In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the ‘6th St.’ neighborhood in Philadelphia. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).
According to contacts at the Philadelphia Warrant Unit, there were about eighty thousand open warrants in the city in the winter of 2010. A small portion of these warrants were for new criminal cases – so-called body warrants. Most were bench warrants for missing court or for unpaid court fees, or technical warrants issued for violations of probation or parole.
Until the 1970s, the city’s efforts to round up people with outstanding warrants consisted of two men who sat at a desk in the evening and made calls to people on the warrant list, encouraging them to either come in and get a new court date or get on a payment plan for their unpaid court fees. During the day, these same men transported prisoners. In the 1970s, as a special Warrant Unity was created in Philadelphia courts to actively pursue people with open warrants. Its new captain prided himself on improving and updating the unit’s tracking system, and getting these files on computer.
By the 1990s, every detective division in the Philadelphia Police Department had its own Warrant Unit. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the US Marshalls all run their own separate Warrant Units out of the Philadelphia force as well.
As the number of police officers and special units focused on rounding up people with warrants increased, the technology to locate and identify people with warrants improved. Computers were installed in police cars, and records of citizens’ legal histories and pending legal actions became synchronized – first across the city’s police force and then among police departments across the country. It became possible to run a person’s name for any kind of warrant, from any jurisdiction in the country, almost instantly.
The number of arrests an officer or a unit makes had been a key indication of performance since at least the 1960s. When technology improved, taking people in on warrants became a ready way for police to show they were actively fighting crime. Those officers or units who cleared more warrants or arrested more people were informally rewarded; those who cleared or arrested fewer people were encouraged to catch up.
In interviews, Philadelphia police officers explained that when they were looking for a particular man, they access social security records, court records, hospital admissions records, electric and gas bills, and employment records. They visit a suspects usual haunts (for example, his home, his workplace, and his street corner) at times he is likely to be there, and will threaten his family or friends with arrest if they don’t cooperate, particularly when they themselves have their own lower-level warrants, are on probation, or have a pending court case. In addition to these methods, the Warrant Units operating out of the Philadelphia Police Department use a sophisticated computer-mapping program that tracks people who have warrants, are on probation or parole, or have been released on bail. Officers round up these potential informants and threaten them with jail time if they don’t provide information about the person the police are looking for. A local FBI officer got inspired to develop the program after watching a documentary about the Stasi – the East German secret police. With another program, officers follow wanted people in real time by tracking their cell phones. . .
6th Street is not the poorest or the most dangerous neighborhood in the large Black section of Philadelphia of which it is a part – far from it. In interviews with police officers, I discovered that it was hardly a top priority of theirs, nor did they consider the neighborhood particularly dangerous or crime ridden. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods spoke of 6th Street as quiet and peaceful – a neighborhood they would gladly move to if they ever had enough money.
Still, 6th Street has not escaped three decades of punitive drug and crime policy. By 2002, police curfews had been established around the area for those under age eighteen, and police video cameras had been placed on major streets. In the first eighteen months that I spent in the neighborhood, at least once a day I watched police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names for warrants, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest. In the same eighteen month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted bocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence –or, in police language, secured a crime scene– seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp-on or beast young men with their night sticks.
The problems of drugs and gun violence are real ones in the 6th Street community, and the police who had come into the neighborhood are trying to solve them with the few powers that can be granted them: the powers of surveillance, intimidation and arrest. Their efforts do not seem to be stopping young men from attempting to earn money selling drugs or from getting into violent conflicts; whether they are helping to reduce overall crime rates is beyond the scope of this study.
Since the 1980s, the War on Crime and the War on Drugs have taken millions of Black young men out of school, work and family life, sent them to jails and prisons, and returned them to society with felony convictions. Spending time in jail and prison means lower wages and gaps in employment. This time away comes in critical years in which other young people are completing degrees and getting married. Laws in many states deny those with felony convictions the right to vote and the right to run for office, as well as access to many government jobs, public housing and other benefits. Black people with criminal records are so discriminated against in the labor market that the jobs for which they are legally permitted to apply are quite difficult to obtain. These restrictions and disadvantages affect not only the men moving through the prison system but their families and communities. So many Black men have been imprisoned and returned home with felony convictions that the prison now plays a central role in the production of unequal groups in US society, setting back the gains made in citizenship and socioeconomic position that Black people made during the Civil Rights Movement
Whatever their effect on crime, the sheer scope of policing and imprisonment in poor black neighborhoods is transforming community life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who are their target but for their family members, partners and neighbors.