The role of police in the contemporary U.S.

Linked with Henry Louis Gates, top black scholar.

Published on Online Journal, by Howard Lisnoff, August 4, 2009.

When Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police recently arrested Professor Henry Gates, Jr., mistaking the professor for a burglar, all hell broke out in the media and across the U.S. about the topic of racial profiling during police arrests and the level of racism that racial profiling reflects …

… I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like dealing with police from an African-American perspective in the contemporary U.S. What I do know, though, is the common wisdom of only dealing with the police in an absolute emergency is well-considered advice. This is not to say that there are not many decent people in the ranks of police departments. But, when hindering the police in any way in their role as supporters of the system of law and order it is always best to fall on the side of caution. The reality is that police will use firepower when provoked and are almost always exonerated for those actions. 

The growth of Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (S.W.A.T.) with enormous weaponry in even the most rural of areas in the U.S. was an answer to the civil rights, counterculture, and antiwar movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Such units, armed like an Army infantry platoon with M-16s, are hardly needed to deal with police matters.

Much of the debate about the appropriate roles of police revolves around the great tragedy of September 11, 2001, when police acted heroically in their response to that disaster. However, as much of a horror as that day was, all police actions cannot be measured against that day. In stark contrast to the heroism of that day, is the fact that police brutality is not unknown in New York City.

On February 4, 1999, four police officers from the former Street Crimes Unit shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo. Forty-one rounds of ammunition were fired at Diallo. On November 25, 2006, in the borough of Queens, Sean Bell was shot and killed by plainclothes and undercover police officers on the morning of his wedding day. He was also unarmed. Fifty rounds of ammunition were fired at Bell and his friends. In both the Diallo and Bell cases, no police officer was ever convicted of any charge. Both Diallo and Bell were African-American men.

More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. today, and over 4 million are on probation. Of the over 2 million who were in prison in 2008, one out of every nine was an African-American male, while one out of 30 white men in the 20-34 year-old age group was incarcerated.

Crime is generally down across the country, perhaps in large measure due to the statistics just noted, but that is not always the case. In Florida, despite doubling its prison population over the past decade, crime is higher than in many states with far fewer citizens imprisoned and a less draconian policy of imprisonment. But, so as not to single out Florida, in the Northeast both Connecticut and Vermont are incarceration “kings” when per capita imprisonment is analyzed, and further, Connecticut is a “leader” in poor outcomes for the number of African-Americans who graduate from high school.

Until an era of increased economic and political justice is realized within the nation and across the globe, police will serve their traditional functions within the U.S., and the status quo will prevail … (full text).

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