Building trust between police and minority communities

By Joseph D. McNamara
August 16, 2013

A federal judge ruled Monday that the stop-and-frisk policies of the New York City Police Department were unconstitutional. That same day, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department will pull back from prosecuting low-level drug offenders to avoid triggering harsh mandatory sentences.

Both decisions reflect fundamental changes in U.S. law enforcement practices. The resulting strident opposition to the changes and equally adamant support illuminate the deep disagreements in the nation’s unresolved racial divide.

Holder pointed out that mandatory sentences fell disproportionately on minority communities and had led to grossly overcrowded prisons. Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York police policy violated the Constitution — police are most often stopping and frisking innocent male minorities.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly quickly defended the policy. They both argued that the tactics had greatly reduced violence and crime — and the number of minority crime victims. Supporters of mandatory sentences and stop-and- frisk contend that, most importantly, policy changes would lead to far higher crime levels.

My decade-long experience as a beat officer in New York’s Harlem, the highest crime area in the city during the 1960s, when crime soared, and as police chief of Kansas City, Missouri, and San Jose, California, during the high-crime 1970s and ’80s, convinced me that police tactics and judicial sentencing policies do affect crime rates.

It is also true, however, that many other variables play a significant role. Demographic and economic factors, community culture and leadership, education, unemployment, the patterns of local drug use and gangs, drug enforcement efforts and police crime reporting practices are all factors.

My years as a beat cop taught me truths that were invaluable as police chief. I learned that the magnitude of the evil imposed on African-Americans by slavery didn’t just vanish with the Emancipation Proclamation. It still contributed to the high rates of black-on-black violence and crime, often by black youths against poor people in their communities, which were ill-served by indifferent police, courts and correctional organizations.

Drug War enforcement did not reduce drug use, but Bureau of Justice statistics show that mandatory minimum sentencing disproportionately filled prisons with low-level black offenders to the point where, according to the most recent data, roughly 80 percent of young African-Americans can expect to be jailed during their life time. Since the recidivism rate is around 68 percent it is no surprise that many inner-city African-American communities suffer from exceedingly high victimization. Forty-nine percent of homicide victims are African-American, despite the fact that blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.

Nonetheless, it is understandable that an innocent African-American, confronted and frisked by an armed, uniformed officer, may feel that his dignity as a man is violated, creating a potentially violent encounter. It is important that such situations are perceived as an officer taking necessary action to protect neighborhood residents, at their bequest.

During the 18 years I served as police chief, I attended countless community meetings throughout both cities. I often heard residents complain about sporadic police encounters. Inevitably, however, the minority community would admonish, “Chief, don’t mistake what we’re saying. We don’t want less policing. We want more, but we want it to be without racial bias.”

As part of good management, police departments should be assigning the most cops to higher crime areas which, unfortunately, are often among the poor in minority neighborhoods. They require more policing, not less. People in those areas, in my experience, will accept that most police interactions will be with minority youth. So the burden for the police agencies is to establish community trust and ensure that cops behave professionally as they do their work.

I made it mandatory for beat officers and their superiors to attend and participate in neighborhood meetings. Cops who thought a community hated them and sided with law-breakers quickly learned differently. The local residents also began to see officers as dedicated and caring — not as members of an occupying army.

It didn’t solve all problems, of course. But it did go a long way toward establishing enough trust so that when inevitable difficulties and misunderstandings arose, people would withhold judgment until all the facts were in. Which is all that we could ask. Ultimately, increased public participation created a partnership supporting police actions, which helped make San Jose the safest large city in the nation at that time.

No one can predict for sure that crime will increase if police stop-and-frisk policies are eliminated. But the New York Police Department’s promise to improve the process deserves consideration when the federal appellate court reviews the decision.

While the stop-and-frisk policies can be re-evaluated, common sense tells us that prison populations can and should be reduced. It is time to put aside the hysterical rhetoric of the Drug War, because it causes far more harm to lock up drug users than to use viable alternatives, like drug treatment or community service work for minor offenses.

The federal government declared a war on drugs in 1914 by passing the Harrison Act, which first made drug possession and use a crime. More than a century later, prohibition of drugs enriches drug cartels and corrupt officials. There have been unprecedented levels of drug use and drug gang violence, while minor, non-violent drug offenders were given severe mandatory sentences. It would be better to repeal unworkable drug sentencing laws than to have the attorney general try an end run — but it is still well past time to stop making drug cartels rich and turning minor users into career criminals.

The judge stated that she did not rule on whether or not stop and frisk reduces crime but only on the constitutionality of the NYPD policies. The appeal courts will ultimately rule on the program’s constitutionality. But ultimately the public will need to vote on the appropriateness of the methods police can use to protect safety.

 

PHOTO (Top): A demonstrator is arrested by New York Police Department officers during May Day rallies in New York, May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PHOTO (Instert A): New York Police Department officers arrest a young man during a protest against the killing of 16-year-old Kimani “Kiki” Gray, killed in a shooting involving the NYPD, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PHOTO (Insert B): New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gestures while speaking about a judge’s ruling on “stop and frisk” at City Hall in New York, Aug. 12, 2013. BREUTERS/Brendan McDermid

8 comments

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“…it did go a long way toward establishing enough trust so that when inevitable difficulties and misunderstandings arose, people would withhold judgment until all the facts were in. Which is all that we could ask.”

The “bottom line” here is pretty simple. Does the community value a low crime rate above some arbitrary level of “dignity” to minority youth “on the street” that statistics strongly suggest DO NOT DESERVE a presumption of innocence.

