What comes to mind when you hear the words “crime” and “safety?” For many, these words evoke images of poor people stealing things, or police enforcing laws to suppress street crime. Our guest today on Sea Change Radio argues that there’s a whole set of crimes that have been intentionally omitted from the messaging we get and that, for many, “police” and “safety” are far from synonymous. This week we speak with Alec Karakatsanis, the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. A former public defender and the author of “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System,” Karakatsanis believes that much of our country’s perspective on crime and policing has been shaped by “copaganda,” the swaying of public opinion for the benefit of law enforcement. We look at the corrosive societal effects of historic and current police practices, examine how and why these wrongheaded approaches persist, and discuss the complicity of journalists and policymakers who fall for and then perpetuate the American mythology of crime and safety.
00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:20 Alec Karakatsanis (AK) – If you everyday on the news see a story of someone shoplifting from a pharmacy but you never hear a story about that pharmacy stealing from its own workers, then you’re going to think that the shoplifting is a more of a problem than wage theft. Even though the exactly the opposite is true. And there are different kinds of problems, right? And there are different kinds of solutions.
00:00:44 Narrator – What comes to mind when you hear the words “crime” and “safety?” For many, these words evoke images of poor people stealing things, or police enforcing laws to suppress street crime. Our guest today on Sea Change Radio argues that there’s a whole set of crimes that have been intentionally omitted from the messaging we get and that, for many, “police” and “safety” are far from synonymous. This week we speak with Alec Karakatsanis, the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. A former public defender and the author of “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System,” Karakatsanis believes that much of our country’s perspective on crime and policing has been shaped by “copaganda,” the swaying of public opinion for the benefit of law enforcement. We look at the corrosive societal effects of historic and current police practices, examine how and why these wrongheaded approaches persist, and discuss the complicity of journalists and policymakers who fall for and then perpetuate the American mythology of crime and safety.
02:05 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Alec Karakatsanis. He is the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps. Alec, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
02:14 Alec Karakatsanis (AK) – Thank you for having me.
02:16 AW So you have a newsletter entitled Copaganda, Alec’s Copaganda Newsletter. Why don’t you define copaganda for us?
02:24 AK – I think there are a lot of ways to understand what copaganda is, so I don’t purport to have the definitive understanding of the term, but essentially what it reflects is the way in which a very special kind of propaganda is weaponized by powerful interests in government, in the corporate world and the media. To change the way we think about public safety, change that we think about the criminal punishment bureaucracy and the way we think about police, prosecutors, judges, courts, jails, prisons, probation officers, and I think it really serves 3 main roles. Rule #1: copaganda tends to narrow our conception of safety and what safety means to a very small subset of the many different kinds of threats that there are to public safety. So for example, copaganda and the media tends to focus on low level criminal activity, typically by the poor, and to ignore large scale. Criminal activity by more powerful interests like wage theft, right? Which is an estimated $50 billion a year. Problem in which companies take money from relatively low wage workers and that it dwarfs by several orders of magnitude – all sorts of robbery combined and all burglary, shoplifting, larceny. All the typical property crimes you hear about in in the media combined. And then there’s another example. Would be tax evasion, right? You very rarely have Daily News stories about all of the tax evasion going on, even though tax evasion steals about a trillion dollars. A year from the public and that is 60 to 70 times depending on how you estimate all other police reported property crime combined. Similarly, you know copaganda wants people to be very afraid of other types of more serious crime. There are many, many, many orders of magnitude more articles about shootings and murders in the United States than there are about deaths from air pollution. Even though air pollution kills five times more people in the US than all homicides combined, and so. One sort of feature of copaganda is that it narrows our conception of safety and the second sort of feature of copaganda is that it constantly wants us, having narrowed that conception of safety, it constantly wants people to believe that the narrow range of police reported crimes is constantly rising, right? And that’s what we call crime waves, crime surges, etc. And the reason for that is the third sort of major feature of propaganda, which is that it constantly pushes a pro-carceral pro-repression, pro-control types of solutions to those problems. So for example, copaganda links things like shootings, homicides, retail, theft, all of the crimes that it sort of disproportionately focuses our attention on. It links those things to things like police, prosecutors, and jails. And this is particularly and profoundly disturbing, because all of the empirical scientific evidence suggests that crime in our society is far more linked to structural features like poverty, inequality, lack of access to mental health care, medical treatment, housing, early childhood education, etc. Toxins and pollution. All of these things. So significantly so copaganda just circling back around is really an umbrella description that describes a number of different practices. The bottom line of which is getting people in our society to not focus on structural issues like inequality and issues that really affect people? Health safety survival well-being far more and to focus instead on things that can be used to increase the size and power of the sort of mechanisms of state repression.
