Monday, September 14, 2015

Policing the Enemy

The court's blind eye to race discrimination in the criminal justice system has been especially problematic in policing. Racial bias is most acute at the point of entry into the system for two reasons: discretion and authorization. Although prosecutors, as a group, have the greatest power in the criminal justice system, police have the greatest discretion--discretion that is amplified in drug-law enforcement and unbeknownst to the general public, the Supreme Court has actually authorized race discrimination in policing, rather than adopting legal rules banning it. This nation's hypocrisy has no limits. Let's not call it anything but what it is; this country condones racism with unrevealed, deeply held prejudices. This country has no desire to achieve justice.

Racially-biased police discretion is the key to understanding how the overwhelming majority of people who get swept into the criminal justice system are mostly black or brown, even though the police adamantly deny that they engage in racial profiling.

The police have discretion regarding who to target (which individual) as well as where to target (which neighborhoods or communities). At least 10 percent of Americans violate drug laws every year, and people of all races engage in illegal drug activity at similar rates. With such an extraordinarily large population of offenders to choose from, decisions must be made regarding who should be targeted and where the drug war should be waged.

The drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found hidden in someone's dresser drawer. Suburban homemakers could have been placed under surveillance and subjected to undercover operations designed to catch them violating laws, regulating the use and sale of prescription "uppers." All of this could have happened as a matter of routine in white communities, and especially in St. Joseph, Michigan, but it did not!

Instead, due to this deeply held, unrevealed prejudice, whenever police go looking for drugs, they look in the hood. Tactics that would be political suicide in an upscale white suburb are not even newsworthy in poor black and brown communities. So long as mass drug arrests are concentrated in impoverished communities, police chiefs have little reason to fear a political backlash, no matter how aggressive and warlike the efforts may be. And so long as the number of drug arrests increase or at least remain high, federal dollars continue to flow in and fill the department's coffers.

As one former prosecutor put it, it is a lot easier to go out to the hood, so to speak, and pick up a black person than to put your resources in an undercover operation in a community where there are potentially powerful people. The hypersegregation of the black poor in ghetto communities has made the roundup easy. Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets. Segregated ghettos were deliberately created by federal policy, not impersonal market forces or private housing choices. Black and brown youth are the primary targets. It is not uncommon for a young black teenager living in a ghetto community to be stopped, interrogated and frisked numerous times in the course of a month, or even a single week, often by paramilitary units.

History and present-day reality show that unless and until people stand up and refuse to go along with it, injustice, outrage, and horror will continue.

-Rev. Pinkney