Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do you see what I see?

It seems to me that often enough to deserve mention I see something or react to something in a news item that others don't see (or at least don't comment on) or to which they don't react. So out of curiosity, think about your response to this brief story, quoted in full, before you go on to my reaction, just to see if my take really is off the beaten path.
New statistics show that New York Police Department officers made 601,055 street stops of potential suspects last year.

It was the first time the total topped 600,000. The NYPD reports the figures on so-called stop and frisks to the City Council, and the 2010 numbers were made public Tuesday.

Civil rights advocates claim the practice unfairly targets blacks and other minorities, and that many stops are made without proper cause.

Police officials counter that it's essential crime-fighting tool. About 10 percent of the stops result in arrests.

In 2009, 575,304 stops were recorded.
To repeat, that's the whole article. Now, one obvious thing is that it doesn't address the issues of any potential racial disparity in the stops or lack of cause even though those were cited as objections to the practice. But here's what got me about it:

Consider first that it says that 10% of stops resulted in arrests but it doesn't say what for. The whole idea of "stop and frisk" was to search for illegal hidden weapons. Were the arrests for that? Or were they for, I dunno, drug possession (which shouldn't have been found in a frisk and could indicate an illegal search)? Outstanding warrants? Were they some bogus "contempt of cop" arrests because someone made a fuss about being stopped? What?

Consider second that it mentions only arrests but not disposition. Were the charges dismissed or pursued? If they were pursued, did they result in convictions? We have no idea.

Okay. With that in mind, here's the thing that really got me, the thing I noticed: Even if we were to assume that every one of those arrests was for a legitimate hidden weapons charge and that every such arrest resulted in a conviction, we are still left with the undeniable but unaddressed fact that the cops were wrong 90% of the time! At least!

At least nine out of every ten such stops, nine out of every ten uses of this "essential crime-fighting tool" were unnecessary, unproductive, intrusive, wasteful displays of official arrogance and power that served only to humiliate and express dominance over the victims. Nine out of every ten. At least.

I've had a number of posts that addressed issues of privacy*; in several of them (this one, for example) I expressed my concern that one real and quite possibly intended effect of practices such as this "stop and frisk" business is getting us used to being watched, checked, stopped, examined, and searched by "authority," to make passive acceptance of arbitrary authority a normal part of our lives.

How far has this penetrated our culture? How about that commercial for I think it's National Car Rental with the guy at the airport of who it's said "you can spot an amateur a mile away while you go shoeless and metal-free in seconds?" This "business pro" is being praised for how quickly and efficiently he can submit - and I've yet to come across anyone (other than my wife) who thinks that's strange! That surely is one measure.

Another measure is that at least nine out of every ten of the NYPD's increasingly-frequent uses of its "essential crime-fighting tool" of "stop and frisk" fought no crime, uncovered no wrongdoing, caught no miscreant - but that fact appears to have produced no discernible outrage. One sad but true thing about a slippery slope is that the further down you go, the more slippery it becomes.

*Just FYI: Several of the posts at that link don't deal with privacy as a topic but do use the word somewhere in the post. I know of no way to separate the two so if some of them leave you going "Why is this here?" that's why.

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