New study sheds light on the ineffectiveness of addressing social inequities through police interventions

August 20, 2020

Last fall, I was commissioned by the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley to study the drivers of inequality in the Inland Empire (IE) of Southern California. My analysis focused on changes in poverty and housing tenure since 2000, and the growing share of expenditures that IE cities dedicated to policing in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, while largely failing to tackle rising poverty and housing insecurity.

In the context of both increasing poverty and a rising share of renters -- brought about in part by the Great Recession -- cities in the Inland Empire (IE) of Southern California have chosen to invest more in policing than in interventions that support and incorporate residents, like enacting strong worker and renter protections. Poverty has increased in the vast majority of cities in the IE since 2000, while the poverty rate in the city of Los Angeles actually declined two percentage points over the same time period. Recent research points to the foreclosure crisis as a major driver of what some scholars term the “suburbanization of poverty.”

Given that the IE was one of the hardest hit regions in the country in terms of foreclosures, especially for Black and Latino borrowers, it’s likely that it played an outsized role. Changes in both poverty and housing tenure over the last two decades have exacerbated racial inequities: Black homeownership was already lower than white and Latino homeownership, yet it dropped the steepest in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. Similarly, the Black poverty rate was already one of the highest in the region, but it increased by more than double the rate of white poverty.

Local responses to these changes range from easing restrictions on street food vending to more punitive policies that criminalize poverty. Data on the share of municipal spending devoted to police suggest that cities are focusing more energy on the punitive side: the average share of spending on police among IE cities increased from 20.6 percent in 2003 to 24.8 percent in 2016, before dropping to 20.4 percent in 2018. By 2018, IE cities were spending over $1 billion annually on police.

The title of the paper, “Governing Inequities through Policing in the Inland Empire,” is a nod to Berkeley legal scholar Jonathan Simon’s work. He argues that the criminal justice system has become the lens through which we interpret, frame, and respond to social problems, whether it’s poverty, addiction, or homelessness.

The police expanded partly as a substitute for social service spending as they were mobilized to govern a wider net of social issues, and data on the IE provides some evidence for this theory. The city of San Bernardino, for example, devoted 31 percent of its budget, or $74.5 million dollars, to police in 2018. That is more than 11 times what the city spent on housing and other community development. In total, six IE cities devoted over 30 percent of their total spending (including utility-related expenses and payments on long-term debt) towards police.

For comparison, the cities of Oakland and Los Angeles, where movements to #DefundthePolice have achieved some wins, each devoted roughly 18 percent to policing in 2018. One distinct element of the current national uprisings against racial inequality following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Tony McDade in Tallahassee, however, is that they are also stretching into suburban and rural areas like the IE.

Overall, the report identified that many IE residents, particularly renters, were struggling to make ends meet even before the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent of the more than 500,000 renter households in the region were paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, and the two counties that make up the IE had the highest eviction rates in the state in 2016. As the statewide moratorium on evictions expires September 1 and unemployment remains at historic highs, cities should move beyond law-enforcement based strategies to deal with social problems by passing policies that protect tenants from eviction and ensuring that COVID-19 relief dollars go towards reducing racial and economic inequities rather than exacerbating them. Cities should invest in their residents by adopting data-driven policies proven to reduce poverty, such as generous unemployment support to people impacted by the pandemic, which address the root causes of social problems.

If there is one thing that police and racial justice advocates actually tend to agree on is that we assign far too much of our social safety net responsibilities to police in ways that are unfair to both the police and the general public. Investing in the region's most vulnerable residents rather than criminalizing them is a step in the right direction towards creating a more just region.

Read More

Governing Inequities Through Police in the Inland Empire
July 22, 2020 | Ángel Mendiola Ross | UC Berkeley eScholarship




Inland Empire cities spent $1 billion on police, ignored poverty, study says
August 1, 2020 | Jeff Horseman | The Press-Enterprise

Featured Fellows

Ángel Mendiola Ross

Sociology, UC Berkeley
Computational Social Science Fellow