06:23 AW – So I’ve heard you compare the knowledge that we have about what works and what doesn’t really work in in terms of justice and fighting crime and making a parallel with climate denialism. We know the science is there, but we keep putting our heads or collective heads in the sand from a policy standpoint, how can we pivot from convincing politicians that they need to project being tough on crime and instead pivot to being smart on crime.
06:59 AK – I think it’s important to even push back on those labels.
07:03 AW – Well, how do we shed that label? Because it’s not evidence-based. How do we switch to an evidence- based system exactly?
07:09 AK – I mean, if one were being, you know, tough on crime, one would actually be, you know, making sure people have safe places to live, and that that children had really incredibly high quality education. And after school, music, theater and art programs, and mental health treatment. And universal medical care. Those would be things that that the research and evidence from around the world and in the US actually shows are connected to reducing the kinds of things that our society calls. Crimes and they also have incredible ancillary benefits. Reducing all forms of premature death and trauma and and whatnot. And so I think the critical question for us becomes, how do we build political power to ensure that these conversations are happening in a different way? Because I think it’s very important to understand that it’s not an accident. That the discussion is so divorced from reality and it’s a similar story with climate change itself, right? It’s not an accident that there was an orchestrated and organized and very expensive movement too. Make sure that people were very ill informed about sort of the incredible threats to the global climate in to our survival as a species and. It’s the same as true with the way crime and safety are covered. There are very powerful people with a lot of influence. So for example, you know just in San Francisco alone we learned recently there are nine full-time cops and many, many more sort of part time cops whose full job is sort of public manipulation of information. They even have a full time videographer. To take propaganda videos of the San Francisco police in Los Angeles, it’s even worse, right? There’s 42 full time staff at the Sheriff’s Office and 25 full time staff at the LAPD all doing propaganda work for the COPS and the broader industry is even more expensive, right? There are numerous multibillion dollar year. Industry is tide to the criminal punishment bureaucracy. Whether it’s weapons manufacturers, surveillance manufacturers, the people that make. All the handcuffs and Tasers and body cams. And then you’ve got all the private prisons and you’ve got all the medical care which has been privatized in prisons and the prison telecom industry which is a multi billion dollar year company. All of these interests have very sophisticated and very effective public relations and media and lobbying arms, and they’re constantly trying. To get us to think that being tough on crime is associated with things that actually increase their own profits.
09:44 AW – And there’s a political opportunity for some of these copagandists – I hadn’t really been aware of, of the opportunities that are presented to somebody who might be toeing the police forces line here in San Francisco. We just elected Matt Haney to the State Assembly from he was a very progressive supervisor in the Tenderloin District. And he got relaced, by London Breed, the mayor, with Matt Dorsey, who’s basically been a PR guy for the police. The San Francisco Police Department. So there’s political fruits to be plucked as well for people involved in this. It’s not just a financial incentive, there’s power at play as well.
00:10:27 AK – absolutely. I mean, he was making almost $300,000 a year as the top propaganda officer for the San Francisco Police Department and he was rewarded very well by the Mayor of San Francisco, putting him on the Board of Supervisors.
10:42 (music break)
11:44 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the executive Director of Civil Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis. So while we’re on the topic of looking at the police departments themselves, you have a piece in your newsletter entitled “Questions to Ask Police Chiefs,” and I think it’s great. These are like hypothetical questions that the media should be asking public officials and police – the chief of police, why do you choose not to arrest bosses for wage theft, but you choose to arrest poor people for shoplifting? Why do you think about 90% of the people arrested by your department are too poor to afford an attorney? Why do you choose to arrest people for drug possession as the plurality of your arrests instead of going one by one? How would we want…Can we dream of a day when we’ll get these kind of answers that we would hope and expect from these people who we’re entrusting with our public safety? Or are we always going to get these answers that are a little infuriating to you and me?
