the definition of a police state depends on where you live - what country, and what postal code

Some people get upset when progressive activists use words like "police state" and "fascism" to describe law enforcement overkill in North American society. I understand the argument. We don't want to exaggerate conditions in our own society and thus minimize the conditions of people who live under extreme conditions, as the Palestinians, Iraqis, and others in occupied or highly repressive regimes.

But I often find these and similar words appropriate for several reason.

First, fascism, like democracy, is a process. Neither is an on-off, all-or-nothing state. I often borrow Naomi Wolf's concept of the "fascist shift," which describes a process of change through which a democratic state becomes an undemocratic state. There are many historical precedents.

Second, I think many people subscribe to an overly narrow definition of these words, leading them to minimize some very grave dangers. If the word "fascism" conjures images only of Nazis - if we decide this is the litmus test of fascism - then we may miss a whole lot of fascist tendencies that don't pass this narrow test. I'm sure you've seen this poster? As a commenter on my Flickr page put it, by the time you're at that point, it's too late.

There's a third and very important consideration: not everyone who lives within the same geographic boundaries lives in the same state. Israel is said to be a democracy. Apartheid-era South Africa was said to be a democracy, too. It was, for some. As Israel is, for some. Canada has a great health care system and excellent quality-of-life statistics - unless you're Native. The US is a land of opportunity - except for all the people who don't have any. And so on.

Right now, in my hometown of New York City, millions of people live in what I will unapologetically term a police state. Columnist Bob Herbert calls it "Jim Crow policing".

You might think Jim Crow was about whites-only water fountains and other public facilities, but it was much worse than that. Jim Crow was a reign of terror, not perpetrated by the state but enabled by it. This morning I interviewed a South African activist and historian for an upcoming post (one I'm really looking forward to). He said Jim Crow in the US South was worse than South African apartheid.

So what is "Jim Crow policing", also known as "stop-and-frisk"? It is when police stop people of colour on the streets in their own community, interrogate them, force them to submit to body checks and searches, and collect their personal information, to be stored in a giant police database. There is no warrant. There is no probable cause for arrest. There are no charges. There is only skin colour and zip code.

Millions of New Yorkers have been subjected to stop-and-frisk. The New York Civil Liberties Union conducted a multiyear study of police practices. Here's what they found.
An analysis by the NYCLU revealed that more than 2 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2010, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports:
* In 2004, 315,483 New Yorkers were stopped by the police. [See numbers here.]

From the NYCLU's Stop and Frisk Fact Sheet:
NYPD’s Over-reliance on Stop and Frisk

* The NYPD stopped, questioned and/or frisked over 508,540 people in 2006, an increase from just 97,296 in 2002.

* Even using "the most liberal assumptions" about the national average when it comes to the rate of the public's contact with police officers, the Rand Corporation’s study notes, New York should have had "roughly 250,000 to 330,000 stops rather than the 500,000 stops actually recorded."

* Only 10 percent of stops led to summonses or arrests. The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers questioned and frisked by the NYPD were engaged in no criminal wrongdoing.

* As compared to a 1999 study by then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, which reported that police stopped nine people for each arrest they made, twice as many people now are being stopped for each arrest.

Disproportionate Stops of People of Color

* 89 percent of those stopped in 2006 were people of color. 55 percent of the stops were of black people – more than double their percentage of the population – and 30 percent were of Latinos.

* Stops of whites, who number about 3.6 million according to recent census estimates, amounted to only 2.6 percent of the white population. By contrast, stops of blacks, who number about 2.2 million people, represented 21.1 percent of the entire black population.

* Residents of Brownsville's 73rd Precinct and Harlem's 28th Precinct had a 30 to 36 percent chance of being stopped and questioned by police in 2006. Citywide, the average was about 6 percent.

* A total of 2,756 cops filed 54 percent, or approximately 274,000, of all stop-and-frisk reports in 2006. Of that group, 15 percent, or about 413 officers, stopped no whites.

Disproportionate Outcomes of Stops for People of Color

* In 2006, 21.5 blacks were stopped for each arrest of a black person as opposed to only 18.2 whites stopped for each white arrest.

* Cops found guns, drugs, or stolen property on whites about twice as often as they did on black suspects.

* Whites were stopped on suspicion of possessing a weapon at a rate lower than their weapon-possession arrest rate. Blacks were stopped on suspicion of possessing a weapon at a rate greater than their weapon-possession arrest rate. These findings indicate that cops were more often unjustified in stopping black people on suspicion of having weapons.

Disproportionate Use of Force on People of Color

* Police used force – i.e. handcuffing, frisking, drawing weapon, restraining – about 50 percent more often on blacks than on whites in 2006.

* 45 percent of blacks and Latinos who were stopped were also frisked, compared with only 29 percent of whites.

In addition to these class- and colour-based indignities, the NYPD has been storing all the personal information they collected indefinitely in a giant database. In other words, the NYPD turned more than 1 million innocent African American and Latino New Yorkers into criminal suspects, even though they had not even been legally accused of wrong-doing!

