Disrespect: Real and Unreal

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Disrespect: Real and Unreal

Published in the Maryland Daily Record January 29, 2015

The hostility shown by some members of the New York Police Department toward Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to be a feeling in search of a socially acceptable articulation. It is sometimes expressed as a demand for “respect.” Approximately 850 officers, for instance, have signed petitions that the Mayor not attend their funerals (should they fall in the line of duty) “due to” de Blasio’s “consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve.” A policeman who turned his back on the Mayor during the recent funeral of Officer Wenjian Liu was quoted as saying: “I turned my back last week on [de Blasio] … because he disrespected me, Officer Ramos and Officer Liu when he said he warned his son, Dante, to be wary of cops.” To me, though, this sounds like a mischaracterization; the wariness the Mayor counseled was distrust and fear, not exactly disrespect.[1]

It Was Earned

But call it disrespect if you want to. That does not solve the problem. Does that policeman really think that de Blasio’s words to his son were without foundation? In 2013, the Department’s overwhelmingly imbalanced use of stop-and-frisk against people of color had been found after an exhaustive trial in the Southern District of New York to be a simple and undeniable fact, based on the most objective of evidence: the forms the police had to fill out every time these encounters occurred. Only 10% of all stops over a decade were of white people. The only conclusion was that nonwhite people were being repeatedly harassed by New York’s finest. Any young man of color, like the Mayor’s son, would stand a very appreciable chance of being subject of one of the 4.4 million stops that had occurred over that decade. And, as the Supreme Court noted two generations back: “It is simply fantastic to urge that [a frisk] performed in public by a policeman while the citizen stands helpless, perhaps facing a wall with his hands raised, is a ‘petty indignity.’” In New York, this non-petty indignity was reserved almost exclusively for nonwhites. Talk about disrespect: this is the real thing.

As to the “disrespect” the cops were complaining about, if it were indeed disrespect for the Mayor to give that advice to his son, at least it would have been earned disrespect.

Limited Utility

Perhaps the police who so passionately defended the widespread and racially-biased stop-and-frisk regime nevertheless really believed it had law-enforcement utility. But if they truly believed that, they were ignoring the statistics they themselves were developing. Stops were a very ineffective way to catch lawbreakers; only 12% of stops resulted in further law enforcement action.

And the racial disparities in the stops were not merely of questionable utility. Searches of whites actually turned up weapons a higher percentage of the time than did searches of nonwhites (1.0% of the stops of blacks, 1.1% of the stops of Hispanics, and 1.4% of the stops of whites). Likewise with other contraband (1.8% of the stops of blacks, 1.7% of the stops of Hispanics, and 2.3% of the stops of whites).[2] These numbers suggest one of two hypotheses: a) whites were more likely to possess guns and contraband than nonwhites (in which case whites should have been stopped more and nonwhites less); or b) police were using more reasonable criteria in determining which white people to stop than they used determining which nonwhites to stop (in which case they were employing criteria which were simultaneously more racist and less effective with nonwhites).

More than that, when you consider that 83% of all criminal convictions in New York happen to nonwhites,[3] when, at least from the evidence of the stops, blacks and Hispanics are more likely per capita to be law-abiding than whites, and you consider that 45% of New York City is white, it is evident that far too few whites or far too many nonwhites are being convicted for the disparities to be accidental. New York justice – and New York policing – are anything but color-blind.

Scheindlin’s Ruling Stands

I suppose this is the place to acknowledge that Judge Scheindlin was later removed from the case by the Second Circuit for supposed bias. Whatever one thinks of that, the figures stand on their own merits. And the Second Circuit did not overturn Scheindlin’s analysis of those figures.

Perhaps the cops also felt disrespected when de Blasio withdrew New York’s appeal of Scheindlin’s ruling, although in so doing, de Blasio was arguably protecting them from a rising tide of anger and litigation.

The other thing that has some NYPD members riled, of course, is the Mayor’s remarks about the Eric Garner killing, followed closely by the shooting of Officers Liu and Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an obviously unhinged person, who claimed that his actions were partly in revenge for Garner’s death.

