire hose with my dixie cup.
One of the phrases I caught in that dixie cup was, “For Profit Policing”. It caught my attention, but I wasn’t really aware of what it was pointing toward. I suppose that can be said of so much of what I’ve learned. As a white man, it catches my attention,but I have no experiential container to put it in, so it takes me a while–like over a year–to finally even begin to “get it”. About a month ago something clicked. I heard the phrase “For Profit Policing” and I immediately remembered my time as a sales person at a retail store on the 16th Street Mall in Denver.
I don’t claim to be the most noble person alive, but I think most of the people who know me would describe me as a “good person”. That’s important to say at the beginning of this story.
The store I worked at sold many things, but the biggest money maker for the company, and also for myself through sales commission, was cell phones–specifically cell phones that came with the activation of a 2 year contract. I went through the company training. I learned far more about sales tactics than helpful information about the phones I was trying to sell, to be honest. Then I was unleashed. I feel slimy even remembering the way I tried to convince my customers I knew what I was talking about. My ultimate aim was to manipulate them into believing that I was an expert and that they really wanted this phone. No, not the pre-paid one. That one’s bad. The contract phone is the way to go!
After a few weeks of trying to sell phones, largely unsuccessfully, I began to make some “helpful” observations. The people who were most likely businessmen and women, who appeared to be wealthier, and who seemed to be well educated, were very difficult to sell to. They were far more likely to ask questions that would stump me. They would easily catch on to my tactics and call me out on them. In short, they were far less likely to pull the trigger and give me that coveted commission.
On the other hand, those who seemed to be poor and less educated offered far less resistance. They seemed to actually buy into the ruse that I was the “cell phone expert”. They asked far fewer questions. They were often swept away by my sales tactics. In short, they were far more likely to sign that 2 year agreement.
My supervisors were happy with me. My paycheck made me happy. I kept doing it. I targeted the folks who I had discovered were far more likely to give me the sales numbers, all the while having to force down the suspicion that they might not completely understand what they were getting themselves into. I often suspected that they would eventually default on their bills and end up with terrible cancellation fees and most likely a decent hit to their credit score. Still, I did it anyway. In the system of my company, it was all about the numbers.
That’s the story that comes to mind today when I hear the phrase “For Profit Policing”. Did you know that police departments across the country are expected to bring in money? And it’s not usually a percentage of all fines, fees, and forfeitures. There is often a budgeted amount that they are expected to bring in. That’s right. Before the year even begins our police departments are given sales goals.
This reality was one of those “Ah, I see” moments for me. One of the primary complaints coming from poor and minority communities is the sheer number of times they get pulled over for painfully minor traffic violations. Things like a license plate that is improperly displayed, dice hanging from the rear view mirror, failure to signal a turn, etc. Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during one such stop, had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years–most of the time for minor violations, according to public record. Another complaint is how often those minor violations result in searches as the officer is suspecting the presence of drugs or weapons, violations that would result in hefty fines paid to the city or county.
Is it possible that vulnerable communities bear the largest part of this burden for the same reason that the most vulnerable people bore the largest part of my sales efforts? Are they perceived to be the least likely (or able) to resist–less likely to seek legal retribution?
One element of the phrase “For Profit Policing” stands out to me: It acknowledges that the individual officers aren’t necessarily the problem. The decision to expect police departments to be the one branch of public servant that brings in a revenue puts the officers in a difficult situation. If they resist the system that so often leads to the oppression of the most vulnerable, they could be seen as under performing in the same way that I would have been had I refused the “easy sale”. In this way it becomes clear that the well being of one truly is the well being of the other. We are not as disconnected as it often seems.
Black Lives Matter. If your immediate response is to shut down, resist the urge. Listen. It might feel overwhelming, but whatever you are able to catch in that dixie cup might just change everything.