Monday, July 27, 2009

Glenn Loury on the Gates arrest in Cambridge, MA

Brown University professor Glenn Loury has a very thoughtful oped In Sunday's The New York Times on the failure of President Obama see the bigger picture around the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates for "disorderly conduct" in his own house.

I strongly suggest that you read Prof. Loury's commentary.

The conversation that we should be having is not about race or racists but about policies that result in the criminal justice problems that we suffer.

I agree with Prof. Loury's thoughts.

But I wonder...

How do we deal with anti-social behavior? Kick ass, boys. Take names. Lock 'em up! Young men -- black, white and Hispanic -- are hounded by police. They are stopped when driving on pretexts. They are stopped on the streets on pretexts.

A decade ago, I regularly spoke to high school students about criminal procedure. "How many of you have been asked to 'assume the position'?" I would ask. The Hispanic and black students all raised their hands. The white students wondered what I was talking about -- some sexual thing?

Of course I am talking about being asked to face a wall, put one's hands up and apart and spread one's legs so that the kid can be frisked by a police officer. The officer feels the arms, torso, buttocks and legs of the kid looking for a weapon or for a container that might contain illegal drugs. Did probable cause to justify a warrantless search exist? No. The officer is supposedly making a "pat down" to preliminarily look for a weapon to protect himself or herself before further questioning the young person about their activities.

Sadly, the police regularly face real dangers on their beats and in their confrontations with the public. Their approach to those dangers may be protective, but they may also aggravate the disrespect that they find so galling, and that may incite acts of violence.

This police approach to the general public is the lock 'n load approach that is mocked by E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post: arm the Senate. Give everyone a gun, and the criminals will be intimidated.

I want to lament the breakdown of "community." But I know that it is broken. Too many people that I meet see me as a stranger -- as someone outside their family, clan, club, or gang who see me as a threat or a mark. How did our civilization get to the place where the default remedy is to arm oneself?

Can the police trust that they will be treated respectfully and nonviolently by all that they stop? Of course not. Will they treat some with respect and others with hostility? Yes. Will profiling of some kind influence that decision making? Almost certainly. Will this profiling include racial profiling? How can it not?

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