Two recent New York Times pieces have drawn attention to a pair of positively staggering statistics. First, a national survey of over 7,300 young Americans found that by age 23, more than 30% had been arrested. This excludes traffic violations, open container tickets, and the like. Three out of ten Americans have been arrested by the time an average person is finishing college. Second, the NYPD recorded over 600,000 pedestrian searches (the "stop and frisk" variety) in 2010. The subject of 87% of these was either black or Latino.
As this editorial by a 23 year old black New Yorker points out, this is not without long term consequences:
When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime.
He's being more diplomatic than I would be (which I suppose is why he's in the New York Times and I write a blog full of dick jokes). The fruit of the War on Drugs has been several generational cohorts of Americans who think cops are A) assholes, and/or B) the enemy. They have every reason to think that, and law enforcement seems eager to give them more every day.
This is anecdotal to the places I've lived and I can't find any statistics on it, but when was the last time you saw a cop "Walking the beat"? Like, on foot? Not actively pursuing anyone, not sitting in a squad car, not conducting a roadblock or investigation…just walking around and, you know, interacting with people. Hell, I'm not sure I've ever seen that. An older friend of mine tells stories about growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and passing Officer Bob every morning on his way to school – not frisking kids or running a metal detector over them. Just standing around saying "Hi kids! Be good!" Does that actually happen anywhere these days, even in small towns?
The militarization of law enforcement and thirty years of Zero Tolerance, tough-on-crime politics have created an America in which law enforcement has become, perhaps unwillingly, the Other, the Ministry of State Security types used as anonymous, menacing stock characters in dystopian fiction. And the frightening end result is that most Americans my age or younger – anyone born after Carter, I guess – have never had an interaction with the police except being arrested or being given a ticket. For non-white people in particular, many of us reach middle age now having never had a positive interaction with police. It has all been negative. Seeing the police does not make us feel safer. It makes us want to get the hell away from the police, because we believe that nothing good can come of interacting with them.
The statistics that opened this post point to deep problems with law enforcement in this country. Americans, especially younger ones, see police as callous, mean, prejudiced, and arrogant. We don't think of cops as Officer Leroy who was hung out on Main Street and told us to stay out of trouble. When we see cops, we think of that square-headed guy from high school who everyone laughed at so he decided to get a badge and take his insecurities out on society. We don't think of them as people who help us – we think of ourselves getting pepper sprayed, smacked over the head, or held face down on the pavement at gunpoint for no reason whatsoever.
I'm a law abiding 33 year old white male with a Ph.D. and an aspiring middle class lifestyle…and I've never dealt with a cop who wasn't an asshole toward me. Not once. If that's how they treat someone who practically shits white male privilege, I feel safe assuming that they're not being much friendlier or more helpful to anyone else. The police officer is supposed to be someone we can trust implicitly, and instead the policies of the past three decades have transformed the citizen-police relationship to one of deep, mutual suspicion. They see us as drug holding, law breaking felons-in-waiting, and we see them as an opponent to be avoided at all costs.