Prejudice versus prudence in the 'stop and frisk' debate

There’s an interesting article at Salon from writer Brian Beutler, who recounts at great length his harrowing experience after getting shot in D.C. several years ago, by a couple of thugs who wanted his cell phone.  Movie action heroes shrug off a couple of low-caliber gunshots and bounce right back into action, but in reality it can involve extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

Beutler is nevertheless a committed foe of “stop and frisk” policies, somewhat angrily taking actor Kal Penn of the “Harold and Kumar” films to task for “changing his views after he was held up at gunpoint in Washington, D.C.”  Beutler writes:

Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”

But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses. Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all.

That’s what I remembered when I began my recovery five years ago. In the preceding 25 years, I’d crossed paths with thousands and thousands of black people (including, obviously, those who became friends). Over the same stretch I’d also crossed paths with thousands and thousands of people wearing hoodies (there was surely some overlap). I got very, very unlucky one time. Adding it all up, I figured my odds of avoiding a repeat of that night are pretty good.

The Canadian hockey metaphor deployed by Beutler seems like more of a non-sequitur than anything Kal Penn said.  That’s an awfully facile comparison for a serious question of prejudice versus prudence.  From an official standpoint, “stop and frisk” defenders have been insisting they did not simply target everyone with a certain skin color and clothing style.  People who live in dangerous areas develop unofficial but sadly necessary habits, which often include making snap judgments about people based on their appearance and behavior.  

The alternative is… what?  Willful blindness?  The kind of see-no-evil institutionalized anti-prejudice that led to the studied ignorance of Major Nidal Hasan, right up until the moment when he opened fire?  The TSA security theater that leads to randomly treating 80-year-old people in wheelchairs as if they might be al-Qaeda operatives?  I suspect that even Beutler’s dedicated opposition to profiling has its limits.  There are people whose dress and behavior would probably make him suspicious.  “To anyone whose instinct is to crouch defensively and treat everyone who resembles their attackers like criminals, I’m living proof that there’s another way,” he writes.  Are those the only choices – a defensive crouch, or the diligent refusal to see what’s right in front of you?

The presumption of innocence is on many minds these days, ranging from the encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin (which Beutler alludes to) to the rise of the broad-based spy-on-everyone surveillance state.  It would be truly unfortunate for the victim of a crime to assume that everyone who vaguely resembles the attacker is a figure of menace.  But it seems equally odd to assert that everyone who looks, dresses, and behaves like the attacker should not be regarded as a possible threat, or to make the police promise they won’t pay special attention to people who match the description of criminal perpetrators, or to completely ignore the terrible demographic realities of crime.  Among other things, if we studiously pretend certain problems don’t exist, how are we supposed to fix them?  And to extend the point Beutler wishes to make, wasn’t Trayvon Martin at least as guilty of drawing conclusions based on the appearance and behavior of “creepy-ass cracker” George Zimmerman?  I can agree with the general proposition that we should all keep open minds about each other, extend courtesies, and require the authorities to display proper respect for the presumption of innocence.  But those propositions can be dangerously over-simplified.


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