Pubdate: Tue, 05 May 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Eugene Robinson


The first two steps toward uplifting young black men are simple: Stop 
killing them and stop locking them in prison for nonviolent offenses.

Subsequent steps are harder, but no real progress can be made until 
the basic right to life and liberty is secured. If anything positive 
is to come of Freddie Gray's death and the Baltimore rioting that 
ensued, let it be a new and cleareyed focus on these fundamental 
issues of daily life for millions of Americans.

Central to the crisis is "zero-tolerance" or "broken windows" 
policing, which basically involves cracking down on minor offenses in 
the hope of reducing major crime as well. Whether this strategy works 
is the subject of two arguments whose right answers can only be 
inferred, not proved.

The first involves the contention that police should be more 
aggressive in patrolling innercity minority communities because 
that's where the criminals are. Those who hold this view might point 
to Gray's history of drug arrests. They might argue that the police 
officers were justified in thinking he must have been guilty of 
something, especially when he ran- and that if he had nothing to 
hide, he should have simply stayed put.

But this argument overlooks a universal phenomenon: We find things 
where we look for them.

If police concentrate their patrols in a certain area and assume 
every young man they see is a potential or probable criminal, they 
will conduct more searches - and make more arrests. Which means a 
high percentage of young men in that neighborhood will have police 
records. Which, in turn, provides a statistical justification for 
continued hyper-aggressive police tactics.

In New York, where a federal judge ruled then-mayor Michael 
Bloomberg's "stop and frisk" policy unconstitutional, an analysis by 
the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 85 percent of "stops" 
in 2012 involved African Americans or Hispanics - who make up just 
half the population. The No. 1 goal of the practice, city officials 
said, was to get illegal weapons off the streets. But minorities were 
found to be carrying weapons just 2 percent of the time, while 4 
percent of whites who were stopped and frisked had weapons.

This doesn't mean the New York Police Department should have deployed 
all its resources to the Upper East Side. What it strongly suggests 
is that officers, when deciding whether to stop and frisk whites, 
exercised greater discretion. It suggests police were more likely to 
single out whites who genuinely had something to hide and to detain 
African Americans and Hispanics indiscriminately.

The second argument about aggressive policing is about impact: The 
advent of "broken windows" has coincided with a dramatic decline in 
violent crime across the nation.

Did one lead to the other? It is easy to show a correlation but 
impossible to prove causality. It is not as if police departments 
were ignoring inner-city communities before the practice of rousting 
suspects on drug corners was known by a fancy buzzword. And violent 
crime has also fallen sharply in many communities that either 
abandoned zero-tolerance policing or never adopted it.

Has crime fallen because so many hard-core criminals are in prison? 
Believe me, my heart does not bleed for any murderer, armed robber or 
rapist who is behind bars. But thousands of black men are in prison 
for possessing or selling marijuana, a drug that is now legal in the 
nation's capital. Blacks and whites smoke pot at equal rates, but 
African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for doing so.

In the larger war on drugs, the victims have been black and brown. 
The American Civil Liberties Union reported last year that African 
Americans facing drug charges are imprisoned at a rate 10 times that 
of whites - and that sentences for black men are nearly 20 percent 
longer than those for white men, on average. Punishment for 
possessing or selling crack cocaine remains vastly greater than for 
an identical quantity of the upscale powder variety.

Back to Freddie Gray and Baltimore: At 25 years old, without 
education, employment or immediate prospects, he was hardly what 
anyone would call a pillar of the community. But neither was he any 
sort of menace to society. Perhaps some intervention would have 
gotten his life on track. Perhaps not. We'll never know.

When he saw police, he ran. Was that illogical? The officers chased 
him down, pinned him in a folded position "like origami," according 
to a witness, and tossed him into a police wagon. Was that necessary?

The answer to both questions is no. Therein lies the problem.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom