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Like racist police, racist policies need to go

Like racist police, racist policies need to go

Like Vida B. Johnson, I was outraged at the t-shirt worn by a Metropolitan Police Department officer that glorified the use of “jump-out cars” and contained a common white supremacist symbol. Police and political leadership should actively identify and root out white supremacists from police departments throughout the country. At the same time, community leaders should examine policies that have disparate racial impacts in communities of color, even though those policies are facially color-blind or race neutral. Even without the taint of explicit white supremacy on the MPD officer’s t-shirt, the policy that produces jump-out cars in D.C. is racially problematic by itself. Although not publicly discussed as “jump outs,” the D.C. Metropolitan Police has been taken to court over the heavy-handed tactics associated with its Gun Recovery Unit (GRU).

The GRU stops and searches individuals — usually young black men in Southeast D.C. — to look for weapons. (In D.C., with very few exceptions, it is illegal to carry a concealed firearm outside of the home, so the possession of a weapon concealed on a person is presumptively criminal.)[1] Under Terry v. Ohio (1968), an officer must have an articulable suspicion a crime is ongoing or about to be committed before he can stop, question, and pat an individual down to check for weapons or, alternatively, the officer may search a person if he gains consent from the individual to be searched. Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the legitimacy of that framework in practice, placing the GRU’s standard operating procedure not in the poorer, mostly black neighborhoods of Southeast D.C., but in a posh, predominantly white residential and shopping district:

[T]ry to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required.

With the guise of voluntary consent stripped away, the reality of the District’s regime is revealed. It is a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions culminating in a search of their persons and effects.[2]

Although Judge Brown did not mention race at all in her concurring opinion, the de facto racial segregation that separates the two places is clear to anyone familiar with D.C. neighborhoods. If this were tried in a white neighborhood, she implies, the practice would be abandoned and the department might even be sued.

And while the defenders of the practice would argue that Georgetown does not face the homicide and violent crimes affecting Southeast, it’s too easy to justify separate and unequal policing under the guise of solving a legitimate policy problem. While it is entirely fair to say that more crime justifies a greater police presence in a segment of a city, that crime does not — or, rather, should not obviate the constitutional rights of the people who live in that area. If statistics showed there were more child pornography producers and distributors in white neighborhoods, the police would not be justified going door to door to intimidate presumptively innocent residents to get consent to search their computers to combat child pornography. Residents would be outraged to be treated as criminal suspects and intimidated to surrender their rights. Yet the GRU eviscerates Fourth Amendment protections for young black men walking down the street as policy, irrespective of any racial prejudice by the officers.

This sort of practice is not just a D.C. problem. Investigatory traffic stops are used across the country in order to find contraband and cash in cars travelling on American roads. Although traffic stops are a regular occurrence, research indicates there are two different types of stops and the difference between those stops has broad racial implications. In their book, Pulled Over, Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel use data to show that black motorists in Kansas are more likely to be stopped by police for pretextual causes — minor infractions with little or no public safety implications, like a burned-out license plate light — with the ultimate goal of being searched for contraband.

The respondents who were pulled over and subjected to the searches reported that, for the most part, the officers were polite and professional throughout the stops. The professionalism that has been stressed to officers in recent years to decrease hostility in police encounters does not overcome the drivers’ perceived illegitimacy of the stop. Thus, focusing on individual officers and possible bias misses the broader impact of the policy on local minority communities. Findings imply that these pretextual investigatory stops of minorities have negative effects on minority communities such as reducing respect for police and civic institutions as well as undermining the drivers’ sense of equal place in society, regardless of how polite the officers were. Sometimes the policies themselves should be examined and discontinued.

While it is crucially important that racist officers are found out and dismissed from their police departments, some of the more pervasive problems affecting minority communities are the policies officers are asked to carry out. Dubbing today’s criminal justice system “The New Jim Crow” may be a helpful comparison to understand the scale of the damage done to African-American communities by mass incarceration, but I fear of over-reliance on the narrative of an intentional suppression of black people by malicious police and profiteers. The focus on explicit racism threatens to overshadow racially biased policies that can erode the fabric of the communities police are trying to protect. Too often in law enforcement, and government generally, the damage done to marginalized communities stem not from malice, but the unintended consequences of well-intended policies.


[1] A recent decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit allowed the District to start issuing concealed carry permits to all qualified applicants, but this is likely to be stayed and held over until an appeals court hearing and decision en banc or on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. For the purposes of this post and as a matter of reality for District residents and police, the presumptive criminality of concealed possession is accurate.

[2] United States v. Gross, 784 F.3d 784 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (Brown, J. concurring at 790–791).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Charges dropped against black teenager, but no explanation for how she was mistaken for man wielding machete

Charges dropped against black teenager, but no explanation for how she was mistaken for man wielding machete

Tatyana Hargrove is not a 5’10”, 170 pound bald man with a goatee.

