Monday, July 27, 2009

Perceptions may differ

You are living under a rock if you don’t recognize the depth of distrust that festers in the United States between police officers and many African American citizens. Making even small steps towards bridging that gap requires that we talk about these issues with one another—and that we actually listen to one another. There’s not enough of that.

Last Thursday, I was a panelist at a community forum concerning the over-representation of minorities in the criminal justice system. Personally, I think it is something of a national disgrace that the demographics of our jails, prisons, and correctional institutions is so racially skewed.

What we see in the criminal justice system mirrors economic, educational, and other disparities in our society. I can’t solve every social ill that exists in America and contributes to this, but there are some things I can influence. One of those as a police officer is to try my best to treat everyone fairly, and to understand that the perceptions of my fellow citizens may differ.

A good example arose in the discussion Thursday night, and this is now the fourth or fifth time I’ve heard this in recent years. Two men separately described what sounded to me like reasonably routine contacts by the police. In both cases, the contact was brief, no law was violated, and after a short interlude the officer departed. No one was ticketed or arrested. Neither of these men knew the identity of the officer. They both (and many others, judging by the stir in the audience) perceived the fact that the officer departed without any documentation as evidence that he or she was trying conceal their identity.

From my perspective, it sounded different: an officer made a brief and voluntary contact with someone, determined that nothing consequential was occurring, had no reason to delay the person, and went on his or her way.

Contacts like this happen regularly in many different contexts: a brief conversation is engaged, a little body language is assessed, the officer moves on. Sometimes the contact is more formal and serious: police officers have sufficient probable cause to detain someone involuntarily, but further investigation reveals that the person has been mistakenly identified, or other exculpatory evidence is uncovered. In these cases, the arrestee is typically released with no further adieu.

I think these contacts are often perceived quite differently by people of color—particularly young people—than police officers realize. Here’s something we could do in some of these short, informal contacts that do not result in an arrest, citation or report: give the citizen a business card. You don’t have any doubt who I am, or any reason to suspect that I am trying to conceal anything. If you feel that you have been unreasonably treated, you can effectively make a complaint or an inquiry. The second thing I can do is to be sure I explain the reason for the contact.

The third thing I can do—particularly in those situations where we have mistakenly detained people originally thought to be suspects--is to apologize. An apology doesn’t mean that there was no legal basis for the detention, or that I have done anything wrong, it simply means that I am sorry. If your child falls off her bike and scrapes her knee, you tell her “I’m sorry, honey.” You are not sorry because it’s your fault she fell down, you are simply expressing your empathy for the way she feels.

Being wrongly accused or suspected—even briefly—is quite disconcerting. Having been at the bottom of a scrum of police officers in Washington, D.C., I speak from experience. I knew when I started this dust-up that I would be taken down and restrained right along with the suspect. Had I been black, or had I lacked a few years of police experience myself, I imagine I might have seen it differently. It was absolutely the right procedure, but when the appropriate time arrived, I appreciated the empathetic words of Officer Mike Stafford from the uniformed division of the Secret Service.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Spot on. Upping the communication on the part of the officer will go a long ways with neighborhoods. They are heading off any contempt for the contact by offering a solution (business card) to the citizen who at this point may be starting to feel that the stop/questioning is unjust. I can only imagine that the officer is anxious to resolve whatever it is their are investigating. And because they want to be effcient they know that they need to contact as many folks as they can until they find the information needed for the report. The curteousy of a "business card thank you" can be overlooked as an effective closer. That effort will pay dividens when the officer returns to the neighborhood to investigate something else.

Any thoguhts given to how many extra business cards would be needed should this system be hardwired into how LPD does contacts with the community?

Anonymous said...

Have you ever reviewed other cities of Lincoln's approximate size, and seen any correlation between the murder rate, and the racial demographics of those cities? I'd throw in the business robbery rate too, but the UCR doesn't break that out from all robberies. Virtually all murders are reported, so it wouldn't be skewed by any possible racial profiling.

I'd be interested in the results, since you did column-in the murder rates in a set of similarly-sized cities not long ago. Perhaps a few columns could be added for the main races as a % of the population of those same cities.

Tom Casady said...

6:59-

We go through biz cards by the boatload, I'm not concerned about it. I think the additional number would be negligible compared to the return on investment. Years ago, before the department supplied cards, some officers used to get their own made up. I'm betting there are a few of mine still floating around out there from the 80's!