The New York State legislature recently passed a bill, signed by Governor David Paterson, preventing the NYPD from storing this data. It passed over the heated opposition of both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. (New York Post: "Mayor Bloomberg, cops fume as gov purges frisk list".)

However, the law only speaks to data collection and storage practices. To my knowledge, it does nothing to curtail the stop-and-frisk practice itself.

Why can police stop and search citizens without a warrant, without evidence or suspicion of wrong-doing? Doesn't the US Constitution forbid that?

If you were among the millions of people subjected to this practice, would you feel you lived in a police state?

An Op-Ed in the New York Times by Heather Mac Donald defended the practice of using stop-and-frisk in low-income neighbourhoods because "that's where the crime is," and decried the "predictable chorus of criticism from civil rights groups" against the stop-and-frisk database. Here are five articulate soloists from that chorus.
The best crime-stopping policies actually deal with criminals. Yet Heather Mac Donald wants the New York Police Department to continue a stop-and-frisk policy with a 90 percent failure rate. Nearly nine out of every 10 people stopped and interrogated on our streets are let go without a citation or summons — and certainly without an arrest.

Last year, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped New Yorkers 575,000 times. A gun — the ostensible reason for the stop-and-frisk regime — was found in slightly more than 0.1 percent of those stops. That is an unbelievably poor yield rate for such an intrusive, wasteful and humiliating police action.

I agree with Ms. Mac Donald that vulnerable communities need better police protection — but a policy that is both ineffective and hurts the long-term relationship between the police and the community is not the way to provide that protection.

Donna Lieberman
Executive Director
New York Civil Liberties Union
New York, June 28, 2010

Heather Mac Donald misses two key points. Critics of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics do not accuse individual officers of racial bias, but question the practice itself because of how it focuses almost entirely on minority neighborhoods.

Also, Ms. Mac Donald writes as if stop-and-frisk methods were the only effective response to unlawful acts in high-crime areas. Other police departments in the nation, like those in San Diego and Boston, have engaged in community policing strategies that have been successful in reducing crime in designated areas.

And by contrast, those approaches have helped build positive relationships between the community and the police, rather than create the kind of antagonistic and hostile attitudes in local residents that stop-and-frisk has often fostered.

It is time to cease defending the racially biased stop-and-frisk practices of the city’s Police Department and to consider other proven crime-fighting approaches.

Robert Gangi
Executive Director
Correctional Association of New York
New York, June 28, 2010

Apart from the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches and seizures, the alarming 575,000 “pedestrian stops” chalked up last year by New York’s Finest are flagrantly contrary to law.

Section 140.50(1) of the state’s Criminal Procedure Law provides that “a police officer may stop a person in a public place ... when he reasonably suspects that such person is committing, has committed or is about to commit” a crime.

Absent the Constitution’s prerequisite of “probable cause” and the statutory requirement of reasonable suspicion, each of these arbitrary stops flouts the law, makes a travesty of the right to privacy and breeds contempt for law enforcement.

Eighty years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis observed: “The makers of our Constitution . . . conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

Roger Brandwein
Scarsdale, N.Y., June 26, 2010

The writer is a lawyer.

Heather Mac Donald’s ringing endorsement of Compstat policing and the more than half a million New York Police Department stop-and-frisk street encounters in just one year brushes aside the consequences that so many adverse interactions have on the relationship the police enjoy with the community.

For too many minority New Yorkers, the sight of a passing police car brings a sense of dread and angst, the terrible feeling that they do not yet enjoy the full liberties the Constitution promises or the rights of redress that many New Yorkers take as a given. It ignores, too, the fact that many street cops bristle at the constant pressure to produce higher year-on-year “numbers,” pressure that coarsens a profession that is overwhelmingly rooted in service.

The N.Y.P.D. should be proud that it takes crime and disorder seriously — something that sadly cannot be said for many big city police departments — but people of good conscience should beseech the deservedly much-respected Commissioner Raymond Kelly to look again at whether this level of adversarial interaction is really required.

Eugene O’Donnell
Chicago, June 26, 2010

The writer, a lecturer in the department of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is a former N.Y.P.D. officer and New York City prosecutor.

Heather Mac Donald argues that the racial disparities with respect to the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices are justified because of higher crime rates in black and Latino communities. While she cites many statistics regarding violent crime, she minimizes the fact that of the 575,000 stops in 2009, only 12 percent led to arrest or summons, and completely ignores that guns and other weapons were recovered in slightly more than 1 percent of the stops.

To Ms. Mac Donald, and perhaps many New Yorkers, the police’s singling out of “suspicious-looking” people for questioning because they live in “high crime” neighborhoods may seem like a low-cost, intuitively compelling approach to crime prevention. To the hundreds of thousands of innocent people stopped walking to school or work, running an errand for their families or simply visiting friends, these practices have the effect of undermining communities, damaging self-esteem and corroding trust.

Practices that yield so little and cause such harm demand critical examination.

Leonard E. Noisette
Director, Criminal Justice Fund
Open Society Institute, U.S. Programs
New York, June 28, 2010

No comments: