War on What – Crime or the Poor?

Many of us realize that sending troops abroad can be counter-productive. Our boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan led many to take up arms against us. To them, we were the invaders.

See if this analogy fits. We don’t have data everywhere but what we have is telling. The Rutherford Institute, which bills itself as “A non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights,” told the U.S. Supreme Court recently, that “the most common justification cited by New York City police for stopping individuals was presence in a ‘high crime area’” and “an additional 32% of stops were based on the time of day, and 23% of police stops were for an unspecified reason.”[1]

The Rutherford Institute explained that these stops yield very little: “only 4% of more than a half million individuals stopped, questioned, and searched in New York City in 2006 were actually arrested. … [A]nother field study indicates that only 3% of unconstitutional searches revealed evidence….” So when there is no specific reason to suspect someone, well over 95% of police stops do not result in an arrest or evidence. When they focus on minorities, the success rate actually goes down.

This information is well-known. As a member of the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, I helped put on similar testimony both from scholars and from the office of the New York Attorney General.[2] I’m using the Rutherford Institute’s presentation to make it clear that this is not a liberal rant. It is understood in conservative as well as liberal circles. The New York Civil Liberties Union got a court order and a settlement that may reduce the numbers in New York City but it goes on all over the country.

The Institute argued those stops deprive people “of liberty and privacy, they undermine the right to travel unimpeded.” It explained that these stops are mostly directed at minorities. African-Americans bitterly describe the experience as the “crime” of walking or driving while black. The Institute added: “each encounter that an ‘innocent’ or non-offending [racial minority] has with the police increases their sense of alienation, resentment, and disregard for the police and for the criminal justice system.”[3]

There’s the problem for all of us. Instead of fighting crime, we’re often fanning it. Adding the daily humiliations of police encounters to the instances when unarmed and innocent people are shot and killed by police, and I hope you understand that this is the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy, with the wrong consequences.

People talk about supporting the police, but whom do we want to support them against? Criminals? Or communities? This is serious stuff. It’s not a ball game with a home team. Anger can have huge costs. Those of us not in the poor community pay in our taxes and we pay with our safety. Those of us in the poor community, trying to make the best of the hand we’re dealt, pay in the chances for a happy and rewarding life and family. When we think about supporting the police, think about how far and how much and with what restraints so that they get it right. Harassing or killing innocent people is not acceptable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 18, 2013.

[1] Brief of the Rutherford Institute, Amicus Curiae in Support of the Petitioner, Heien v. State of North Carolina, No. 13-604, Supreme Court of the United States, 2013 U.S. Briefs 604; 2014 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 2276, June 16, 2014

[2] New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Report, Civil Rights Implications of Post-September 11 Law Enforcement Practices in New York (Washington, DC., March 2004) available at http://www.law.umaryland.edu/marshall/usccr/documents/cr122004024309.pdf (last visited October 13, 2014.

[3] Quoting Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., Journalists and Academics and the Delivery of Race Statistics: Being a Statistician Means Never Having to Say You’re Certain, 4 RACE & SOC’Y 149, 157 (2001).

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