Policing in America (Part Three): The Lessons Learned

Daytona Everett

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In part two of our NBC Palm Springs multi-part series we explained how politics influenced policing during the civil rights movement and put a target on black communities.

Vigilante groups like the KKK enforced racist Jim Crow laws through lynchings and scare tactics, sometimes with the help of police officers.

In part three, we found out that even after the KKK fizzled out, the fight to uphold segregation persisted through politics. 

The Nixon and Reagan administrations enacted a “war on drugs”. It was a campaign tactic allegedly used to crack down on black communities, according to one of Nixon’s top advisors.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

“If you look at the war on drugs over the 1980’s and the 1990’s and in to the early 2000’s, if you look at drug arrest data, you would presume that drug use was heavily concentrated in communities of color,” Rafik Mohamed, Dean of CSUSB’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said. “If you look at drug use data from other sources, you see that it’s fairly evenly distributed across the population.”

Mohamed sent NBC Palm Springs this research regarding the war on drugs:


What this means is that 12% of the white population 12 years or older (roughly 27.5 million) reported using illicit drugs in the month prior to the survey. 13% of the black population (roughly 4.5 million) reported the same, as did nearly 10% (roughly 4.5 million) of the Latino population. Essentially, the amount of drug use within given racial/ethnic groups is essentially the same.


  • Asians and Native Americans are included in these data, but don’t comprise a significant enough percentage of the incarcerated population or overall population for meaningful comparison.
  • The CDC also has similar data. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2018/020.pdf


Clean incarceration data are harder to come by because people are housed in a variety of state and federal prisons, and local jails. The majority of inmates reside in state prisons. Here are just a few tidbits:


  • Nearly 46% of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses and 38% of all federal inmates are black. Black people make up only about 12% of the US population. https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp
  • This is older data, but in 2002 four of every five drug prisoners are African American (56 percent) and Hispanic (23 percent), well above their respective rates (13 percent and 9 percent) of overall drug use. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/distorted-priorities-drug-offenders-state-prisons
  • Per a relatively recent academic journal article: “While there are five times as many Whites using drugs as African Americans, African Americans are being sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. When put into a statistical perspective, the results are: African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for drug offense. The telling result is that African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for violent offenses (61.7 months) (Sentencing Project).” https://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1407&context=esr

Over the past four decades, the U.S. has committed more than $1 trillion to the war on drugs but prioritizing police really took a turn after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“It became more about anti-terrorism efforts, intelligence,” CSUSB criminal justice professor Zachary Powell said.

To this day, even local law enforcement is equipped with high-grade military gear.

“A police officer has unique power that we don’t,” Powell said.

Technology is transforming the way police brutality is being documented. With the click of a button, excessive use of force has been captured on countless occasions. 

A cell phone video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes went viral. This video sparked national outrage and protests to defund the police.

“What is the biggest lesson that you think we can learn from the history of policing in America?” NBC Palm Springs asked the experts.

“Our policing is a reflection of our society,” CSUSB History Professor Marc Robinson said.

“We have to be willing to collectively pay attention to the different functions that police have served over time in our country,” Mohamed said.

“I think the kind of change that we’re talking about is not something that we can see overnight, it’s not something that may happen a year from now, two years, the kind of change would have to be dramatic, sweeping and something that we would look for twenty years from now,” Powell said.

Robinson, Mohamed and Powell all agreed there has been good and bad in policing since it began. 

The aim of this series was to educate the community on the realities of the past. It’s no secret that law enforcement has a unique power in this country but how that power is used is the real test.

To watch the other parts of this series, see the links below:

PART 1: https://nbcpalmsprings.com/2020/06/24/policing-in-black-communities-the-beginning/

PART 2: https://nbcpalmsprings.com/2020/06/25/policing-in-black-communities-part-2-the-political-influence/

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