Amid nationwide demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, protesters and reformers have focused on ways to reduce police violence. So far, however, they have paid much less attention to an underpublicized aspect of policing: the role the police play in maintaining racial segregation in U.S. cities, the subject of a new paper by Yale University legal scholar and sociologist Monica Bell.

In a recent interview, which has been edited and condensed, Bell discusses some of the ways in which policing helps perpetuate residential segregation, including by patrolling who belongs in certain spaces, shaping neighborhood reputations, and limiting access to housing.

NL & MJ: How racially segregated are American cities today?

MB: Highly segregated, but the segregation varies a lot by city. The cities from and to which black people migrated during the Great Migration tend to be the most segregated in terms of the traditional metrics of segregation in social science — places like Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee.

People would like to tell a triumphant tale about segregation, so they focus on improvements in the dissimilarity index, a measure that captures the separation of racial groups within particular cities or census tracts. [Editorial note: The dissimilarity index, the most commonly used measure of segregation between two groups, measures how geographically separate the groups are from each other. The index ranges from 0 (complete integration) to 100 (complete segregation).] But the dissimilarity index misses out on both more micro-level segregation as well as more macro-level segregation. And even as the dissimilarity index has improved, the experience of living in certain places has not changed.

In 2012, for example, I interviewed 50 black, low-income mothers in Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C. If you look at the dissimilarity index numbers, segregation has reduced massively as the area has gentrified. But one of the things people would tell me was, they’d point out restaurants and say, “That chicken place is for us, but the Cava salad shop is for white people, and the IHOP down the street is for everyone.” The actual meaning and experience of racialized space doesn’t necessarily change just because the numbers do.

NL & MJ: Your paper argues there is an underexplored link between residential segregation and policing, and one part of that story has to do with how policing restricts mobility.

MB: The police don’t cause segregation, but the day-to-day activities of the police help reinforce it. The racialized structure of the criminal legal system and of policing in particular plays a role in limiting where people can live. Police are at the front end of the larger system of over-criminalization and mass incarceration, and that aspect of policing restricts movement by making it more likely certain people will get arrested in certain neighborhoods. Criminal records also restrict movement since landlords often don’t want to rent to people who have them, regardless of potential tenants’ income or how long ago the events occurred.

NL & MJ: Another way that policing reinforces segregation, in your account, is by “criminaliz[ing] human location.” What do you mean by that?

MB: If you're black, being in a place where white people think you don't belong is a potentially criminal act. In the paper, I tell the story of one of the young people my team interviewed in Baltimore. Richard (a pseudonym) and his friends were walking through a wealthy neighborhood, and they were fascinated because they’re from central Baltimore and had never seen such large houses with pools and all of these other amenities. Seeing such beautiful houses, Richard imagined a future career in real estate.

But then someone called the police on them. The police officer was kind, but they got the message that they were not supposed to be there. This kind of policing is a real tragedy in terms of limiting the futures people can imagine for themselves, which is itself a major factor in residential segregation.

It’s not so much that individual police officers have racial biases, although they do. It’s more that the function that police have played in American society is to maintain the status quo, and one of the fundamental organizing principles of our society is racial segregation.

NL & MJ: What is “third-party policing,” and what role is it playing here?

MB: “Third-party policing” refers to the fact that the police don’t function on their own — they have relationships with other state bureaucracies, and non-police actors are surveilling citizens and interacting with the police in ways that can threaten access to housing. One of the examples I give in the paper is inspired by an ethnographic study by Rahim Kurwa in Los Angeles county’s Antelope Valley. In the late 2000s, this suburban community wanted to repel housing-voucher holders, whom they referred to as “the creeping darkness.” So the mayor, city council, police department, and housing authorities worked together to carry out housing raids and check whether voucher holders were in violation of any housing policies — all with the goal of pushing black people out of the area.

NL & MJ: You also discuss how the police help construct neighborhood reputations.

MB: There’s a fascinating relationship between housing law, the real estate market, and the police. Racial steering, which is when real estate professionals steer buyers to different communities based on their race or ethnicity, is illegal. The law that has come out of the Fair Housing Act suggests talking about crime statistics with a potential purchaser or renter can count as racial steering, given the long association between saying a place is “high crime” and suggesting it is predominantly black. One way real estate professionals try to get around that prohibition is to tell their clients to go ask the police about crime in the area or direct them to lists where crime statistics have been compiled. But crime statistics are often an artifact of how the police choose to categorize certain behaviors as criminal, and those categories — and how much an area is policed — often depend on a neighborhood’s racial composition.

If police share their impressions of certain neighborhoods, that could also be thought of as racial steering. We don’t currently have a framework for thinking about the impact of police on the residential decisions that people make.

Nikita Lalwani is a 2020 graduate of Yale Law School. Mitchell Johnston is a 2020 graduate of Yale Law School. Both were editors on the Yale Law Journal.