The summer of 2020 brought wider-spread attention to the brutally oppressive nature of policing in Black communities in America. Despite the renewed calls for “defunding” police departments or criminal justice reform, the experiences of overpoliced communities are not new. Studies suggest that as neighborhoods undergo change, specifically gentrification, they are more likely to be overpoliced.
The Urban Displacement Project defines gentrification as “a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood —by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in - as well as demographic change - not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.”
Gentrification often results in the physical and cultural displacement of long-term residents. Existing residents cannot afford to pay rising rents or property taxes and are forced out of their communities. Even before they move, many communities of color experience the loss of their neighborhood culture when newcomers bring new norms or cultures to the neighborhood. Often gentrification involves higher-income white residents moving into communities of color. According to the New York Times, “the arrival of white residents is now changing nonwhite communities in cities of all sizes, affecting about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts.”
Research shows that as property values increase and new residents with higher incomes move in, so too do calls to police. In New York City, researchers found that there were more 311 calls to police in areas with increasing middle-class residents and more policing for low-level crimes in areas that were experiencing urban development. Another study of New York City found that 311 calls rose in all neighborhoods between 2011 and 2016, but they rose 70% faster in gentrifying neighborhoods. Because whites tend to see law enforcement as helpful, they are more likely to call on police to enforce their new norms. Researchers point out that it is not just calls to police, but active decisions by police departments to increase patrols to protect increased investments in areas of ongoing community development - a practice called “development-directed policing.” “Policing responds to segregated landscapes, but it also constructs and maintains them,” says Dr. Daanika Gordan from Tufts University.
Increases in calls to police are often for low-level crimes that show the friction between neighborhood cultures. Research has shown that when new residents with higher incomes move into historically disinvested in neighborhoods, there are more reports of non-emergency disorder crimes or nuisance calls and increased police surveillance or “overpolicing.” As police address things like graffiti, loitering, noise complaints, there is an increased likelihood that interactions may lead to violence. Journalist Clare Busch writes, “The drumbeat of gentrification not only pushes out Black residents with higher rents, it invites police attention through 311 calls, noise and loitering complaints, and evictions.”
As landscapes shift in many American cities and communities face uprooting, it is essential that housing policies be enacted to address the racism that both polices and displaces residents, spending money on fighting displacement rather that increasing police in neighborhoods. We must invest equitably in underserved communities and create better neighborhoods for those with low incomes.
The resources used to carry out much of this policing often comes at the expense of already scarce social service and infrastructure budgets. If governments at every level truly cared for the wellbeing of citizens, it would provide them with the most basic of necessities—shelter. In a positive development, the city of Austin recently shifted some funding that had gone towards policing to permanent supportive housing, particularly important given Austin’s expanding population experiencing homelessness. While people may disagree about “defunding the police” as a rallying cry, Austin’s example of redirecting funds for equitable policy solutions to homelessness and poverty is an example of going beyond rhetoric.