By Daniel Filler
We have reached an important crossroads in American policing. In the aftermath of the UC Davis pepper spray debacle, people are finally tuning in to the militarization of the American police.
This shift is hardly new; it’s been happening since Sept. 11, 2001. And this militarization, and the attendant cultural shift within police departments, is what made it possible for police officers to imagine that pepper-spraying students practicing civil disobedience was proper.
But while this militarization is getting attention these days, there have been other critical shifts in policing. Various cities have adopted broad-based stop-and-frisk policies that effectively mean that people in high-crime areas (who turn out to be almost entirely people of color) are subject to persistent risk of police intervention.
These policies are politically popular. But their impact is felt by a narrow segment of the population: According to the ACLU, 70 percent of the people that Philadelphia police happened to “reasonably suspect” of criminal activity were African-Americans. And those officers have set an awfully low bar on what constitutes reasonable suspicion. It turns out only 8.4 percent of those stops led to an arrest.
At the same time, we see Arizona and Alabama adopt immigration laws that justify active police intervention where they identify individuals who might just be in the United States improperly. We properly assume that these typically will be Latino people.
It’s not like the public has been entirely silent about these shifts in policing. Activists and litigants have been howling about every aspect of the new police paradigm. It’s just that these complaints have gotten minimal traction among the public at large. And the new policing has thus become the new normal.
But here’s the rub.
As police culture has shifted, the police seem to have forgotten — or perhaps never realized — that these aggressive policies are really only politically sustainable when they’re employed against disempowered communities.
Airport profiling is OK for Muslims. Random street searches are OK for African-Americans. And seat-of-the-pants immigration detentions are fine for Mexicans. But you can’t engage in invasive stops, searches and unsubstantiated detentions of, and attacks on, white folks without other white people getting agitated. What’s good for the goose has never been good for the gander.
That’s why the UC Davis video is so powerful.
These are campus cops using the new normal police strategies — the police experts agree — on white people. It turns out, the public isn’t as comfortable with the new normal as the police believed.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, the state is trying to figure out what to do when a police officer uses his new powers to detain a German Mercedes executive — visiting the company’s Tuscaloosa factory — on the grounds that he could not prove his right to be in America.
I suspect that the police won’t be quick to dispense with their new model of policing. It’s part of the core strategy and identify of a modern police chief — and his or her officers.
Instead, I imagine that management will work much harder to ensure that these strategies and techniques are applied strategically to all the people voters don’t care much about. After all, we are told that we’re in a perpetual war — on drugs and on terrorism. The question is really whether it’s possible to walk back police culture, once militarization and hyper-policing are both the approach — and the identity — that define the modern American police.
— Daniel Filler is a senior associate dean of academic and faculty affairs and a criminal law expert at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University. For more information, visit www.drexel.edu