7:06-

No doubt that research has already been done. But what's the point, unless it leads to some strategies for reducing violence? In my opinion, ensuring positive educational outcomes for all children, without regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, or station in life is the goal to which we should aspire.

When opportunities abound, barriers are few, and everyone has a chance to succeed and thrive, violent crime takes care of itself.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention good parenting for children.

Anonymous said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/02/books/02LITHWIT.html?ex=1398830400&en=2acc1af941d72b4b&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND

You said that maybe an apology would go a long way for our justice system. That statement reminded me of a book I read called: "The Myth of Moral Justice". The author is an attorney, law professor, and novelist and describes the injustices in the legal system and offers solutions. One of the solutions he offers is an apology. Go to the link to see a more detailed overview of the novel. I think it's a book you would be interested to read.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a well-placed sincere "apology/Sorry to have inconvenienced you" statement goes a long way to ameliorate hard feelings.

I've not been traffic stopped for a long long time (I'm one of those "goes the speed limit" drivers that everyone else in Lincoln hates). But when I was last stopped, it irked me to no end that the first words out of the officer's mouth were "where are you going tonight?" I guess there is some reason for that question; like some dummy would actually volunteer, "oh, I'm on my way to rob a bank and then sell a little meth." But to me, it's just a sort of invasion of privacy. If I'm speeding because I am driving my convulsing kid to the hospital, then I guess I would tell the officer that right away.

One of my friends was stopped last year in Omaha because she came out of a Target, signaled her intention, and crossed four lanes over about a block and a half to get into a left-turn lane to turn left. Red lights/etc. loom behind her, so she pulls over.

The officer asks if she had been drinking. Answer: no. Where she was going: answer, to the grocery store. Why had she crossed four lanes of traffic? Answer: to turn left. I signaled, what did I do wrong?
Cop's response: Nothing, uh hem, uh, um, but sometimes we see this type of drifting from elderly drivers, so we need to check it out. You can go.

My friend was pretty steamed since she is 53, which I realize, is the upper end of the age limit now.

Anyway, the officer never really did say why he tagged her, other than the general drinking question. I think had he even said, "we're doing a drunk driving detail and we noticed you crossed several lanes. Sorry for stopping you as clearly you did nothing wrong," would have gone a long way in placating her. I think he made up the "elderly" statement, which sort of threw gas on the fire.

She is still kind of pissed off and this was last fall.

Steve said...

I could be all wet here, and I shouldn't presume to speak for anyone else, but I think perhaps the point of 7:06's question was in regard to your statement (and that of many others) that, "I think is (sic) is something of a national disgrace that the demographics of our jails, prisons, and correctional institutions is so racially skewed." We hear that kind of statement a lot, and I never thought about it in any other terms except as an accusation of unfair treatment by the police and legal systems based on race. Now, I have no doubt that there are police officers, just as there are people in all walks of life, that are racists, or at least treat people differently because of race or ethnicity. However, I find it hard to believe, in this era, that their numbers are sufficient to bring about the level of discrepancy in the make up of our jails and prisons that you describe. That leads to the conclusion that there are simply more crimes committed (proportionately) by people of color than by whites (or just more of them get caught and convicted and sentenced to jail). That in itself seems like a racist statement, but when I consider what follows your statement (that this racial skew is mirrored in other aspects of our society), it makes more sense.

Because the statement came from you, I didn't think of it as a condemnation of the police and legal system, but instead blaming the imbalance in jobs, education, and such as the reason for the disparity in our jails. I would imagine that if we had figures on crime simply within the white population, we would find the majority of those in jail were poor and uneducated.

I'm sure there are a lot of people, like me, who do their best not to let race affect the way they deal with others. However, when we hear people of another race or ethnicity speak, we often hear their words differently than we might if it was someone of our own race. We have that little bit of suspicion, or skepticism, about what they're really trying to say that sometimes channels our thoughts in such way that we don't really understand what they're saying. It can be easy to let these misunderstandings get out of hand, like it did recently with the police and Mr. Gates in Cambridge.

