Thursday, August 15, 2013

Profiling in Context: Crime or Punishment?

Several years ago, around dusk, I was taking my usual walk through my neighborhood.

I'm a tall, overweight, bald, white male, and I was in my early 40's at the time.  I live in an older neighborhood of custom-built, single-family homes inhabited mostly by unpretentious, middle-class whites, who probably represent an even-mix between liberals, conservatives, and moderates.  And although ours is not a particularly affluent district, we were experiencing what was probably our first real crime wave.  A swath of run-down apartments near our neighborhood was rapidly turning into a Section 8 community for residents being displaced as dilapidated public housing projects in Fort Worth and Dallas were being torn down.

As I walked around a yawning curve amongst some larger homes in our neighborhood, I could hear a vehicle driving up slowly behind me, and the closer it got to me, the slower it moved.  Finally, a police car glided up alongside of me, and the officer behind the wheel, a young white male, rolled down his window.

"Everything OK?" he asked nonchalantly, but with enough authority to convey to me that he wanted me to stop walking and interact with him.  So I stopped walking.

He asked me if I lived in the neighborhood.  When I told him yes, and that I tried to walk around it often, he asked me if I had a gun with me.  Living in Texas, I didn't consider that a particularly odd question, but coming from a cop, it wasn't particularly heartwarming, either.  Did he think I was going to shoot him, or would he have simply wanted to see my permit if I was a gun owner?

"No, I don't own a gun," I replied.  "Why?"

"Well," I remember him advising me, "you never know what you'll encounter on the streets anymore.  Take it from me - times have changed, and being able to protect yourself is a good thing," or something like that.  Whatever it was he said, he was telling me that the danger we in the neighborhood had been feeling as more and more homes and cars were being broken into was real.

With that, he drove off slowly, and I continued on my walk.

Now, for any young black or Hispanic male who's been stopped and questioned by the police in a manner they'd consider to be racial in nature, perhaps my little encounter with the white cop is like comparing apples to oranges.  And that was the only time I've ever been stopped - at least when I hadn't broken any traffic laws.

But still, I was initially a bit frustrated that the cop seemed open to the possibility that I could have been up to no good.  When I reminded myself that he didn't know me from Adam, nor where I lived, and that I had no idea what crime might have just been committed nearby, for which the police were hunting a white, bald male, I realized he was just doing his job.  And actually, by the end of our encounter, I was glad that the young, white officer was willing to stop and question a guy who, like anybody else who'd have driven past me, could have more easily assumed I belonged in the neighborhood simply because I am white.

Profiling: Always A Crime?

I understand that the stop-and-frisk tactics a federal judge has just ruled unconstitutional in New York City looked far different there than what I experienced that evening here in Arlington, Texas, a bustling suburb of over 350,000 in the sun belt.  And I'm glad that the way New York implemented its stop-and-frisk program was ruled unconstitutional.  It had degenerated into a city-hall-sanctioned, racial profiling free-for-all, intentionally badgering hundreds of thousands of young minorities every year.

Yet at some point, don't we have to let the police do their job?  An op-ed in today's New York Times questions whether the ruling against stop-and-frisk will really change anything, since the authors of the piece, law professors Devon Carbado, Cheryl Harris, and KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, believe the judge in New York's case didn't - or couldn't - go far enough and flatly ban any form of stop-and-frisk.  At what point does a "free" society have to simply trust its police to prevent crime, respond to it, and solve it in the most Constitutionally-responsible way possible?

After all, crime today isn't the nostalgic kind, whereby grizzled old men pick locks at jewelry stores, or rambunctious teenagers grab a jar of candy from the corner store.  Nor is the gangsta culture, embraced by so many minorities for its glorification of a gritty thug aesthetic, as innocent as some of its adherents want prim-and-proper whites to believe.  Between the petty thievery and bursts of lethal ghetto violence lie increasingly robust trades in all sorts of narcotics, sexual crimes, automobile chop shops, and physical abuse.  A lot of people refuse to believe that the preponderance of these crimes are committed by black and Hispanic males, but all you have to do is watch the local news or see the photos of mugshots in crimewatch sections of local newspapers to see that it's true.

And yes, the truth hurts.

What the ruling against stop-and-frisk means is that police officers cannot simply detain and question anybody based mostly on the person's ethnicity, or without reasonable suspicion.  Of course, the term "reasonable" can be open to interpretation, but frankly, the ways we've heard cops berating minority youths they've stopped are indeed 100% unreasonable, since cops taunt them with ethnic slurs, cut them off when they're answering a question, and threaten them with further punitive measures at the precinct house.

One of the components of the stop-and-frisk ruling is that the NYPD is now required to outfit select patrol officers in select precincts with cameras clipped onto their uniforms.  When these officers equipped with these cameras hit the streets, their actions and stops are recorded, just like traffic stops are recorded by dash cams in police cars.  Of course, some police unions are already squawking about that, claiming it will inhibit police work, but the same protestations were made when dash cams were introduced, and they've actually come to be a highly effective tool to protect officers against unwarranted claims from the people they stop.

