The Michael Brown shooting has brought attention to certain police policies and how those policies scramble the opinions of liberals and conservatives. Thus far, most of the attention has been on the militarization of police. In this post, I want to briefly focus on another police tactic, “stop & frisk,” and explain why this likely plays a part in the community unrest following the death of Michael Brown.
In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a case called Terry v. Ohio. In that case, the Court approved the “stop & frisk” tactic. Here is an excerpt from the Court’s opinion:
We … hold today that, where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where, in the course of investigating this behavior, he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. (emphasis added).
Several things must be noted. First, that is a rather sanitized description of what can happen out on the street (more on that below).
Second, in the 1990s, at the suggestion of conservative intellectual, James Q. Wilson, police officials like William Bratton tasked police units to go out and pro-actively stop & frisk city residents. (Wilson is well known for his “broken windows” work, but his misguided promotion of stop & frisk is another reminder that ideas have consequences). The number of stops–especially in New York City–started climbing. The liberal Michael Bloomberg also championed the tactic when he became NYC Mayor after Rudy Giuliani.
Third, what happens if the police act unreasonably and use this tactic arbitrarily against people? Persons holding contraband get busted, but what if there are tens of thousands of stops where the police officer’s actions were unreasonable against totally innocent persons? Absent physical injury, who would take a day off of work to see an attorney about that? And how many attorneys would take a case where there was an illegal 20 minute detention, illegal search of the person, and no injury? No one. For young, black men there has been no effective redress. Anger and tensions simmer. And when a young black man gets killed (recall Amadou Diallo ; and the shooting of Patrick Dorismond is also worth noting) the anger boils over into the protests and unrest we have seen in Ferguson.
The white experience with police is different because the police do not typically use the stop & frisk tactic in white communities. Here is an example of what the complaints are about:
Short version reporting on the video that went viral:
Longer version (recommended):
Because these officers were “caught on tape,” the Philly Police Department was embarrassed and so took disciplinary action. How many bad encounters are not captured on tape? 99%?
Back to the Michael Brown shooting. We have been told that Officer Darren Wilson rolled up on Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson and told them to move to the sidewalk. According to Johnson, Wilson started the interaction by cursing at them. Did Wilson lose his temper after some back talk? Or because he was dissatisfied with the speed with which the young men were complying with his command? Did Wilson escalate the situation by grabbing Brown’s throat, as Johnson has said? Did Brown passively resist by backing away so he could breath? (Recall poor Eric Garner who lost his life waiting for the police to release their grasp!). At some point, Wilson drew his weapon and shot Brown. Several times.
Maybe Wilson was behaving like the abusive Philp Nace in the above video. Maybe his conduct did not come close to that. But these are some of the questions on the minds of minorities (and others) as the investigation continues.
More background on stop and frisk here and here.