Saturday, May 17, 2008

Constructive Policing

When I was in high school in the mid-1990s, one of my best friends was a big Alanis Morrisette fan. Now, this might not seem strange to y'all, but in my high school, with it's 99.8 percent black population, her choice is music was a little weird.

Anyway, she used to try to convince me that Alanis was the cat's pajamas and pushed me to give "Jagged Little Pill" a shot. Of course, I refused, citing the superiority of the Cash Money Millionaires, and I probably teased her for "acting white" as well. It was high school after all.

However, because of the massive popularity of that album, I did hear one of the songs on a fairly regular basis. That song would be Isn't it Ironic

Now, I know some folks have complained that the song really butchers the meaning of ironic, but I thought about that song the other day when I stumbled across this article. The article, which is in a media trade magazine, points out that just as the NY Post was lambasting the public for complaining about the minor irritant of racial profiling, one of its own reporters was suing the NYPD for the same problem.

Now that is effing ironic. (UPDATE: The NY Post has since fired the reporter who made the complaint.

As I've mentioned before, I work for the mainstream media. I regularly interact with law enforcement officials and regularly write about crime and criminals. My job, and my life experiences, has taught me that racial profiling is a serious problem and I find it borderline hilarious that a major metropolitan newspaper (The Post has a circulation of over 700,000) could make such an argument. Even considering the fact that the paper is owned by Rupert Murdoch it just seems like a massive stretch.

But, then I decided to do some research myself and see what I could turn up on racial profiling in New York through a quick Google search. What I found was a lot of stupid commentary and some conflicting facts. It seems that people have very different ideas about whether the NYPD likes to pick on blacks and Latinos when it comes to pedestrian and traffic stops.

This link says it's a problem

This link says it isn't.

But, don't tell this guy that.

Anyway, after trying to get a handle on the issue, I reached a decision: Nobody knows what the hell is going on.

Look, my personal experience has been that the police harass black and Latino males much more than they harass any other group. But, the statistics say that the difference in negligible. So, I'm not certain whether I and the people I know are overreacting, or if the numbers have been rigged. My rather large ego says that I'm right and the numbers are fishy, but my rational mind says that it's highly unlikely that a research group would risk its credibility just to save the NYPD's butt.

That battle between those two positions in my head is actually playing out on a larger stage in the rest of this country. For black folks and some other minorities it's a given that Officer Friendly is not our friend. For white folks, and folks who think like white folks, people need to stop complaining and appreciate the fact that New York is no longer the crime-ridden cesspool it once was.

Normally, I would use this difference in opinion to condemn white folks for their blindness to the realities of life. But, that would only be dishonest in this case. After all, white folks have no monopoly on being willing to justify and rationalize ridiculous behavior. That is a human trait, a uniquely human trait.

What I really wonder is where is the common ground in this debate. For years, we've argued that the police need to vigilant, but still obey the rules of decorum that have been established. That sounds great on paper, but in reality, it has been a recipe for ass whippings and fictitious arrests. Our current system does not allow regular citizens much leeway to prevent their rights from being violated. We can retaliate after the fact, but during the encounter we're at the mercy of those individuals with a badge and a gun.

However, police officers do have a difficult and at times dangerous job. They are being asked to make real-time decisions that most of us never have to make. I have some sympathy for them and their plight.

With that said, I think there are several ways we can change the police/minority dynamic.

We need to systematically weed out those officers who are completely unwilling to change or adapt to the current world. We can no longer have a cavalier attitude about blatant racism, sexism or homophobia among our police officers. Just because their job is dangerous doesn't make it okay for them to act like brutes.

In addition, we have to change the larger context in which minorities are viewed. That means combating media stereotypes consistently and demanding changes in behavior. As long as the average white person views black people as inferior and prone to crime, the average police officer will have the same mindset.

Also, every police department needs to have a citizen board that provides oversight. These boards need to be staffed in a non-partisan manner and should incorporate community activists that are critical of the police, as well as police supporters. They must have clear standards and powers so that they can handle accusations against the department fairly. It is unacceptable that most police complaints are only investigated by the police themselves.

