Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stop and Fish

In an article for The Atlantic, Paul Larkin makes the point that the much-maligned "Stop-and-Frisk" policy should be targeted mainly in black neighborhoods, because that's where the crime is. But it's uncertain why that would be. After all, Mr. Larkin points out in the beginning of his piece that:

[...]99-plus percent of the residents of those neighborhoods are not involved in drug trafficking.
And, supposedly, the point behind stop-and-frisk is to protect them from crime. Yet...
The real problem is the high concentration of poor blacks in blighted communities who turn to drugs as an escape or as the most readily available income-generating opportunity. 
I think that this touches on the issue. The idea that in a community where less than one percent of the residents are involved in drug trafficking you nevertheless have a high concentration of people involved in drugs. Implicit in this is the idea that somehow, the drugs follow blacks. Otherwise, why is the real problem not the high concentration of poor people in blighted communities who turn to drugs as an escape or as the most readily available income-generating opportunity? Don't poor whites, hispanics or asians view drugs as an escape or a financial opportunity? If they don't, then we have the solution that Mr. Larkin is searching for - find whatever legal escapes and readily available income-generating opportunities exist outside of black neighborhoods and import them. Wouldn't that "make progress on that problem?" Because it seems that crime sweeps that net nearly ninety percent non-criminals weren't needed to get poor non-blacks in blighted communities to straighten out.

Part of one of the steps that Mr. Larkin recommends for preventing stop-and-frisk "from being used oppressively" is to "have [officers] apologize sometimes if they are wrong." He notes that officers may be dubious about this:
Officers will object that admitting a mistake undermines the authority necessary to maintain dominance in a world of lions, not lambs. 
This needs to be dealt with at greater length because the issue is often that people in the targeted communities, understanding that other blighted and impoverished areas don't merit the same tactics, often feel that the police establishing dominance over them is an end in itself. Especially because there is the perception that in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods, stopping the wrong person on the street while on a fishing expedition for unreported street crime absolutely (rather than just "sometimes") calls for an apology, which officers understand are a necessary part of maintaining good relationships with the community.

This feeds into a perception among the residents of poor, blighted black neighborhoods that initiatives like stop-and-frisk are instituted and supported by a greater society that seeks to prevent them from reaping the finite benefits that society has to offer. There is an understanding of zero-sum thinking - when there is only so much to go around, it should first go to the deserving - and communities with high concentrations of people who turn to something criminal are not deserving. And, as in many such things, the beneficiaries of such programs, or at least are not harmed by them, have an active incentive to ignore the self-serving aspects of it.

In the end, the issue with stop-and-frisk isn't that its critics are unafraid of crime in their community. Instead they understand themselves to be the "them" in an us-versus-them equation that seeks to perpetuate and justify inequality. As long as that perception remains, poor blacks are going to be suspicious of the idea that law-enforcement targets their communities in order to save and improve their lives. Regardless of what a member of a conservative think-tank might tell them.

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