Two very important announcements came from Attorney General Eric J. Holder today and yesterday: he has called for better data and tracking on police violence, and has stopped local and state police from practicing civil asset forfeiture, a practice by which money and property could be seized from citizens even if they had never been (and never would be) accused of a crime.
Civil asset forfeiture was the topic of an extensive investigation by the Washington Post which discovered that “Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion.” The seizures were often performed on highway drivers, and didn’t require a warrant or being charged with any crime; police departments were able to keep up to 80% of what they seized, creating a lucrative backdoor revenue stream for police departments that created an appealing incentive to seize cash and property from citizens indiscriminately. If the original owners of the property wanted to get it back, they often needed to incur costly legal fees and battle the police department in court.
For those who questioned how and why police departments across the nation were in possession of military-grade weapons and vehicles during protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, this practice may provide a partial answer: information from the Justice Department acquired via Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that some police departments were using the money gained from civil asset forfeiture to purchase “high-powered weapons and military-grade gear such as armored cars.” While some have criticized the move by Holder by arguing that “depriving departments of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures will hurt legitimate efforts to fight crime, drug smuggling and terrorism,” the long, painful history of the War on Drugs (which often amounts to a war on poor Black and brown people) and the violent police response to the #BlackLivesMatter protests illustrate that it’s difficult to separate the “legitimate” work of police departments from work that’s merely in the interests of the state.
In Holder’s other statement — a call for greater transparency and better reporting on deaths of both civilians and police in violent altercations — didn’t come with a specific initiative or commitment, but is still the most direct acknowledgement from a federal official that a productive conversation on police violence is being seriously hindered by a lack of reliable reporting. From the Washington Post:
“The troubling reality is that we lack the ability right now to comprehensively track the number of incidents of either uses of force directed at police officers or uses of force by police,” Holder said Thursday morning at a ceremony honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., according to his prepared remarks. “This strikes many — including me — as unacceptable.”
It’s unclear if or when a solution to this problem will be enacted, especially since Holder has already announced his plans to resign. The President of the Fraternal Order of Police has similarly called on Congress to create a program to facilitate the reporting of this data, but given Congress’s track record on getting things accomplished for the past few years, that may not be a realistic expectation. It’s also unclear to what extent any kind of reporting program would have to rely upon cooperation by police departments, which are not often enthusiastic about transparency.
Also in heartening news, New York City officials have come together on a plan to change the use of solitary confinement for inmates 21 years and under at Rikers Island prison. The negative effects of solitary confinement are well-documented, from exacerbating mental illness, including suicidal feelings, to causing “social atrophy” that “obliterates” an incarcerated person’s ability to function in a community after incarceration. Young people are considered especially at risk for these harmful effects, since their brains are often still developing. It’s especially alarming that many of the people experiencing solitary confinement haven’t even been convicted of a crime, and are merely awaiting trial.
“The majority of inmates in the 18- to 21-year-old cohort are young men of color whom we presume innocent under our laws because they are awaiting trial,” said Bryanne Hamill, one of the board’s strongest voices for eliminating solitary for young inmates. “The evidence showed that solitary confinement will not improve their future behavior, but will reliably convert anger and frustration today into rage and violence tomorrow.”
The president of the correction officer’s union appears to believe that this measure will lead to increased danger for correction officers, and has “vowed to sue the board for every guard assaulted.”
The use of solitary confinement for 16-17 year olds was already eliminated at Rikers; with the new rules, incarcerated people between the ages of 18 and 21 can only be sentenced to a maximum of 30 days in solitary confinement, rather than the previous 90.
None of these steps towards reform of the justice system are as powerful as they could be — civil asset forfeiture is only one of many ways in which individual citizens are victimized by law enforcement, a functioning system for transparency around police violence is still a long ways off, and changes to the solitary confinement policies are really only a drop in the bucket when it comes to the changes that are necessary for safe and humane conditions at Rikers and other American prisons. Ultimately, the changes that need to occur in systems of justice in the US are much more fundamental, ensuring that the state doesn’t profit both economically and politically from institutional violence and mass incarceration. But these reforms will still be meaningful to many individuals, and some of the many steps needed toward a cultural and institutional shift.