A federal district court finding in New York has spurred a national conversation about police "stop-and-frisk" practices ruled unconstitutional by the judge. Even though the judge referred to it in her finding, one key factor gets left out of a lot of the media chatter: It's never a good idea for the cops to look stupid.
How else do we think police officers look to the vast majority of black and Latino citizens who have done nothing wrong and do not intend to do anything wrong but are nevertheless stopped and frisked by police?
Between 2004 and 2012 New York cops stopped and frisked 4.4. million citizens, of whom 88 percent were sent on their way because they weren't doing anything wrong. Of those stopped, 83 percent were black or Hispanic even though blacks and Hispanics make up only half the population of the city.
In other words, during that period New York cops got it wrong in millions of stops. Judge Shira Scheindlin found in her ruling that the cops got it wrong because they were conflating skin color with criminality. And I know this is the point where the trolls will jump in to provide a wheelbarrow full of mainly bogus statistics to show me that black and brown people commit more crimes than white people -- basically New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's argument.
But even if we were to stipulate to those numbers -- and I'm not -- they wouldn't change the fact that being black or brown is not what makes somebody a criminal and therefore is not what makes someone suspicious. Lots of other factors that cops should be good at spotting contribute to suspicious behavior worthy of an intervention.
Most of the ruling principles here, derived from a 1967 Ohio court case often called "Terry" in police parlance, have to do with truly suspicious behavior. That includes typical casing behavior like walking up and down in front of a place to do reconnaissance or having a suspicious clothing bulge that looks like a gun to the trained eye of a cop.
Most of the focus has been on what Judge Scheindlin said about racial discrimination, but she also based her finding in part on lousy police work -- the fact that only 1.5 percent of the millions of stops in New York produced weapons. Even though black people and Hispanics were stopped more often, those stops produced fewer guns than stops of whites.
Why? Because the cops in New York were doing a lousy job of street-reading minority citizens. Mirroring a general tendency among white people to read minority faces less well than white faces, the cops in New York were getting it wrong because they couldn't tell a black high school teacher from a black burglar, a problem not unrelated to the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
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A week ago Dallas Police Chief David Brown had a wonderful semi-autobiographical essay on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News that started off with his memory of an experience when he was first a new young cop in Dallas. Brown came across a bad guy who had been a track star in his high school in Dallas. When Brown rolled up on the scene, the bad guy called him by name and shouted, "Let's see if you still got it." A foot race ensued. In his essay, Brown neglected to say who won.
That's where good police work and respect for the police come from. It's cops who know their own turf and know how to read the people on that turf. We all want the police to stop and frisk people who are about to do something bad. None of us should want them to stop people who have no intention of doing anything bad.
Of course the stopping and frisking of innocent people is oppressive, humiliating, deeply angering and all of that. But then there's this other factor: The person wrongly stopped gets back in his car or onto the bus or on down the street and thinks, "That stupid cop can't tell a bad guy from a good guy." That's not the attitude you want people to have toward the police.
We've had two chiefs in a row in Dallas, Brown and his predecessor, David Kunkle, both of whom have put great emphasis on getting it right, both of whom know how to get it right. We're lucky. That makes us smarter than New York, which ain't half bad, is it?