September 10th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Modest Proposal: Treat Whites and Blacks Equally Bad

True story: Quite a few years ago was what I call The Year of the Million-Jillion Tickets. I had gone to bed on March 31st 100% confident that I knew that my license plates were due for renewal in two months, which meant I needed to start soon on scheduling the necessary inspection. The next day, on my way to work, law enforcement in every postage stamp sized suburb I passed through was eager to inform me that my memory was incorrect: my plates expired March 31st, not May 31st. I called my mechanic, and couldn't get an inspection scheduled with a mechanic I trusted until Saturday. So for that whole week, wherever I went whether grocery shopping or to work or on other errands, every municipality I passed through ticketed me twice: failure to display current plates, failure to display a current inspection sticker. I think (think!) that it ended up being about 18 pairs of tickets. Unfortunately, because this is what happens to any piece of paper smaller than 8.5" x 11" that enters my life, all but about 4 of those pairs of tickets got lost long before the court dates came around. If I could have remembered which jurisdictions the other 14 were, I could have called them and dealt with it, but I couldn't remember. So I was stuck waiting for however many of those 14 jurisdictions that wanted to do so to issue warrants for my arrest on the charge of failure to appear in court as ordered. As a result, on two separate occasions I spent an evening in local jails waiting to be bailed out by friends, and one of those evenings is the source of the following story.

The St. Louis County lockup is a pair "tanks," a communal cell for each gender, where everybody waiting arraignment or bail is thrown in together. It was no more uncomfortable than the average bus station waiting room, which it more than casually resembled. It was more than adequately safe, since the wall that separated us from the dozen or so dispatchers for county emergency services was transparent bullet-proof plastic; we were never not under observation and, of course, surrounded one wall away by more cops than there were of us. I felt no fear, and spent my waiting time making origami toys (out of a "How to Make Bail" flier) for my fellow inmates, which were well appreciated because they were just as bored as I was. (It's a thing I do.) All of us, that is, except for one guy, who stayed frantically busy for the whole four and a half hours I was in there.

The room also had six or eight telephones with phone books and unlimited free local phone calls. This short, skinny youngish black guy, I'd guess his age at maybe 20, was already hogging one of those phones when I got in and was still frantically looking up numbers and dialing when I left. After about an hour or two, I asked one of the guys I'd made a toy for what the other guy's deal was, what the heck was he doing on the phone this whole time? This deeply amused my new African-American acquaintances, all of whom knew perfectly well what happened to this guy without even asking, and didn't have to overhear his conversations to know what they were. (Later, when I wandered within earshot, I found out they were right, too.) I can now supplement their explanation with some additional details, because I had occasion (during private security training) to study some of the law involved.

Our friend here was pulled over for a routine traffic stop: improper lane use, failure to signal a turn, failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, speeding 47 mi/hr in a 35 mi/hr zone or whatever it happened to be. Per US Supreme Court decisions, police in a routine investigation such as a traffic stop do not have to show probable cause to perform a casual, cursory weapons check; it is sufficient for the officer to say, if asked about it, that they felt less than totally safe and wanted to reassure themselves that the person they were questioning wasn't concealing a knife or a gun. These "pat-downs" must be quick, cursory, and confined entirely to the outside of the clothing. But if they find something that might be evidence of another crime, they may ask the subject for permission to search their pockets or inside their clothing. The question is pro-forma, purely rhetorical; the courts have also ruled that saying no is sufficient grounds for the officer to detain the subject while phoning out for a search warrant. Our subject, here, would almost certainly have consented; as someone almost all of whose friends had gone through this experience, he knew the drill. If a warrant was involved, he would have to be prosecuted. But if he consented, a deal was possible: the standard deal.

The standard deal that is offered to every black or Hispanic traffic stop subject when the (nearly inevitable) pat-down turns up any evidence of drug paraphernalia or drugs themselves is this. Cops don't want users as badly as they want sellers. So if he'll tell them the name of at least one dealer, and call that dealer from the lockup and setup a buy (preferably for an undercover officer, or at least while under consenting surveillance in a public place), they'll drop all charges against him and go after the seller. Since there really is no line in the real world of illegal drugs between buyers and sellers, since nearly everybody who buys will also share their drugs with any friend as long as the friend pays their share, it doesn't have to be the person who actually sold him or gave him these drugs. So what our young acquaintance was doing was telephoning literally every person he knew by name, asking them if they had an ounce of marijuana they could spare if he was willing to pay what they'd paid for it. His staying out of jail was contingent on his finding one acquaintance that he could sell down the river in his place.

I am given to understand, although all cops deny it, that among many cops this is 100% routine procedure in traffic stops involving brown or black skinned people. I will also tell you right now, in case any of you can't guess, that you will grow old and die before you hear about this happening to a white friend of yours, unless the white friend does something really stupid to provoke the cop into a search. And this is why, even though the National Institutes of Drug Abuse routine survey of drug use finds that blacks and whites use the same drugs, and use them in statistically similar amounts and at the same rate, it is blacks, not whites, who make up 11% of our population but half of our prison population, and why at any given time a quarter of all African-American men are under formal law enforcement supervision: in jail, in prison, on bail, on probation, or on parole.

Now, here's my modest proposal. We have tried, over and over and over again, to weed out the cops who are performing these one-sided searches and to educate them that race isn't a legitimate grounds to decide who to pat down for weapons. This has clearly failed. So let's make it a routine part of being pulled over. Let's have everybody, black or white, searched for weapons during traffic stops. Let's have everybody who has a lump in their pockets either consent to have those pockets turned out or face a search warrant; let's swab all of their clothes for drug residue. If we're going to put a quarter of our black and brown men in jail for this, and we can't stop doing so, then it's long past time to put a quarter of our white men, white women, and black and brown women in jail for it, too.