There are 79 towns in Connecticut which don’t have municipal police departments. Over half a million Connecticut residents live in towns which either have no dedicated police presence or are serviced by a small cohort of state troopers.
Then there are some cities and towns, like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, that are heavily policed. Cruisers dot the landscape like measles. Beat cops patrol neighborhoods at all hours of the day and surveillance, particularly of poor, Black and Latinx neighborhoods, is constant.
This is such a widely accepted pattern that we rarely stop to think: why? Why is it that New Haven demands such a heavier police presence than Darien? The standard, culturally embedded answer is that these cities have more “crime,” and that therefore they must be policed. But most people would agree that there is nothing inherently criminal about the residents of New Haven. When a person in New Haven is born, they’re not immediately more prone to larceny or assault.
If you do believe criminality is an inherent trait, by proxy, you believe that Black and Latinx communities are inherently criminal, as they are disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails. This is a fundamentally racist worldview.
If criminality isn’t inherent, that must mean it is a product of social conditions. The root cause of most “crime” is desperation, which is in turn caused by systemic, generational poverty. Cities, like New Haven, that have more “crime” are also cities with high rates of poverty. “Crime” that is not necessarily rooted in desperation, like sexual assault, can still be traced to fixable social problems. In the case of sexual assault, the problem is deeply rooted patriarchy which teaches men predatory behavior. These are difficult problems to deal with, but they are also problems which the police do nothing to address.
But those in power, by imposing unequal patterns of policing, do imply that there are certain populations which are naturally criminal, and therefore must be policed, controlled and contained, rather than provided with the social services that would solve underlying social problems. While it is tempting to reduce this unequal governance to individual bias, it is more accurate to trace these racialized ideas of criminality through their history.
Criminality is a socially constructed idea, and what is considered a “crime” is almost always driven by a social goal, which is almost always racialized. After the Civil War ended slavery, states were quick to create black codes, which targeted formerly-enslaved Black communities for “crimes” such as vagrancy. The newly-freed Black population quickly became a newly-incarcerated population, forced to work for free once again. Legal segregation and Jim Crow laws criminalized being Black in America. The war on drugs was a means of incarcerating Black communities (Nixon, and other politicians, stated as much in private). On and on and on.
It’s also important to distinguish between the idea of harm and our socially constructed idea of “crime.” We often associate crime with harm, but these two ideas are distinct. There are many actions which are both not harmful and criminalized, like sleeping on a park bench or sex work. There are also many actions which are harmful and not criminalized, like a landlord evicting a tenant in the middle of a pandemic or a CEO stealing the value his workers produce.
In Connecticut, essentially all of our legislators accept the culturally dominant and deeply racist narrative that certain populations are criminal and need to be policed, while other populations do not. This pattern of policing is a violent imposition on Black and Latinx communities. Jayson Negron, Mubarak Soulemane and Anthony Jose “Chulo” Vega Cruz are just a few victims of this imposition.
Organizers’ calls to defund the police are a recognition of this racist and ineffective pattern of policing. If we want to build strong, healthy communities, we need to invest in the root causes of harm — like lack of housing, unaffordable healthcare, low wages, unemployment, poor public transportation, low-quality education, unaddressed mental illness, generational trauma and embedded cultural norms.
Defunding and abolishing the police is not rooted in a desire to sow chaos or leave our communities vulnerable to violence, as so many detractors claim. We want to invest in fostering community, building accountability and preventing harm before it occurs. As the abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore says: “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”
Harry Zehner is a writer, student, researcher and organizer in New Haven.