#barriers2innocence: Over-Policing and Criminalization of BIPOC

This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topics are the over-policing and criminalization of BIPOC:

The arrest rate of Black people for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy, and vandalism is at least two times higher than White people. Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over than White drivers; this disparity decreases at night when it is harder to see a driver’s skin color. Black men are more likely to be shot by police in predominantly Black neighborhoods than in less racially segregated neighborhoods. And Black people are 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for possession of Cannabis than White people, despite rates of use being similar for both groups.

These are just some of the statistics that explain how mass incarceration is achieved. As we explored in yesterday’s post, mass incarceration refers to the absurd numbers of people in our country’s jails and prisons. This is mainly accomplished through over-policing and criminalization of communities of color.

Broken Windows Policing

Broken Windows Policing is a policy that aims to rationalize the over-policing of BIPOC. It’s the idea that aggressively pursuing low-level offenders will prevent people from committing more serious crimes.

It grew in popularity in 1982 when social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling used a social experiment as the basis for their argument that if a window is broken and remains unrepaired, more broken windows will follow. And if someone lives in a community full of broken windows, breaking one more window, or perhaps an entire building, will not matter in the grand scheme of things. The study that this argument was based on, however, did not prove this.

In 1969, Philip Zimbardo (the same social psychologist responsible for the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment) aimed to document the social causes of vandalism. He placed cars without their license plates and the hoods lifted in two neighborhoods: the Bronx and Palo Alto. The car in the Bronx was stripped for parts and destroyed rather quickly, and the car in Palo Alto was untouched. But once Zimbardo took a sledgehammer to the Palo Alto car, it was similarly destroyed.

Zimbardo used the study to prove that vandalism was caused by social inequality and disorder rather than individual pathology. But Wilson and Kelling misrepresented the study to argue the broken windows theory.

“For them, the danger was proliferation—the creation of many Bronxes— through small signs of disorder,” Bench Ansfield wrote in a Washington Post article chronicling the 50th anniversary of Zimbardo’s study. “The racist subtext rang loud and clear. Citing Zimbardo’s experiment allowed Wilson and Kelling to sound alarms over the possibility that all cities would go the way of the Bronx if they didn’t embrace their new regime of policing.”

Broken windows has historically been the basis for over-policing. The policy was most famously implemented in New York City in the 1990s under then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani argued that the policy was responsible for the rapid decline in crime that the city experienced during its implementation, despite crime rates declining at similar rates nationwide, even in places without the broken windows approach.


When Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001, he took broken windows to a new level, creating a policy called stop-and-frisk. This policy was designed to prevent windows from breaking in the first place. Stop-and-frisk allowed police officers to stop, search, and question anyone who looked suspicious.

This also proved problematic because what does suspicious really look like? To a vast majority of New York City police officers, suspicious meant Black or Hispanic young men. They were disproportionally stopped, and what’s worse is that less than one percent of the stops resulted in successful arrests.

Stop-and-frisk was deemed unconstitutional in 2013, but its effects on mass incarceration were already cemented. And in New York City specifically, Black and Hispanic people are still stopped-frisked at alarming rates regardless of its unconstitutionality.

Quota Systems

Quota systems are another policy that promote over-policing. Police departments are not supposed to set quotas, but many of them have spoken or unspoken quota systems that require police officers to make a certain amount of arrests or issue a certain amount of summons to succeed in the department.

BIPOC are the ones receiving the summons or getting arrested more so that a police officer can climb the ranks in the department. In some cases, police officers are actually told to target Black and Hispanic people.

The NYPD 12

Quota systems were brought to light in the documentary “Crime + Punishment” where 12 officers, all BIPOC, blew the whistle on the NYPD’s quota system that encouraged them to target Black and Brown people and to leave White and Asian people alone. The NYPD 12 won a class-action suit against the NYPD for issuing 900,000 summons based on the unofficial and illegal quota system.

This doesn’t just happen in New York City. Los Angeles, Dallas, and New Brunswick are among the cities that have police officers speaking out about quotas, but, as we discussed last week, the Blue Wall of Silence could be to blame for quota systems prevailing in other departments without the public knowing.

Watch an interview with the NYPD 12’s lead plaintiff, Sgt. Edwin Raymond:

Bias-Motivated Policing

Aside from actual policies implemented for the purpose of promoting it, the over-policing of BIPOC can occur as a result of bias-motivated cops who are mostly White.

“Through a White-lens, you’ve got White police officers looking for anything that stands out as different, or possibly suspicious, or out of place,” said Montana Racial Equity Project Executive Director and former police officer, Judith Heilman. “And so, implicitly, if you’ve got somebody Brown, or Black, or Indigenous, in a mostly White space, that person stands out for additional scrutiny whether the officers realize it or not. The more arrests you have of Brown and Black people, and the judges start to see more Brown and Black people coming up before them more and more and more, then it’s a snowball effect.”

Heavier police presence in communities of color speaks to the idea of the criminalization of BIPOC.

In the eyes of White people who always want to believe police are good and that they’re there to protect and serve…when they see that Black neighborhoods—in areas where there are Black neighborhoods and White neighborhoods—seem so much heavier in a Black neighborhood, they think that there’s more crime there. It’s a vicious cycle,” Heilman said.

Over-policing and criminalizing BIPOC also results in White people receiving lesser punishments or no punishments at all for the same conduct. Take the example of someone accusing a juvenile of stealing from a convenience store:

“If an officer comes, and especially if they’re a White officer—but this can happen no matter what officer—(the non-melanated kid) often gets released to their parent with no citation as opposed to a melanated kid: they get released to their parents with a citation or they just get handcuffed and taken to juvenile hall,” Heilman said.

Example: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

One of the most egregious examples of the over-policing and criminalization of BIPOC is the school-to-prison pipeline—the national trend of BIPOC students being funneled from school directly into the criminal justice system due to things like a heavier presence of school resource officers in schools with more racial diversity and the criminalization of behaviors that are more suited to be addressed by support staff and social workers.

We spoke with Dr. Laurie A. Walker, a Tenured Associate Professor for the University of Montana’s School of Social Work, about how the school-to-prison pipeline promotes inequality in Montana and results in disproportionate representation of BIPOC students in the criminal justice system later in life.

Hear our interview below:

Can you explain what the school-to-prison pipeline is?

What is the connection between racial disparity in law enforcement interactions in school and the likelihood of being in the criminal justice system in the future?

How does this promote racial inequality in our justice system? 

What data supports the claim that the school-to-prison pipeline exists?

What are the best statistics that explain the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline?

Do you think the school-to-prison pipeline promotes the criminalization of BIPOC for the purpose of mass incarceration?

And do you think it also promotes the private prison system by increasing incarceration, creating a greater need for private prisons?

Action Steps:

  1. Watch “Crime + Punishment” on Hulu.
  2. Countless studies and books support the idea that BIPOC are criminalized and over-policed. Read them, and share them. Click here for a list of the literature cited by Dr. Walker.
  3. Complete the action steps on our posts about bias-motivated policing and mass incarceration.

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign.