Document Type



Houston Law Review




In this Commentary written for the Frankel Lecture symposium on police killings of Black Americans, I explore the increasingly popular claim that racialized brutality is not a malfunction of policing but its function. Or, as Paul Butler counsels, “Don’t get it twisted—the criminal justice system ain’t broke. It’s working just the way it’s supposed to.” This claim contradicts the conventional narrative, which remains largely accepted, that the police exist to vindicate the community’s interest in solving, reducing, and preventing crime. A perusal of the history of organized policing in the United States, however, reveals that it was never mainly about interdicting crime. From its inception in the nineteenth century, organized policing served the social, political, and economic priorities of empowered groups, from supporting Southern agrarian capitalist interests by imposing de facto slavery on emancipated Blacks to bolstering Northern industrialization by oppressing immigrant laborers. Afterward, police forces grew in response not to spikes in garden-variety crimes but to political campaigns and cultural anxieties. And today, it remains contested whether current policing practices—especially street policing—function to alleviate, rather than exacerbate, crime problems.

While policing’s crime-reduction success is questionable, one obvious, tremendous success has been its control of race, space, and place. Police draw blue lines around Black neighborhoods—just as banks drew their red lines—designating them as high-risk, pathological spaces. Police use aggressive stop and frisks, intense surveillance, and military-style home raids to keep the people in their spatial and social place. Brutality is the business of policing, reinforced in recruitment, training, and practice. I conclude that because racialized brutality is integral to policing, reformers should not primarily focus on incarcerating specific bad cops who draw headlines. The “bad apple” narrative casts racist violence as individual and deviant, rather than institutional and structural, and undermines the current promising, if glacial, movement toward dismantling policing as we know it.