Finally, we as a society need to come to grips with the fact that crime is a problem in every neighborhood regardless of race or income level. We need to understand that the only difference relates to the types of crime and how aggressively the police attack those crimes. If the police enforced all laws with equal vigor, I think most people would abandon their asinine positions that support reprehensible police behavior. If everybody had to suffer the same injustices that young black folks suffer, there would be a much stronger movement to create some change.

We need the police, but we also need citizens who trust and believe in the police.

It can't work any other way.


Anonymous said...

and there you have it. excellent post.

E.J. said...

Perhaps we should add to the List of Irony the coincidence that the link to the NY Post article doesn't seem to work. hmmm

Gye Greene said...

I second that nomination: excellent post.

I **almost** charged out and did another literature review on racial profile & policing. But it'd be unlikely that'd I'd find anything solid on NYC - just racial profiling in the U.S.

Racial profiling is the outcome of our messed-up cognitive functions: a greater **proportion** of minorities commit crimes (i.e. out of 1,000 Latinos, there's a greater number than out of 1,000 Caucasians) -- due to social disadvantage, etc.

BUT -- in terms of raw numbers, there's a greater NUMBER of Caucasian offenders than non-Caucasian. (I'd have to look at the stats, but I think U.S. prisons are about 60-70% Caucasian.)

So: As cops, they **should** be "playing the numbers" and stopping Caucasian -- because most of the crooks (or bad drivers, or whatever) will be Caucasian. But instead, they do the Driving While Black thing.

Pretty interesting cognitive psych stuff. But depressing, too.


Truthiz said...

Very interesting post!

I think you summed up correctly, in one sentence, just what the central problem is:

“.. after trying to get a handle on the issue, I reached a decision: Nobody knows what the hell is going on.”

And isn’t that the general conclusion when it comes to how America Fails to appropriately address _well_ practically ANY serious issue adversely affecting the lives of Americans these days?_in particular people of color?

From the White House to the local Homeless shelter...

From civil rights injustices to criminal justice Injustices...

From educational disparities to healthcare disparities...

From employment discrimination to housing discrimination...

H*ll, from the Pentagon to Iraq and Afghanistan...

“Nobody knows what the hell is going on.”

Anyway, You’ve laid out some very good suggestions for effectively changing “the police/minority dynamic.”

Putting them into action_now there’s the challenge!

Unknown said...

Big Man for VP!!!
I loved your analysis of what needs to happen now. You're right on - we need our citizens involved in oversight and in helping police our own neighborhoods.
Maybe no one will ever get the numbers sorted out, but we could move forward with your plan anyway.
Big Man for Mayor of NO!!!

Big Man said...

Thanks for the heads up EJ, I corrected that link.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Hey I don't think your crazy at all. The subject of getting stopped seems a bit different then what that firm is measuring. It's like welfare. Whites are the largest percentage on welfare but that’s because there are more of them. While you have/had more blacks on welfare proportionally speaking, based on our percentage of the population and the percentage we have on aid.

Sure those percentages look negligible but more blacks males are being stopped to begin with there less of them in many cases. Before we even start measuring the black stop and frisk to the white stop and frisk. We need to measure how many blacks get pulled over, how many whites get pulled over and what was the makeup of that test pool. Sure 5 black and 5 whites get pulled over sounds equal but if you find out of the 25law breaking vehicles sent out 7 were black, 15 were white, and 3 were other that changes the game a little. Looks like more whites get to slide.

Like the numbers from the article mentioned “Blacks were stopped in 53% of the incidents; Hispanics in 29% and whites 11%.” Those numbers are scary considering 28% of the city is black 27% is Hispanic (which may include Hispanics of African decent) and 44% is white (% are from the 2000 census).

Does what I’m saying make sense? That's what popped in my head after seeing the percentages are negligible in most areas, but it’s still kinda early for me on a Monday morning after a late flight in. I could be thinking all crazy.


Unknown said...

OG - I think you made a lot of sense - although that may not mean much, ha ha.
My first thought was, "How many Blacks and Latinos are getting pulled over that aren't reported?" so I was wary of reading too much into the numbers anyway.

Raving Black Lunatic