12:46 AK One of the most remarkable features of our current media landscape and our current political landscape. In most localities around the country that I’ve observed. Every single one of them that I’ve observed to be honest is that there’s almost no scrutiny of what the police actually do by journalists or by politicians who are supposed to be providing some kind of oversight and as a result the public has virtually no clue what the police actually do, and the reality is that police only spend 4% of their time nationwide on what they themselves call violent. The vast bulk of what they do is responding to non criminal phone calls. Often sort of mental health type incidents or incidences involving low level poverty. Or arresting people for very minor offenses like traffic things or shoplifting, or one of the most frequent arrests is trespassing and one of the most common arrests in the entire United States is driving on a suspended license. When your license has been suspended for owing debt, there are 11 million people who don’t have a license functioning right now only because they owe debt. And that’s a very common. Arrest the same is true of marijuana possession, etc. I could go on and on, but the vast bulk of what police do is that and you have to understand. Police only arrest some people for some crimes, although they call themselves law enforcement, they really only enforce some laws against some people. It’s not like the police are going undercover and uncovering all the examples of tax evasion, and it’s like they’re going undercover and uncovering all of the examples of police brutality. Right, they’re only choosing to put investigative resources into some situations. And as I note in the news. You can go with hundreds of different examples across society. You know why is it that police are deliberately choosing to spend scarce resources on drug arrests and not testing rape kits? It’s because the police have prioritized drugs because they’re highly profitable for police departments and overtime pay and grant funding, etc. And that’s just a deliberate policy choice that police have made, and then the questions also are meant to highlight that much of what police do is merely a political choice. It’s a political choice, for example, to send the police patrol into a poor neighborhood looking for drugs rather than to a rich boarding school where there are rampant use of drugs or to a university campus where there’s all kinds of underage drinking and drug use, etc. It’s a choice that police make not to investigate even, or let alone enforce criminal laws in those settings, and the same is true with. All manner of other laws we’re about to see the most significant rise in criminalization in this country. In modern history with the criminalization of various forms of reproductive healthcare, and you’re about to start seeing tens of thousands of police officers across the country enforcing bans on abortion and various forms of contraception, et cetera. And so my newsletter was meant to provide a road map for interested people in the public and the media and politicians to start asking police about what their current practices are. Or explaining some of the patterns in terms of the fact that almost everyone they arrest is poor etc. But also to explain some of their future plans in terms of things like reproductive rights etc.
16:24 AW – Well, why don’t you explain a little bit about the mission of your organization for a second step back and give us the history of it, why you formed it and where you hope it goes.
16:35 AK – We do a lot of different things. The core of our work is extremely high quality lawyering and other forms of advocacy that are designed to challenge systemic injustices in the criminal legal system in this country. We started working on systemic injustices. Is the cash bail system or the rise of modern debtors prisons across the country where millions of people are jailed every single year? In this country right now, as we’re talking solely because they can’t make a cash payment and solely because their families can’t make a cash payment. There are millions of children that are separated from their parents every single. Here, just because they can’t make a cash payment and so we I think we we gained a lot of attention for our rigorous constitutional civil rights cases all around the country. Challenging this notion we actually represented. Mr. Kenneth Humphrey, out of uh in a case out of San Francisco, and that I argued in the California Supreme Court last year and that we won, which struck down the money bail system as we know it in California. And that work is incredibly difficult work. Some of these systems are so entrenched the attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that surround them, let alone the financial incentives that perpetuate them, are so deeply ingrained that many of the people who work in the system are really desensitized to them. Everyday brutality that they inflict, we also have done a tremendous amount of prosecutor and police misconduct work. All over the country, drawing attention to the sort of rampant nature of abuses throughout the metastasized criminal punishment bureaucracy. And then I think, really. Our work has in recent years evolved to also include an incredible policy and narrative component that tries to help experts around the country directly impacted people, crime survivors and others develop and vision out responses to violence and harm in their communities in ways that are actually more consistent with the scientific evidence and that are not tide to increasing the size and power of the punishment. Bureaucracy because these government bureaucracies are actually incredibly ineffective at keeping people. Safe and free from trauma. And so we’ve been trying as we challenge these systems to also help people talk about what a different more effective, safer system might look like.
19:19 AW – So you mentioned trying to carve out narratives. I wanted to spend the remainder of our time if we can dig deeper into that you mentioned how there are some parallels with ignoring climate science. We’ve been able to in my lifetime, change the narrative somewhat in terms of the death penalty. People know a lot more about it in in our much better educated than when I was a child, when it was much more of a reactive voting bloc. But we know now through decades of advocates and legal scholars like yourself, educating the public that. It doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work, and it doesn’t cut down crime and it actually it has an insidious effect on our society. The death penalty, with the defund the police campaign that that phrase was pounced upon by the right wing and it I think has been an unfortunate reaction to what is a well-meaning effort. How can we kind of shift the narrative away from the defund the police and more into raising awareness in a more productive way?
