In the year since Ferguson, the media and the nation has focused largely on a string of incidents that feature police interactions with unarmed African-Americans. But Damon Linker argues in The Week, “On the whole, that attention is a very good thing, as I’ve argued on numerous occasions. But, as always, we need to beware of confirmation bias — the tendency of the mind (including the minds of journalists) to take note of evidence that confirms our preconceived ideas and filter out what threatens to complicate or falsify them.”
Mr. Linker notes that the Washington Post’s ongoing investigation into police shootings suggests, but the paper does not point out specifically, the issue is not just a race problem, but a class problem.
Mr. Linker writes, “The first thing everyone should notice about the compilation of data is the raw number: 570 people dead in just over seven months. That’s a huge number.”
How big a number? In March 2014, 111 people died at the hands of police in the U.S., 90 of them by shooting.
In contrast, the United Kingdom has seen only 52 people killed by police since 1900. And Mr. Linker adds, “The U.K. is not drastically less prone to violent crime than the U.S.”
Of the 531 victims identified by race, 282 are white (53 percent), 140 are black (26 percent), and 89 Hispanic (17 percent). On its surface, “That translates into a considerable overrepresentation of blacks — at roughly twice their share of the population as a whole (13 percent) — and a modest under-representation of whites (who make up 63 percent of the total U.S. population).”
“Is this evidence of racism? I’m sure it plays an important role. This is especially so in the category of unarmed assailants. Of the 58 unarmed people killed, 24 (or 41 percent) (were) African American,” he notes.
But “that can’t be the whole story” – as he points out, 282 deaths of white people in seven months is lot. And yet, as he notes, “in my overwhelmingly white neighborhood, there’s no sign of it at all.”
He again looks at the data and notes that, while these occurrences happen frequently enough, “never in my life have I encountered something like this — someone brandishing a weapon in a threatening way, leading him to be shot by the cops. Is it just a fluke of luck?”
He writes, “No, it’s not luck. Or not simply that. Rather, it’s a near inevitability for an American who’s well-educated and relatively well-paid. For nearly my entire life I’ve lived in places with people like me: professors, lawyers, doctors, corporate middle managers, other professionals. The violence, or threat of violence, that sparks a deadly confrontation with police, typically doesn’t happen among such people. It happens elsewhere, among other people.”
Instead, he argues, “Among what people? Poor people. Working-class people. Of any and every race.”
He writes, “America has a serious problem with police violence — but its victims are not just African Americans. The victims are those — whether white, black, Hispanic, or ‘other’ — who reside far from the top of the socioecomonic pyramid.”
He therefore concludes, “We nonetheless have ample reason to surmise that, however bad our race problem is and remains, our class problem may be even bigger. (Overrepresentation of blacks among the victims of deadly police violence can be at least partially explained by high rates of black poverty (27 percent) in comparison to the rate among whites (10 percent)).
“A class-based policing problem is an unsettling prospect, and not only because class (far more than race) has tended to be a dimension of social life that Americans are resistant to examining and confronting. It’s also troubling because police officers typically come from a similar class as many of their victims: the working class.”
Meanwhile a Story on How the Supreme Court Has Made It Legal for Police to Pull You Over For Just About Everything…
The Marshall Project article notes that the U.S. Supreme Court in December came down with the decision in Heien v. North Carolina, just three weeks after the decision not to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. That ruling provided police with greater leeway to stop people and subject them to questioning and searches in pretext stops.
Such pretext stops are featured prominently in the recent incident involving Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose.
Writes Ken Anderson for the Marshall Project, “The law already allowed police to make stops on pretext — that is, to pull someone over for some minor infraction in order to investigate more serious wrongdoing. The law already set conditions under which police, in making stops, could be wrong about the facts. Now, with the Heien decision, police could also be wrong about the law.”
Mr. Anderson reports that in the eight months since this decision, “courts in at least a dozen states have excused mistakes made by police who initiated stops based on a misunderstanding of what is legal and what is not.”
In these cases, the judges would refuse to throw out evidence that was seized as a result of what turned out to be ill-founded arrests.
He writes, “What’s striking about these cases — aside from the officers’ limited understanding of the laws they’re entrusted to enforce — is how flimsy the pretext can be to pull someone over. The grounds cited for stopping drivers included entering an intersection when the light was yellow; or having, on the back of a car, a trailer hitch; or having, in the front of a car, an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.”
One example is the case involving a traffic stop over a dangling parking pass.
The Virginia Court of Appeals judge excused that stop, writing, “So dense is the modern web of motor vehicle regulations that every motorist is likely to get caught in it every time he drives to the grocery store.”
He added, “Reasonable suspicion justifying the seizure of citizens will be found even if police officers are mistaken concerning the law as long as their testimony includes magic words such as ‘I thought . . . I believed . . . I mistakenly believed . . . I suspected . . . I mistakenly suspected . . .’ or as in this case, the officer just doesn’t really know one way or the other.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting