Janine Jackson interviewed Alec Karakatsanis about the “crime surge” for the October 1, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: New York Times readers have seen a couple of stories recently about a reported rise in the country’s murder rate. Among the top driving forces, readers were told: “increased distrust between the police and the public after the murder of George Floyd, including a pullback by the police in response to criticism.”
But reference to the unsupported, inflammatory so-called Ferguson effect is only one of the problems with the Times’ reporting here, which sparked a thoughtful Twitter thread by our next guest. A former civil rights lawyer and public defender, Alec Karakatsanis is founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, and author of the book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alec Karakatsanis.
Alec Karakatsanis: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: There’s some overlap in the problems in the September 22 story, bylined Jeff Asher, and then the September 27 Neil MacFarquhar piece on what’s called a “murder spike” in cities across the US. But maybe start with Asher’s, as it originally ran—because that’s relevant—what was so wrong and so troubling about that report?
AK: There are a number of concerns. I think that the most obvious and simple concern to highlight, first, is that Asher has a long history, first working with the CIA, then working covertly with Palantir, the CIA venture capital-backed tech firm that works with police departments, military and Defense contractors, and also ICE and other carceral entities, on a wide range of both public and secret programs.
And then he went on to found what appears to be a lucrative private consulting business, where he worked for the New Orleans police department and Palantir together on a very controversial secret program that even many elected officials in New Orleans didn’t know about. And then he consulted for the prosecutors’ office in New Orleans.
None of this history, or these conflicts of interest, both financial and journalistic, were even mentioned by the Times, who allowed him a column in the Upshot section of the Times, as if he were some kind of neutral data expert, just telling people about objective, neutral data about crime in the United States. That’s the first problem.
AK: The second problem is that Asher repeats many of the problems that we see in Times coverage generally: wild speculation about the connection between police and things like murders. It reminds me a lot of climate denial, back in the ’90s and early 2000s. It reminds me a lot of the coverage leading up to the Iraq War. Things are just asserted, and because they’re just asserted commonly, every single day, in paper after paper and news outlet after news outlet, things can become normalized. And what would be a radical, anti-science, fringe view, that lets the police determine murder rates….
By the way, the scientific consensus is pretty overwhelming. Things like murder rates and harm in our society are much more correlated with poverty, inequality, mental illness, drug addiction, lack of access to decent healthcare and housing and jobs, lack of social cohesion—and, in particular, toxic masculinity is one that’s often left out of these explanations. But a lot of violence is intimate partner violence committed by men.
And none of these things are things that the police are connected with. And, in fact, almost all of them are things that, over the course of the last hundred years, police have systematically organized to prevent progressive social change in each one of these areas, just crushing and infiltrating and surveilling every major social movement for justice.
None of that background is given in any of these Times pieces. You’re told that the murder rate is skyrocketing. And Asher used a number of very misleading graphs to make people think that murder is extraordinarily high, when it’s at near 30-, 40-, 50-year lows, even though there was an increase in murder during the beginning of the global pandemic, which caused a lot of mental health issues in people, and there’s many other explanations.
But the bigger context is that it’s just seen as totally normal in the New York Times, and in the media generally, to talk about murder and then right away pivot to talking about explanations that deal with the police, when we all know that things that correlate with murder are things that are much more profound features of our society.
JJ: And one of the ways that they create that just implicit understanding that more police equals less crime. First, crime’s very scary, and the response is more police. Well, it has to do with who they talk to, right, who gets to speak in the context of the reporting?
AK: One of the stunning things about both Asher’s piece and the piece by Neil MacFarquhar, which in many ways was worse, because not only did it quote almost exclusively police and police-paid consultants, but it also then quoted Asher as an expert on this issue without, again, noting any of his conflicts of interest, just several days after Asher himself had written that problematic article in the Times.
I think one of the really key things that you never see in this reporting is an acknowledgement that the concept of crime is defined and constructed by police and other elite interests in our society. So, for example, police crime data on which all of these articles are based does not include the crimes committed by the police. And in my analysis of these studies, and in using what I think are reasonable estimates, I think if you actually included the crimes committed by police, it would entirely reverse the crime trends in most major US cities.
That’s just one very minor example. Other things that are just not included here are the several hundred thousand violations of the Clean Water Act every single year. They’re not reported in local crime data.
Wage theft, fraudulent overdraft fees by banks—you know, wage theft alone by corporate employers dwarfs all burglary, theft, shoplifting and all property crimes combined by a factor of about five. So we’re talking about $50–100 billion a year in wage theft. It’s not treated as a crime. It’s not reported in local crime data. It’s not part of a so-called crime surge narrative.
And so I could give you, and I have in some of my writing, hundreds of these kinds of examples of what the police count as crime and what they don’t.
AK: And you’re never really provided that kind of context and background when the New York Times talks about things like a crime wave.
JJ: One of the lines in the MacFarquhar piece that stood out to me was, he says:
Some argue that the police, under intense scrutiny and demoralized, pulled back from some aspects of crime prevention. Others put the emphasis on the public, suggesting that diminished respect for the police prompted more people to try to take the law into their own hands.
Now when I read that, I hear: Either Black people need police to protect them from themselves, or Black people need police to protect them from themselves. It’s presented as, it’s a range of views here, but it’s not really a range of perspectives, and there are a lot of perspectives missing from that.
AK: Absolutely. It’s a classic media technique, which I think is described really beautifully in Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. You make people think there are two sides having a very reasonable debate. And by limiting the debate to those two views, and excluding everything else from the debate, you make it seem like there’s a very narrow range of views, and all reasonable people either think that the police are a really great crime prevention tool, and that they’ve pulled back from that in the last year, or that civil rights criticism of the police is what’s causing the uptick in murders.
And I think it’s fascinating to think about what’s going on in the heads of these journalists. I know, because I’ve corresponded with MacFarquhar, although he’s never responded to any of my attempts to ask him questions about his prior journalism. But I know that he knows there are other views.
And so when a journalist writes something like, “Some people say this, but others say that,” but then excludes what they know many, many, many other people say, including every rigorous scientist who studies the causes and underlying nature of crime, you have to wonder what is the agenda there. And that’s why I thought it was particularly striking that MacFarquhar and the editors chose not to disclose some of the conflicts of interest that the experts they were citing had.
JJ: And I know that Jeff Asher just blocked you when you tried to communicate with him or engage with him about his piece.
I did want to give you a chance, finally, although the time is inadequate, but also in that MacFarquhar piece was the claim—and it had been in the earlier piece, but got maybe taken out in a second version—but there was the claim sourced to an officer, a particular law enforcement officer, he cited “what they called the revolving jailhouse door created by bail reform” as a factor driving up violence. And again, there was a tacked-on “but others differ” at the end of that sentence. But the statement of the sentence was that law enforcement believe that “the revolving jailhouse door created by bail reform” is a problem here. So in our remaining couple of minutes, can you address some of the mythology around bail reform?
AK: There is so much wrong with that it’s hard to know where to start. First, it’s asserted that there’s this revolving jailhouse door. And then what he says there’s a dispute about is whether the revolving jailhouse door has led to more crime. I just want to note, I don’t even know what a revolving jailhouse door is, but it highlights one of the key ways in which media furthered mass incarceration by creating this imagery of an out-of-control superpredator class. This vivid imagery, like a “crime wave,” right, is designed to make people feel like there’s this overwhelming force coming at them.
The thing is, too, a revolving door, what is the point of using a metaphor like that? It doesn’t actually accurately describe anything about what’s going on in the legal system. There’s no evidence or support or description given to what’s meant by that.
What they’re actually referring to is that in some places, consistent with all of the empirical evidence which shows that detaining people prior to their trial in cages just because they can’t make a monetary payment actually increases crime by huge margins for years in the future, because it makes people more likely to commit crime by destabilizing their lives, getting them out of treatment and mental care and losing their jobs and their housing and many times losing their children. This is a scientific consensus we’re talking about. Cash bail is actually really harmful to public safety.
So what they’re talking about is a series of very modest, pretty minor reforms which reduce detention of very poor people solely because they can’t pay. Those reforms still allow police, prosecutors and judges to detain anyone that they prove is a danger to the community, or at risk of flight or is charged with a really serious offense.
So it’s so hard to know where to begin, because basically every single aspect of what you just read, from the assumptions to the assertions to the implications, is just completely fabricated, and not consistent at all with what’s actually happening, and what we know the data says about cash bail.
JJ: We’ll direct folks to CivilRightsCorps.org as a way to follow up on some of that information, as well as your book. We’ve been speaking with Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps. The book, Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, is out from the New Press. And I thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Alec Karakatsanis.
AK: Thank you so much.
The post ‘Crime Is Defined and Constructed by Police and Other Elite Interests’ appeared first on FAIR.
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.