20:24 AK – Well, I think that the defund the police movement was deliberately mischaracterized by people who have a vested interest in preserving a very violent but also very ineffective system, and so I think it’s very important to understand that that the movement was so viciously attacked and so comprehensively attacked, precisely because for the first time in modern history it provided a really easily understandable demand that we stop investing so much time, money and other forms of human resources into this system which actually makes us less safe, but that is enormously profitable for some people. And I think in any more nuanced conversation, I think the critical points to make are. If you care about safety. And if you care about evidence. Then what you’ll want to do is support policies that reduce our societies investments in the mechanisms of state surveillance and state violence and state control. Obviously when I say state surveillance states violence and state control, I’m also talking about the ways in which a lot of those systems have been privatized for profit. In partnership with. State, but you want to divest from those systems and invest in the things that the evidence actually shows. Make a difference in our communities and this is not rocket science. We have very, very clear evidence and very very clear ideas of the kinds of short, medium and long term investments. In children, in families, in communities that actually make a difference and so. When people say defund the police, it’s a little bit incomplete and misleading because what people are actually talking about are our society needs to create systems of care and needs to enable communities to create systems of care for themselves that actually meet the problems in those communities. And that is why the rise of a new generation of mutual aid groups across the country is so exciting communities figuring out how to meet their needs outside the boundaries of the kind of carceral systems that the state provides, particularly in many of these communities where the state has totally and utterly divested from them it is. They did through a variety of predatory practices and redlining, etc. Really, communities that have been completely abandoned in many respects, and so it’s exciting to watch a new movement of people trying to help those communities in their own communities figure out how to meet their needs without resorting to a state that has literally abandoned them.
23:16 (Music Break)
24:18 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the executive Director of Civil Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis. Honestly, it seems to me that a lot of the problems stem from anecdotal thinking, and anecdotal thinking does not lead to good policy in general. But how do we effectively pivot the public away from only absorbing anecdotes and to think through a larger lens?
24:46 AK – That’s a very important question and I don’t purport again to have the complete answer, but I can give you some thoughts and I think anecdotes and stories are so powerful, right? That’s how human beings connect to each other. It’s what makes people so interested in literature and TV and movies, right stories are very powerful. It’s why politicians tell so many anecdotal stories. But with that power comes a great responsibility not to use anecdotes to lead and the sort of anecdotal use of individual crime stories has been used brilliantly by very powerful nefarious actors seeking to make significant profits, to distort our understanding of the things that cause us harm if you everyday on the news see a story of someone shoplifting from a from a pharmacy but you never hear a story about that pharmacy stealing from its own workers, then you’re going to think that the shoplifting is a more of a problem than wage theft. Even though the exactly the opposite is true. And there are different kinds of problems, right? And there are different. Kinds of solutions.
25:58 AW – We think of crime as petty theft and not something behind the scenes when it’s right in our face. That’s kind of what we’ve been trained since we were.
26:06 AK – Absolutely, and we’re also trained to think that the response to someone stealing diapers or deodorant or food.We’ve represented lots of people over the years who have been arrested for stealing basic necessities of life from a grocery store or pharmacy – we’ve been trained that their response is to punish them and not to ask the question “why are there?” Why do we live in a society where we even need to lock up the deodorant in a drug store? And if you think about all of these problems as crime and not as sort of the underlying factors that lead to the kind of desperation that leads to that kind of an incident, then you’re always going to be missing the real solutions, and you’re not going to be promoting stories and narratives that have an opportunity. So for example, you could tell an equally powerful narrative about about the person life story that brought them to the moment where they had to steal vitamins from a grocery store like Michael Riggs who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in California for stealing a bottle of vitamins from a grocery store. And that story could be told as a. Uh, you know occurring in a criminal who had a prior set of convictions. Who was stealing again, right? And you could tell the story in that way and use the anecdote to sort of talk about how the need to punish repeat offenders. Or you could tell that story as a human being who became addicted to drugs after his child died. And a drowning accident and ended up needing to steal vitamins from a grocery store.
27:38 AW – But the problem isn’t the anecdote itself then.
27:41 AK – Exactly, it’s how people are using anecdotes.
27:45 AW – Terrific. Well, I highly recommend people follow Alec on Twitter and check out his newsletter, the Copaganda newsletter. He’s the executive director of Civil Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis. Alec, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:00 AK – Thank you so much for having me.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Quantic, Elvis Costello and Nat King Cole. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others, and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.