Bad Apples

Hey - even though I probably give them the benefit of the doubt more often than I should, I'm not the biggest fan of the NYPD.  When I was in college, and visiting my aunt one summer in the Big Apple, she had gone to work in Midtown, and I'd gone into "the City" with her from her apartment in Brooklyn to spend the day exploring on my own.  Towards the time she usually quit for the day, about 6:30, I was making my way through the southern end of Central Park to 59th Street, where I would then walk over to her office between Park and Lexington Avenues.  I sat down on a filthy bench, next to some dank water in a mosquito-covered pond, to take a rest.  I looked around at the huge, tall, gracious trees, listened to the rats rustling around in the underbrush behind my bench, and people-watched as office workers began traipsing along the park's winding walkways on their way home.

Over at another bench, about forty yards away, was a guy sitting by a sack of something, with bulging pockets in his coat - he was wearing a coat on this muggy, sweltering afternoon!  Why was that?  Then I realized:  every few minutes, somebody would walk by his bench, sometimes quickly sitting down, sometimes brushing by his knees, but always exchanging something and receiving something with both hands.


"Phooey," I thought to myself, "I don't want to get involved with anything related to this."  So I got up and walked past the guy, while he was making a transaction, and then hiked up a nearby stone stairway to the street.

And behold, there was a police car, sitting right there!  With a middle-aged white officer sitting - slumped - behind the wheel.  Looking completely bored.  I walked up to the patrol car, instantly forgetting that I didn't want to get involved in the scenario I'd just witnessed, and told him about the drug dealing going on right down at the end of those steep stone steps, right over there.  I thought I was doing what an obedient citizen should be doing.

The cop glanced up at me, disdain scrawled across his snarling face.  He hissed a burst of expletives at me, and told me to get lost.

Shocked, I stood stock still, incredulous at his response.  So he raised his voice a notch with another profanity, which was all I needed to be convinced that he didn't want me anywhere around the place.

Up in my aunt's office, I relayed the story to a couple of her co-workers, and wondered if maybe he was the head of a squad of undercover officers who were getting ready to arrest the drug dealer I'd seen.  My aunt's co-workers chuckled at my naivete.

"Nah, he was their protection," they scoffed, acting like they'd seen it a thousand times themselves.  "If you ever see a cop near a drug dealer, you can figure they're both making a ton of money."

I tell this story not to malign all cops, but to illustrate why I don't trust a police force to operate entirely beneficently within a program like stop-and-frisk.  I can see what Mayor Bloomberg and other vociferous critics of the judge's ruling this week are saying, even if I don't agree that stop-and-frisk is the big crime reduction tactic they claim it to be.  But depriving citizens of their Constitutional rights is as much a crime as the crimes the NYPD says it's trying to foil with their version of stop-and-frisk.

Gangsta: A Profile Asking For Punishment?

Which brings us to the question of whether racial profiling can ever be eliminated in crime fighting.  That seems highly unlikely, doesn't it, since all of us do it to varying degrees, and for various reasons - many of which are not immoral.  Observing a person's race, gender, age, and general appearance is part of how we socialize with each other.  Or not.

Indeed, it's the "or not" part of that socialization equation that's causing us the most trouble, isn't it?  The ghetto, gangsta, and thug theme that many people of darker skin tones like to mimic may be perfectly legal, and is not the primary reason why stop-and-frisk blew out of control, but might it also be causing a lot of unnecessary problems?  After all, the gangsta culture isn't about assimilation into a broader, heterogeneous culture, but a repudiation of conventional culture.  In fact, the gangsta culture relies on a defiance towards legal authority for its own sinister credibility.  That's one reason, by the way, why I think the current infatuation some corners of evangelical Christianity have with rap music is too misguided.  And to get back on-topic, it's another reason why the police have to maintain a moral legitimacy for their legal authority, even in the face of the gangsta culture.

That can be extremely tricky.

Let's face it:  you and I pay cops to go out on the streets and be willing to get killed so you and I can still be alive tomorrow to complain about how they protect us.  Police work, whether it's done by rogue cops like the one outside Central Park, or the many unsung heroes we never hear about, is a mortality equation, as well as a moral one.

No, we shouldn't give police officers carte-blanche to treat citizens of any race or color any way they want.  But cops still have to evaluate every situation they encounter on their shifts based on worst-case scenarios.  We don't want them to be prejudiced, but then again, sometimes the way we dress, act, and conduct ourselves can prejudice them against us anyway.  Modeling a gangsta aesthetic may be one way to exacerbate that prejudice.  Shucks, the very reason people choose not to follow conventional norms could be considered a prejudice against those norms.

Some might say that such a notion is forcing social conformity in a country where individual freedom should be celebrated.  I'd counter that by saying that even in non-conformity, we usually end up conforming to some standard, whether it's buttoned-down whitey, or hip-hop black, or biker goth.  There's not really any such thing as genuine, unfettered, anarchal individuality.

We all have the freedom to dress and behave in just about any way we desire, but we all have to suffer the consequences of decisions that could be interpreted negatively.  After all, if I wear a swimsuit to a job interview at a Fortune 100 company, should I expect to get the job?

Hopefully, stop-and-frisk as New Yorkers have come to know it will soon become a thing of the past.  Yet telling cops that a person's intrinsic characteristics can't ever be used as a means of identifying a potential suspect probably won't be sustainable as a crime-fighting paradigm, either.

So what's left?  It's something Dr. Martin Luther King himself said he wanted people of color to be identified by:  the content of their character.

Both of the people stopped by cops, and the cops themselves.

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