What the Mayor Actually Said

From the videotape of the Garner incident and the findings of the Medical Examiner, it would be reasonable to conclude that Garner (grabbed, incidentally, in the very act of protesting stop-and-frisks) was brought to the ground by a chokehold, and that the chokehold as well as an enforced prone position for several minutes was a critical factor in Garner’s death. Opinions differ as to whether the hold was technically a chokehold, which is against NYPD regulations, and as to whether the hold contributed to Garner’s death. If the Mayor thought these things, however, that wasn’t what he said. Rather, he only commented “We all have a responsibility to work together to heal the wounds from decades of mistrust and create a culture where the police department and the communities they protect respect each other…”

Apparently this tepid suggestion that all might not be well between the police and minority communities was regarded in some quarters as somehow responsible for Brinsley’s violence.

At least that is what Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association seemed to be saying, when he proclaimed “That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.” Lynch then led officers who turned their backs on the Mayor at the Ramos funeral.

Non Sequitur Is a Restrained Way of Saying It

So, apparently, according to Lynch, you have blood on your hands if you so much as suggest that the police might ameliorate the disrespect they show in minority communities and then someone commits violence in claimed vindication of the dignity of those communities. The technical term for discourse like this is “non sequitur.” There are more common terms, but they’re not for a family paper.

You can see, though, why demagogues like Lynch have to resort to non sequitur; the facts, presented straightforwardly, as Judge Scheindlin did, do not support them. They cannot say publicly what a policeman I had the misfortune to spend an evening with recently told me privately: that minorities are mostly criminals who have to be controlled if cities are to remain governable. But that’s what they’re really thinking. Stop-and-frisk is all too often not about detecting or preventing crime; it’s about putting certain people in their supposed place.

So let’s start being honest about who’s really disrespecting whom.

A note to my readers: I had promised another column on secession this time. I’ll get back to it. But some events just push their way to the front.


[1] The quoted policeman tried to put a gloss on his remarks, saying that because the Mayor and his family had a police protection detail, a suggestion that the son should be wary of cops was a counsel to beware of his own protectors, and implicitly a belittlement of their power to protect him. But this is a wilful misreading of the Mayor’s advice, which was explicitly about what would happen if and when the son was “stopped” by the cops on the street. Manifestly, that was not going to happen while the protection detail was on duty; this was advice about other circumstances altogether. And the quoted cop knew this perfectly well. His outrage may have been real, but the reasoning behind it was clearly feigned.

[2] Owing to the space requirements of a column, I could not adequately distinguish a stop from a stop-and-frisk. The distinction accounts for the apparent anomaly in the figures I quote. We can assume that all frisks which turn up guns and contraband are likely to have resulted in further law enforcement action, but of course that percentage is far lower than the already-low 12% of all stops that did so. We must assume that the difference between the under-2% of stops which turned up contraband and guns and the 12% which warranted further law-enforcement action was that the remaining 10% or so that triggered further law enforcement action were not accompanied by the degrading frisks. However even a hostile stop is inherently disrespectful. It may be necessary from a law-enforcement perspective – sometimes – but it will always necessarily be disrespectful when it occurs, and breed resentment among its subjects, regardless of their criminality or lack thereof.

[3] I wish I could re-locate my authority for the 83% statistic. I know I had a source when I wrote this. But I have a misgiving that the source may have been an article by Bill Quigley, law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, in which he said that 83% of the people with life sentences from New York City are nonwhite. This is not insignificant, but obviously the class of those convicted of all kinds of crimes is much larger and potentially different in racial composition from the class of those sentenced to life. Based on the other statistics that Quigley cites,  however, I would be astonished if the percentage of nonwhites receiving life sentences differs much from the percentage of nonwhites simply being convicted. But figures which pinpoint this very issue seem to be hard to find, and I am proceeding in the faith that I had a source that spoke to this precise issue, without now being able to confirm it.

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One Comment

  1. Rhonda Framm says:

    Dear Jack,
    Your searing wit cuts to the heart of the matter. When can I vote for you for president?