I'm glad you brought this up in your post, because it helped me to become a little more self-aware. I agree totally with your ideas on the business cards, explaining the reason for the stop, and apologizing for the inconvenience the stop may have caused. It sure wouldn't hurt, even when the officer and the citizen are of the same ethnicity.

JIM J said...

First, police are not legal advisors. Here is an example. A person is contacted at home by a knock on the door. Hi, I am officer Questions.
A lawyer or legal advisor may add, you have no obligation to speak with said officer.
Time and time again the police use the uniform to project power. The police should not corner innocent people into talking with them. During an investigation many people do not want to get involved. This is exampled by so many parents who tell the kids they do not have to talk to the police. Many adults feel, I have nothing to hide so why not talk to the police? The main idea is that talking to the police can not help you. If you are innocent and find that you are now headed to court because of your mouth, you get what you harvest. You have bloged about the fact that people "do not have to talk to the police"
The point I am making, is that most all officers conceal this fact and never tell you, you really do not have to speak with me. When this changes then and only then, will those business cards have a changing impact. Up to that time you are just wasting trees. I hope I did not stale your morning coffee.

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts, Chief.

It's tough. I can see both sides of this. You're basically saying that it shouldn't bother them that they have to talk to an officer if nothing comes out of it. In my world (upper-middle class white suburbia) ANY conversation that I have with an officer is a big deal. I've never, in my life, had an officer approach me for no reason just to ask me a few questions. Then again, I've been lucky enough to have spent my life surrounded by people who have likely never been approached by an officer just to ask a few questions.

It's a classic catch 22. When you live in the bad part of town, expect that the people around you are breaking laws and the police are chasing them. But it's often hard to get ahead when you live in the bad part of town and all of your outside influences are negative.

Unfortunately their response to the "hassling" is to dislike the police. What they SHOULD be doing is putting pressure on each other to not break the law. If you look the other way when the guy next to you is breaking the law...expect to talk to the cop that is trying to catch him.

-Jason

Tom Casady said...

10:07 -

If one of our officers insinuated that a 53 year old is an elderly driver, I know about 31 LPD officers that would want to talk to him or her about that....


Jim J-

You don't have to talk to the police. Neither do you have to talk to your neighbor, be nice to small children, pick up someone else's litter, leave a tip for the wait staff. In a civil society, we do lots of things we are not legally required to--one of which is try to help the police do the job we are all responsible for: maintaining peace, safety, and security--even when doing so requires a little effort or is slightly uncomfortable.

JIM J said...

Talking to your neighbor, being nice to small children, or picking up someone else's litter, or a tip for the wait staff, will not (as a general rule) lead to an indictment. With over ten thosand federal laws, many that the govenment GAO does not know exists, why would ANYONE take a chance to implicate themselves in violating a law (1 In 10,000) they did not know exists.
My point was not based on mood. It was a reflection of what any attorney would advise a client. And such an attorney would tell you this even if you did not leave a tip.
No hostility intended, just trying to jump start the blog which has been kind of slow as of late. Come on readers, sound off.

Steve said...

Jim:

You paid close attenting to the "Lecture by Attorney" that you posted on your blog. Did you correctly answer his question about how many people were shot to death?

While there is nothing technically wrong in your comment, I would have to agree with the Chief that helping the police is something we are morally and ethically responsible to do, if not legally. If you are a generally law-abiding citizen, and don't give the police any reason to look for something else to arrest you for when they are questioning you about something, you have nothing to lose except perhaps a bit of your time. Yes, if you have a shady background, or were actually involved in some illegal incident being investigated, you would probably not want to talk to police. However, chances are that if you refuse, and you are a suspect, you may still be arrested. Then, even if you are innocent insofar as the original investigation, you may still get "caught" for something else you did (outstanding warrant, failure to appear, etc.). At best, you've lost more time, at worst, you get a free trip to jail without a card to get you out.

While the advice given by the attorney may be good for future lawyers, I don't think it's good for society.

Anonymous said...

Jim J-

That's a pretty weak argument if you ask me. That's about the same as saying "I decided to quit driving because there are driving laws that I'm not aware of and I don't want to break one of them."

If a cop thinks that I can help I'd rather help them do their job. If they're successful at stopping crime it benefits me by making the city safer. That's enough for me. If you don't want to tell them something then don't. I just don't get why you would withhold something that may help them catch somebody else.

