W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1932 that “Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime.” Last year we asked Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness and Director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, whether the statement still characterizes life in America:
Do I think that a statement like that holds true, even to this day? Yes. If I were to give the glib, short answer: yes. And it comes in many forms. One form is the case of New York, where we know explicitly about a policy like stop-and-frisk. A policy like that exists on the rationale that, in black and brown communities, you’ll find the most street level crime, mostly revolving around drugs or contraband guns, and so those communities should be subjected to extreme forms of surveillance, like stopping and searching people, frisking them. That is a form of accusation, the very form of surveillance and policing in those communities is, in effect, taking individual black and brown young men, and accusing them of potential criminality. There is something about the ability and the willingness for us as a society to accept that kind of treatment of young black men whose innocence should be presumed, and not in question, when they are encountered on the streets.
The statistics on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy are staggering, with the New York Times reporting that in 2011 the NYPD stopped people 685,724 times, and that 88% of those stopped were not arrested or even ticketed. And 87% of those stopped were Black or Latino.
Scrutiny of the policy is at a high, with the NAACP organizing a silent march to protest stop-and-frisk in NYC this Sunday, June 17th. As the NAACP explains, silent marches have a tradition that dates back to 1917, when Du Bois led the organization’s first major public protest and demonstrated the power of thousands of people marching silently through the streets:
Silence is a powerful force that, like other forms of non-violent protest, holds a mirror to the brutality of one's opponents. On June 17, we will hold up a mirror to New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. It is not only discriminatory, it actively seeks to humiliate innocent citizens—particularly African American and Latino men—and criminalize otherwise legal behavior. Right now in our nation’s most diverse city, NYPD officials are legally empowered to stop and pat down any individual based on nothing more than their own suspicion. In 2009, the most common justification for a stop was a vague category called “furtive movements.”
The result? Blacks and Latinos are nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by police, and the searches overwhelmingly target young men of color. In one eight-block area of an overwhelmingly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, the police made 52,000 stops over a four-year period—an average of nearly one stop per resident each year.
And the vast majority of those stopped are innocent. In 2011, the NYPD stopped and questioned 685,000 New Yorkers. Of those, 605,000 walked away with no charges—only a feeling of humiliation and anger. People of color should not be afraid to walk down the street in their own city. On June 17th, we will proudly walk with them to assert that right. Like thousands of activists before us, we will channel the power of our silence to bring public attention to the use of racial profiling by the New York Police Department.
Also this week, the Times released a short documentary, The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk, focused on a young man in Brooklyn who says he was stopped more than 60 times before age 18. It’s a powerful story:
What would Peart say about Stuntz’s proposals? I suspect he’d be quite concerned about a cornerstone of those recommendations: more police on the street. Stuntz’s strategy makes sense. More policing can result in lower levels of crime without increasing imprisonment. It can be a substitute for incarceration as opposed to an automatic conduit to it, as many suppose. But intensified policing potentially brings with it increased estrangement from the police among people like Peart, the very group Stuntz intends to help.
Social-science evidence from around the world shows that people are more likely to obey the law voluntarily when they believe that authorities have the right to tell them what to do. In fact, people may be at least as motivated to comply with the law by the belief that they’re being treated with dignity and fairness as by fear of punishment. When police generate good feelings in their everyday contacts, it turns out that people are motivated to help them fight crime.
In this significant work, Stuntz recognizes the importance of this kind of legitimacy. “[W]hen the justice system seems legitimate to the young men it targets,” he writes, they “are more likely to follow the system’s rules. When that justice system seems illegitimate to those same young men, crime becomes more common and harder to control.”
My colleague, Tom Tyler, who has done the foundational work in this area, would argue that procedures, not substance, are the keys to enhancing legitimacy. The kind of procedures engineered by the Warren Court likely are not particularly helpful. Transparency is. And so are rules that help to identify wrongdoers with accuracy and that help to dampen bias. Procedures that allow participation—juries, yes, but also stop-and-arrest processes that give the target a chance to tell her side of the story—are critical. Perhaps most importantly, legitimacy is created when policymakers welcome the help of high-crime communities in developing crime-control strategies, and when police officers focus on courtesy and respect in interactions with citizens.
Nicholas Peart may not disagree with Bill Stuntz’s analysis at the end of the day, but I am less confident that Peart would welcome Stuntz’s proposed remedies, no matter how closely they are tied to his critical diagnosis. Addressing this country’s addiction to imprisonment is not the same as attempting to repair the consequences of our sad history with respect to race and crime. I think Stuntz is right on the money on the first, but the second needs a concerted effort toward racial reconciliation in criminal justice.
Despite her concern about some of his recommendations, Meares describes Stuntz as a “remarkable human being” and a “towering intellect” whose book can teach us a great deal. There’s a great deal to be learned as well from the story of Tyquan Brehon in The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk. One shouldn’t have to imagine Brehon’s experience duplicated hundreds of thousands of times to understand the damage done by this policy. As the statistics show, though, there’s no imagination required.