(CHICAGO) — On June 17, 2012 (Father’s Day), thousands participated in a silent march in the streets of New York City calling on police to stop their practice known as “stop-and-frisk.” In laymen’s terms, stop-and-frisk is a policy that permits law enforcement officers to detain and search anyone they consider suspicious.
Last year, New York police officers stopped and interrogated people nearly 686,000 times. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, about 87 percent of those stopped were black or Latino. In all, there were more stops of young African-American men than the total of population of that group in the city.
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the number of stop-and-frisks has increased by 600 percent, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. While the city has defended the practice, opposition to stop-and-frisk is growing.
Mayor Bloomberg has tried to justify this practice by saying that violent crime has gone down in New York City by 29 percent in the past 10 years. There appears to be a fallacy of causation, however. For example, Los Angeles has brought down violent crime in that same time period by 59 percent without this program — and Dallas has done so by 49 percent, Baltimore by 37 percent.
San Francisco follows suit
Understanding this program becomes all the more important as San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee appears increasingly committed to pursuing some form of a stop-and-frisk policy for the city. Most recently, he used the tragic mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., as evidence for why it’s needed.
Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Lee said, “I am as, if not more, committed [to the idea] … especially in light of the massacre that occurred in Aurora.”
What proponents of stop-and-frisk are saying is that your skin color and ethnicity (absent of any criminal wrongdoing) is probable cause in and of itself; that merely walking and being black and brown, rises to the level of suspicion.
Additionally, this policy is taking place against the backdrop of federal and state legislative cowardice in addressing real gun control. Under stop-and-frisk, James Holmes would have still been able to, legally, obtain the weapons that resulted in 12 dead and 59 wounded (a point that seems to be lost on Mayor Lee).
So, what have we gained as a result of this clear exercise in racial profiling? The NYCLU found the program was largely ineffective at recovering illegal firearms. Of those frisked by police, less than 2 percent were found to have a weapon. Nine out of 10 people stopped were neither arrested nor ticketed. The report analyzed electronic data initially concealed by the NYPD but ultimately released under orders from the State Supreme Court.
What is extremely disconcerting about all of this is not that politicians and elected officials would forward such policy (that’s standard practice), it is the deafening silence (and some instances complicity) of those who say they believe in civil liberties and civil rights. Could it be that when the faces are those of black and brown men it matters little what happens to them?
The difference between black and white
Stop-and-frisk highlights one of the impacts of the Bush administration’s proclaimed “war on terror” and that is the concept of preemptive war being accepted policy. So instead of preemptive war, we have preemptive law enforcement, where probable or just cause are unnecessary appendages that can be discarded at law enforcement officers’ discretion.
There are some who would argue, however, that this policy makes perfect sense because black and Hispanic men, proportionately, make up the majority of those who commit violent crime. Let’s say that is true. What is equally true, nonetheless, is that the majority of black and Hispanic men are not guilty of committing crime; that if even if, let’s say, 25 percent are guilty of committing a crime, that still means that 75 percent are not.
Let’s be honest, this policy makes sense to those who, by and large, will not be humiliated and dehumanized by its enforcement. Such notions of justice get lost when people decide to dwell in the land of erroneous racial assumptions. Nevertheless, let’s extrapolate this flawed perspective across the racial and ethnic spectrum.
According to an FBI report from 2007, child sex offenses are among the fastest growing offenses of the federal criminal caseload from 1994-2006. During 2006, 3,661 suspects were referred to U.S. attorneys for child sex exploitation offenses. Child pornography constituted 69 percent of referrals, followed by sex abuse (16 percent) and sex transportation (14 percent). Most suspects charged with sex exploitation were white, male, U.S. citizens and had attended some college.
An earlier FBI report (from 1997) found that while 40 percent of those imprisoned for violent crimes against adults happened to be white; nearly 70 percent of those serving time for violent crimes against children were white.
Should we then see ongoing stop-and-frisk operations that target males that fit this profile? Should police officers, while these men are walking down the street, stop them and search their briefcases for child pornography and question them about their interactions with children?
Of course not, because society seems to understand, in ways that they don’t when it comes to people of color, that just because those who commit a certain crime may be overrepresented by white males, that does not mean the majority of white males are guilty of that crime.
The same 2007 FBI statistics (with data collected from state law enforcement agencies) tells us of the law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2006, Sixty-one of them were killed by white assailants. Once again, should white males, because of what those perpetrators did, be subject to the harassment and denigration of stop and frisk?
Nevertheless, black and Hispanic males are expected to accept that they will be suspected of probable criminal behavior no matter what. If justice matters, at all, this should be unacceptable.
Previous issues affecting minorities
There was a Supreme Court case in 1942 that framed this argument, though not exactly, in similar fashion. Skinner v. Oklahoma, generated by the eugenics movement, tested a 1935 Oklahoma law that prescribed involuntary sexual sterilization for repeat criminals. Jack Skinner was chosen to test the law’s constitutionality. He was a three-time felon, guilty of stealing chickens at age nineteen and convicted twice in later years for armed robbery.
By the time his case was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942, some 13 states had laws specifically permitting sterilization of criminals. The opinion striking down the sterilization law in the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma was written by Justice William O. Douglas. He highlighted the inequity of Oklahoma’s law by noting that a three-time chicken thief could be sterilized while a three-time embezzler could not.
In the words of Douglas, “We have not the slightest basis for inferring that … the inheritability of criminal traits follows the neat legal distinctions which the law has marked between those two offenses.”
Although the focus of the Skinner case was involuntary sterilization, it highlights the prejudicial and discriminatory application of laws, which brings us to today.
There are legitimate concerns when it comes to crime and law enforcement, but they cannot be answered by illegitimate and ineffective practices, where merely one’s ethnicity (and religion, in other cases) is probable cause.
We have arrived at a point in history where acronyms tell the sad story of discrimination: DWB (driving while black or brown), WWB (walking while black and brown), WWM (worshipping while Muslim) and that list could go on and on. Here’s another acronym, but it offers a solution to discriminatory law enforcement policies and practices: SIN (Stop It Now).