That said, I could still argue that if you're close enough to something that you find yourself talking to an officer...you probably need to rethink your surroundings.

-jason

Anonymous said...

Chief, you hit the nail right on the head - "help the police do the job we are all responsible for: maintaining peace, safety, and security--even when doing so requires a little effort or is slightly uncomfortable."

Anonymous said...

Did you ever think that the reason an attorney wouldn't want you to talk to the police without your attorney present is to line their own pockets?

An attorney isn't paid for not being present.

It's amazing how many people don't want to cooperate with police in the smallest way but expect the whole police force to take notice if someone sneezes in their general direction.

Anonymous said...

Lessons I learned from driving a truck:
Sometimes doing a good thing can cost you.
Most Cops will bend over backwards to do what is right.

Both lessons where I learned this took place in Missouri. I had stopped on the outskirts of St. Louis to help a MHP officer put out a fire on the shoulder of the road. I used up two fire extinguishers in helping the trooper put out the fire. The lady in the car had young children and although scared to death they were all OK. I proceeded on my way while the trooper stayed on the scene waiting for a wrecker. About an hour later I pulled in to the scales at Festus and a D.O.T inspector was spot checking trucks for safety violations. I got nailed for not having an operable fire extinguisher. A fifty dollar ticket if I recall correctly. The D.O.T inspector wasn't believing my excuse about helping put the fire out in the four wheeler. I had pushed the issue just about as far as I felt I could without POing the DOT man into checking my log books etc. Just as I was ready to get in my truck the Trooper I had assisted earlier pulled in. He went to bat for me and the ticket was torn up. In addition he made the D.O.T officer trade me two fully charged fire extinguishers to replace the two I had used up earlier.

That was the only time I ever felt good leaving the Festus, MO scalehouse.

Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

There should be no reason to ever talk to the police. The best thing you can do is remain silent. Police don't decide the law its the judges or jury. No matter what you say can or will ever benefit you. It is best to remain silent. Even if you have done nothing wrong and police need you for a witness or want you POV what good would talking to them do? All it will do is get you involved. Who says it is our ethical and moral responsibility? Everyone has different ethics and morals.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is common decency to be up front with someone you detain. I think it is good to tell them why you kept them from moving on, why you are now letting them go and what happened in the time period between to cause the outcome. (If you can due to the confidentiality of the case.)

I also agree that a simple appology can go a long way, yet it brings up an old memory for me.

I remember hearing that when you are in a car accident, the last thing you should do is appologize to the other driver. Even if it isn't your fault. A good lawyer can use your appology against you in court to say that you were aware that you were wrong and appologized for it.

Especially if someone is looking for deep pockets. I guess lawyers ruin all decency.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

http://journalstar.com/news/local/article_b4e5a510-7a41-11de-b6b6-001cc4c002e0.html

That guy talked to police thinking he was doing the right thing...but he got arrested.

What you should get from this...don't talk to police.

Anonymous said...

3:51

Don't talk to the police? How about don't be a child abuser!
JW

Anonymous said...

There are a frightening number of 'don't ever talk to the police' comments posted here. I wonder if those posters would have the same opinion if they were the victim of a crime that the police were investigating? Would they then advise the people that officers were contacting to keep their mouths shut? I'm doubting it. I'm pretty sure that based on those attitudes, an apology will do nothing to help the situation. I agree one should still be offered; but the 'out to get me' crowd will still be miffed.

Anonymous said...

CENTER B 013 TRESPASSING 1515 07-26-2009 1500 BLOCK N 25TH ST A9-072773
CONDOM WRAPPER FND IN LOCKED HOME/UNK HOW IT GOT THERE

Do you think this could be related to the break in at the book store a few months back?
Or is this a situation where being married for so long really is so boring that he forgot that he had used a condom?
I think the crime unit should solve this. If this gets out of hand (pardon the pun) it could lead to a "condom" bandit and who knows if he gets in the fridge or not.

Anonymous said...

This a a viewpoint on not talking to the police when contacted, from a law prof. This is roughly the same tack, but from a career LEO.

The chief wrote (a few days ago) that nothing aggravates him more than the practice of adults instilling fear of the police in children. I wonder if this is more of a problem in some socioeconomic groups than it is in others. I also wonder if it's more of a problem in single-parent families than in families where the children are raised by both of their married, biological parents.

