An African American male construction worker trudges up the steps to the front porch of his house in a middle-class neighborhood of New York City; it is dusk and he’s had a hard day on the job at a construction site. Dressed in work clothes, dog-tired, and with tools in hand he wearily approaches his front door. As he fumbles with his keys to unlock the door of his house, a man dressed in a police uniform approaches and begins questioning him. Quickly dismissing his initial thought that this was an Ashton Kutcher “punked” incident, the homeowner realizes he is being interrogated by a real police officer with a real gun ready at his side.
This scenario is not hypothetical. It happens hundreds if not thousands of times each day in cities and communities across the country; and it is occurring with increasing frequency. Police are randomly stopping more than one million people, mostly minorities, throughout major U.S. cities each year. Simply walking down the street in certain neighborhoods, or fumbling with your keys at night trying to unlock the door of your own home, can trigger an approach by a police officer, and a series of questions to convince the officer you have a right to be where you are.
In the post-911 environment overshadowed by fear in which we are living, it is not only airline passengers who are being made to feel like criminals and forced to prove to the authorities they are innocent of criminal or terrorist activities. Average citizens doing nothing but minding their own business in areas they have every right to be, are now considered fair game for snooping police officers looking for someone to detain.
The fact that only a very small percentage of people who are being “randomly” stopped and questioned by police are ever arrested for an actual offense, appears to matter little to many police departments (or to many citizens, who too willingly submit to such actions because it may offer them a sense of “security”).
Last year, for example, more than half a million people in New York City were stopped and frisked by police, but only six percent were arrested. Police stops almost doubled in Philadelphia to more than 200,000 between 2007 and 2008. In Los Angeles also, pedestrian stops have doubled in recent years. Many police departments will not release data on such pedestrian stops. In Atlanta, for instance, three phone calls to the police department yielded nothing except responses that the requested data was “unpublished” or “not recorded.” In fact, it should be recorded, published, and available. Citizens have a right to know what their police are doing, if and why they are randomly stopping pedestrians, and how many of those detained are ever arrested for something.
After all, detaining a citizen for no reason, except perhaps to intimidate or to “make sure” a person is in the right place at the right time are constitutionally suspect police actions at best, and perhaps violative of established case law and regulations.
Of course, in a society in which buying cold medicine is deemed sufficiently suspect that every person attempting to do so must provide their name and other identifying personal information to the government, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that a large number of people are being arbitrarily stopped and questioned. But it ought to bother us; and bother us a great deal.
Is there anything not considered a potentially suspicious act nowadays? A grade school student having a Boy Scout camping utensil in a school cafeteria – that was sufficiently suspect to net the lad a near expulsion from school. The next thing you know, the police will be questioning five-year old children because they’re riding their bicycles too fast. Would it surprise you to know that’s already happening?