But that didn’t stop Hargrove, a 5’2″, 120 pound 19-year-old, from being arrested by Bakersfield, California police on June 18, even though the person cops were looking for was older, taller, heavier, and a different gender.

The only similarity between Hargrove and the man police were looking for, Douglas Washington, is that they are both black. Washington was later arrested.

Hargrove was charged with resisting arrest and use of force against a police officer even after officers realized she was not the man they were looking for. The Bakersfield NAACP took up Hargrove’s cause, generating national attention.

Hargrove’s ordeal ended earlier this month when, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced that her office was dropping all charges.

Green acknowledged law enforcement would need to repair trust with the minority community, with many outraged over what Hargrove had been put through.

However, Green defended the officers who arrested Hargrove, saying they only knew they were looking for a black man with a backpack. None the officers will face charges or any discipline.

In July Hargrove told her story on Facebook. According to Hargrove, she was riding her bike when she stopped to get a drink of water and get out of the 100 degree heat for a few minutes. Suddenly she was surrounded by three police cars, and one police officer was pointing a gun at her.

According to the Washington Post “What followed, according to both Hargrove and police, was a case of mistaken identity and an altercation in which police punched Hargrove in the mouth, unleashed a police K-9 dog on her and arrested her.”

Officer were actually looking for Washington, who’d threatened several people with a machete at a nearby grocery store. But police believed Hargrove was a man, and suspected the machete was in her backpack, according to a police report.

“She appeared to be a male and matched the description of the suspect that had brandished the machete and was also within the same complex the suspect had fled to,” wrote the arresting officer.

Police say Hargrove resisted arrest, and department officials have said officers used the appropriate use of force on Hargrove.

Hargrove, in her Facebook account of what happened, denies resisting arrest or disobeying the instruction of police. She said police punched her and threw her on the ground before turning a police dog on her.

It is unclear why police thought Hargrove matched the description of the suspect.

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Police reform activists “cautiously optimistic” about new Portland chief

Police reform activists “cautiously optimistic” about new Portland chief

Last year, Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler successfully ran on a platform that championed police reform as a major priority. But since he took office, Wheeler has repeatedly drawn the ire of local criminal justice reform activists and organizers. On Monday, Wheeler took a step that could begin to heal his relationship with concerned Portlanders by appointing Danielle Outlaw, a 19-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department to lead the Portland Police Bureau.

“My life’s passion is policing,” says Outlaw in a statement from Wheeler’s office. “I want to make a positive difference in the lives of my fellow officers and the residents of the community.’’

Outlaw, who will be the first African American woman to head the troubled bureau, has her work cut out for her. Following Trump’s election, Portland police have repeatedly used militarized force against nonviolent protesters, injuring some of them, including a 66-year-old woman. The department also has an ugly reputation for its raciallybiased policing, and a pattern of using excessive force against the mentally ill, which attracted a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2011. And Outlaw’s new role has historically belonged to a series of scandal-ridden chiefs.

Though it’s too early to know if Outlaw will ultimately be able to tackle this litany of problems, there is reason to believe she’s up to the task. Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who repeatedly sued the Oakland Police Department, tells The Portland Mercury that Outlaw is “a progressive thinker” with the skills required to overhaul the department. Outlaw comes to Portland from a police department with a reputation that is arguably far worse than Portland’s, yet Burris depicts Outlaw as utterly unlike her former colleagues, who’ve been caught planting drugs, making bad arrestsassaulting people, and sexually abusing Oakland residents.

“Transparency and accountability are issues she firmly appreciates and understands,” Burris tells the Mercury. “I think she’ll be a chief who’s progressive in thinking and understanding of these kinds of issues.”

Following the sex scandal that rocked the Oakland Police Department in 2016, then-Deputy Chief Outlaw helped implement changes to the police academy in an effort to prevent future misconduct, downsizing classes and introducing a more rigorous background check procedure for new officers.

Amid what appears to largely be a record of policing with a progressive bent and an eye toward strengthening community relations, there is one blemish. In July, when Oakland’s City Council voted to rescind a data-sharing agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Outlaw was a vocal opponent. The city council vote came as many so-called sanctuary cities across the country actively work to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s policies and shield immigrants from deportation. In spite of the council’s unanimous vote, Outlaw advocated to preserve the city’s cooperation with the federal government, saying the police department’s relationship with Homeland Security “allows us to have that federal arm and to have that transnational piece that we just as a local municipal agency do not have access to.”

That stain on an otherwise progressive record seems not to have tarnished the views of hopeful activists. Portland’s Resistance, a group of local organizers formed after Trump’s election, have pressed Wheeler on police reform and led recent local efforts to bring the hiring process for the new chief out of the shadows. As a leading voice for local police reform, the group says they are “cautiously optimistic that [Outlaw’s] hiring will mark a new direction for policing in Portland,” in a statement issued on the group’s Facebook page.

“We have no illusions that this new police chief will be perfect,” the statement continues. “Nor can a single person reform our incredibly corrupt and violent police department. However, this could be a step in the right direction.”

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