Regarding apologies, if one has done nothing wrong, then an apology isn't necessary or even appropriate. When you apologize for something that wasn't your fault, it's not only hollow and patronizing, it also devalues what an apology is supposed to be - a genuine and contrite admission of your own fault. It's like referring to every pleasant acquaintance as a "friend" devalues that word.

Tom Casady said...

6:42 -

It's an entertaining and provocative presentation, linked by Steve earlier. There is, obviously, a huge difference to being interrogated as a suspect and to being interviewed as a witness or person with potentially relevant information. Remember, most of what the police do has nothing at all to do with crime. As a citizen, it's your obligation to ensure the domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, just like mine. I am merely paid as your employee to devote full time to the effort.

Regarding parents, nothing--absolutely nothing--can take the place of two committed parents who model respect, committment and selfless love.

Regarding the simple statement, "I am sorry," you and I will just have to disagree. When Tonja embraces me and tells me she's sorry about this crisis or that, she is simply showing her love, empathy, and concern for my well being. When the waiter apologizes for the delay, I realize he's not responsible for the kitchen or the payroll. When the taxi driver apologizes for the traffic jam, she's not to blame. Although the latter two vary immensely from the former, they all acknowledge my feelings, and are all appreciated at some level.

Tom Casady said...

Gun Nut-

You know I can't post that. But I enjoyed it, at least the first time I heard it in 1975. ;-)

Everyone else:

It was a very old joke about a badge-heavy cop encountering a nurse on a traffic stop.

Anonymous said...

3:51

Nothing we can do when someone has a warrant. We HAVE to take them to jail.

JIM J said...

Not to defend my comments, but I do talk to the police. Tonight we had some children going through the lots in our area. It is after 11:30 P.M and parents let kids out this late. These kids are not from our area. The responding officer said the kids were seen on the corner about a half mile from our house. So the late point on this topic is, most people will do the right thing and look out for other neighbors. I have never had an encounter with LE as a complaining party and as a result needed the advice of a lawyer. I have no apprehensions talking to LE under this circumstance.
The entire point of my post is that the legal system is the best in the world and that the protections provided by the constitution are for ALL people. You do not "appear guilty" if you ask for legal representation in a cival or criminal matter. Many people say " why do I need a lawyer, I did not do anything wrong"
They do not get this simple idea. Laws are very complex and are best left to a educated attorney. Most all great police officers understand this view.
Jason: I rethink my surroundings whenever I am out in this preditory world. I also took the time to talk to two of my neighbors prior to the officer arriving. One neighbor had left her door unlocked. I told her that is not a good idea as someone has been checking open doors on cars this past week, and could decide to check some houses too. I guess it is the "it will not happen to me" idea. Thats all.

Lorimor said...

After years of observation, it appears the same old excuses are still being used.

Personal responsibility may be old fashioned, but it's never out of style.

Anonymous said...

"As a citizen, it's your obligation to ensure the domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, just like mine"

Where did I miss this memo?

I have the right to remain silent, I know that, it is actually in the constitution.

Anonymous said...

3:51

That's funny. The take away that I got from that is to either 1) don't break the law or 2) (if you do) take care of your stuff before a warrant is issued.

See, it's all a matter of perception.

Jason

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:16...I once heard Judge Jack Lindner say, upon convicting a man of failing to disperse, "The problem with people now is that they are so worried about their rights, they forget about their responsibilities." The guy's big contention was that the police didn't have the RIGHT to tell him to leave the area of the large disturbance. Everyone nowadays knows (or think they know) their rights. You mentioned the right to remain silent being outlined in the Constitution. That right only applies to the right against self-incrimination. It has nothing to do with withholding evidence or refusing to be a witness. Once again, the only time you should be fearful of speaking to the police, is when you have something to hide.

Tom Casady said...

10:16 -

Maybe you should start reading that Consistitution from the beginning, rather than flipping ahead to the 5th Amendment. Mine starts with the word We.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Anonymous said...

not knowing the local laws is a big problem, E.I. I worked at a club as a door men, when you ask a person over 21 that was not from lincoln they would look at you in a funny way, little do people know it is a state law that you must have an I'd on at all times. I other citys officers in uniform do not go in a make bar checks, it's a under cover officer, in lincoln the officer 90% of time will in uniform.