The same can be said of school truants in subdivisions. I don’t want the cops to presume all kids at loose ends during the day (when most of us are away at work) to be “home schooled”. I want them stopped and questioned..who are you and why are you here?” Not a hard choice for me. Why would being black change that answer?

When perpetrators of violence and crime in a community are predominately black why would any competent Police Chief waste finite resources stopping more whites? When any community ceases to believe police are “on their side” between others who would victimize them, they are “on their own”. Good luck with that.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Very good article. I think Mr. McNamara does a good job exposing the complexities of these problems. I certainly would not want to be stopped and frisked, hence would not wish it on others. There are better ways than brute force. Unfortunately it is harder to cause social changes than to just throw money at it, and just blame the community/society.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Is ‘minority community” code for “poor folks”?

@OOTS:
By your reasoning, if we go back in US history to when nearly every American exclusive of Native Americans were new to the United States and mostly poor, then every American would be subject to unConstitutional search and seisure. Maybe the Constitution only applies to the landed elite and the Aristocracy even if it’s not explicitly stated.

Of course, our American Plutocracy always assume that this Constitution only applies to them.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

@ptiffany,

Let me toss you the meat you so obviously crave. I would define “minority community” as those collective communities that are projected to become a voting majority in the relatively near future. A reality…they have little in common except social misery.

You give substance to the saying that “the problem with common sense is that it’s not as common as it once was.” I think the “stop and frisk” concept in New York and the “neighborhood watch” across the United States have at their hearth the same fundamental purpose. That is to prevent, insofar as possible, the “us versus them” conflict between civil law abiding Americans and an exploding underclass of the uncivil who would by stealth, force and.or intimidation take that which they have not earned and do not deserve.

One must seek balance between abstract freedoms and practical security of both person, transportation, habitation and possessions. I want kids wandering my neighborhood not in school when school is in session be questioned. I don’t CARE if they live there or not. They don’t belong on my property in my absence without my specific permission.

In “the vernacular”, I will choose “property rights” over “human rights” any day, any time. I want the police to protect MY right to peace and quiet on MY property and protect my home and posessions insofar as is possible when I am away. I stand ready, willing and able to protect myself when and as necessary as a last resort.

If people insist cops search an equal number of whites, orientals, hispanics and blacks for suspects when statistics make the source of the problem clear as black and white (pun intended), they will pay the price in higher taxes and crime. Choose wisely. Choices have consequences…a concept clearly not understood very well in “minority communities”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@ptiffany,

What if violent crime were as prevalent in Washington, D.C. on “the mall, in and around the various Smithsonian buildings, the Lincoln Memorial, etc. as it is the “minority communities” of New York? As an American citizen visiting those facilities would you prefer “stop and frisk” by the police to reduce the possibility of being a victim of such street violence and crime or would you prefer “taking your chances”?

Who do you feel deserves the protection of “our” constitution protect under such circumstances? It is the very confusion of “political correctness” and abstract illusions that have so diluted once swift, sure justice that many would-be predators roam the streets of our cities and such choices must be made. Choose wisely!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Though I despise racism and degradation, I fear being the victim of crime more. I have to agree with OOTS on this one. The authorities should be able to use common sense over political correctness to stop crime.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

OOTS,
Your problem is that to you, a supporter of collective punishment, it doesn’t matter that the majority of people subjected to unconstitutional search and seizure policies by the NYPD are in fact not criminals. The law specifically prohibits the racial profiling you encourage. Who do you think you are to say that any group does or does not deserve their constitutional rights?

Their “dignity” is in fact protected by the constitution, and according to the judge, it is the NYPD who are on the wrong side of the law. You also make the fallacious argument that stop and frisk necessarily reduces crime. Other cities without stop and frisk policies saw greater drops in crime during the same time period as the program, so don’t even bother to say that crime has been reduced in NYC

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

@Benny27,

I don’t have a “problem, our society today does. I don’t support “collective punishment” but minor inconvenience in exchange for a safer public. As I stated above, we have an exploding underclass of the uncivil who would by stealth, force and/or intimidation take that which they have not earned and do not deserve.

Just yesterday three young sociopaths in Duncan, OK who were bored with nothing to do decided they were going to kill someone. These 1di0ts then spotted a young jogger visiting the U.S. from Australia, shot him in the back from their car and sped away. He died without knowing who took his life or why.

There are hundreds of thousands of young people “out there” that are not criminals. Had these specific perpetrators not been swiftly identified and apprehended I’m sure YOU would think it unconstitutional if the search did not include a demographic proportion of females and the elderly in any police dragnet set up.

People like YOU are why our airport security screeners inconvenience children and the elderly of all races when all those actively involved thus far in aircraft terror attacks have been young muslims of middle eastern or African descent. So you cheer as America spends an obscene amount screening anyone and everyone.

Israel spends a pittance and has an equivalent or better aviation attack safety record. They use common sense and PROFILE openly in their more limited and effective searches.

Our constitutional guarantees are intended to serve the best interests of the majority of Americans. At the time it was conceived, the British were not trying to blow up Americans with suicide bombs.

In a time when people in civilian clothes bring Jihad to our aircraft, the day may come when they bring it to our streets and neighborhoods. As the threat changes, rather than be twisted so as to conceal and facilitate those who would do us harm, our response must be an effective one and if that effectiveness is improved by racial profiling, SO BE IT!.

In my humble opinion when muslims reject the extemists among them and the black and hispanic “minority communities” encourage regular school attendance, good grades as a ticket to the “good life” and reject the dead end “gangstas” and thugs in their midst so many today dress and act like…guess what? No one need “profile” them any more. PROBLEM SOLVED.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive