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TRI In The News

Stephen Gottlieb: War On What - Crime Or The Poor?

By Stephen Gottlieb
From WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Many of us have realized that sending troops into some areas can be counter-productive. No matter how many the Israelis kill, more Palestinians prepare to fight them. Our boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan led many to take up arms against us. To them, we were the invaders.

Let me pose an analogy and see if it fits. We don’t have survey data from everywhere but what we have is telling. The Rutherford Institute, which has billed itself as “A non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights,” told the U.S. Supreme Court recently, that “the most common justification cited by New York City police for stopping individuals was presence in a ‘high crime area’” and “an additional 32% of stops were based on the time of day, and 23% of police stops were for an unspecified reason.”

The Rutherford Institute pointed out that these stops yield very little: “only 4% of more than a half million individuals stopped, questioned, and searched in New York City in 2006 were actually arrested. … [A]nother field study indicates that only 3% of unconstitutional searches revealed evidence….” The result has been that, when they are trolling for criminals without specific reason to suspect someone, well over 95% of police stops do not result in an arrest or seizure of evidence. And when they focus on minorities, their success rate actually goes down.

This information is well-known. As a member of the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, I helped put on similar testimony both from scholars and from the office of the New York Attorney General.[ii] I’m using the Rutherford Institute’s presentation because I want to make it clear that this is not a liberal rant. It is understood in conservative as well as liberal circles.

There are two problems. The Institute was concerned because those stops are “a significant deprivation of liberty and privacy, they undermine the right to travel unimpeded.” The Institute pointed out that these stops are mostly directed at minorities. African-Americans bitterly describe the experience as the “crime” of walking or driving while black. The Institute added: “each encounter that an 'innocent' or non-offending [racial minority] has with the police increases their sense of alienation, resentment, and disregard for the police and for the criminal justice system.”[iii]

And there’s the problem for all of us. Instead of fighting crime, it often looks like we’re fanning it. Add to the daily humiliations of encounters with police and other officials the instances when unarmed and innocent people are shot and killed by police, and I hope you begin to understand that a lot of this is the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy, with the wrong consequences.

People talk about supporting the police in a war, but whom do we want to support them against? Criminals? Or communities? This is serious stuff. It’s not a ball game with a home team. Anger can have huge costs. Those of us not in the poor community pay in our taxes and we pay with our safety. Those of us who are in the poor community, just trying to make the best of the hand dealt us, pay in the chance to have a happy life, support a happy family and accomplish something in this world. When we think about supporting the police, it’s a very important question how far and how much and with what restraints so that they get it right. Harassing or killing innocent people is not acceptable.