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Two Americas, Revisited: Perpetual Surveillance As “Reasonable” Police Activity

In today’s America, perpetual police surveillance has become the new “reasonable” status quo for certain sections of our society.  Check out the lead of this weekend’s Los Angeles Times report on gang policing in L.A., for example:

Saturday night, July 21, and it’s been slow in South Los Angeles, scary slow. Two Los Angeles police officers stop a pair of young gang members for jaywalking, a good excuse to ask some questions.

(Above: LAPD officers interview three men who were stopped after officers “detected the smell of marijuana,” according to the LA Times.  Photo by Rick Loomis, LA Times. Below: SFPD officers interview a “suspected gang member” on 24th Street in San Francisco, a few blocks away from my house. Photo by Brant Ward, San Francisco Chronicle.)

Reporter Hector Becerra’s article continues as follows:

When was the last shooting in the neighborhood? Officer Brandon Valdez asks. One of the gang members tells him it was probably “when my boy” was killed about a month ago, there by the church.

Valdez scribbles on a field interview card, which will be used to update the young man’s gang profile.

The gang member, a lanky 20-year-old who goes by the name Mally, chews coolly on a toothpick. A large gilded crucifix dangles from his neck as he and a friend slouch, handcuffed, against a rusting gate on a street corner just west of the Nickerson Gardens projects.

These folks are being handcuffed and interrogated by police for jaywalking. In photos that accompany Becerra’s article, we also see folks being questioned for minor traffic infractions, which are said to be “a good opportunity to quiz the occupants on any gang activity and gather information that can be stored away,” and we see folks being handcuffed and questioned for having a smell of marijuana hanging about them, as shown above. We also hear about people getting in trouble for violating an injunction that’s been slapped on them as a suspected gang member, just like the injunctions that have recently been placed on suspected Norteño members up here in San Francisco.

This is what we call “reasonable” these days: a police presence so intense and ubiquitous that reporters can write about it without even suggesting (or perhaps even noticing) that there is something odd about about people being stopped, handcuffed and questioned as part of their everyday routine.

It’s a familiar tale for journalists to tell. John Koopman has been telling the same story in his series on the SFPD in the San Francisco Chronicle. Like his June 4 article that discussed a police gang detail stopping two kids on 22nd Street for no apparent reason:

The boys ask why they’re being stopped.

“No big deal,” [SFPD Officer] Espinoza says. “We just want to talk.”

They do a lot of talking, these two cops who work the gang detail in the Mission. They talk to the gang members about crimes in the area, their families, mutual acquaintances. Everything. Just keep them talking. Because if they’re talking they’re probably thinking and if they think about it long enough, they might realize that the gang life is no kind of life at all.

These reporters describe this type of police scrutiny as if it really is “no big deal,” as if it’s just some sort of fatherly oversight of a few wayward youths who will benefit from the sage council of the officers.

That’s nonsense, of course. It’s not the jobs of cops to be friends or advisors to people they stop on the street. All these “no big deal” conversations are not about counseling troubled people, something that cops aren’t even trained to do anyway. The stops are actually about one thing and one thing only: collecting evidence to prosecute people. Collecting evidence to put people in prison.

This is the bigger legal picture that is constantly left out of these superficial journalism yarns about  policing. It’s the picture that the conservative DC Court of Appeals judge Janice Rogers Brown noted in her dissent in U.S. v. Goddard back in June:

The facts of this case lead me to wonder if . . . prudent constraints on police conduct have been forgotten in our frustration over city life plagued with drug trafficking and violent crime. As a result, what we are now tempted to enforce is . . . the rule that, in a high-crime neighborhood, being young, male, and black creates reasonable, articulable suspicion.

Or young, male, and Latino, as the case may be.

This new rule of reasonableness doesn’t apply to people with more resources or people who look the right way and live in the right neighborhoods. If you’re white and middle class, the police aren’t going to stop you for jaywalking, handcuff you, and interrogate you about your activities. That wouldn’t be reasonable.

The new reasonableness rule only applies in the other America, the one that is poor and disenfranchised.  It applies only if you fit the profile.

The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us, all of us, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But it’s increasingly difficult to know what that protection means in neighborhoods where it is perceived to be reasonable to stop, handcuff and interrogate men for the most trivial of infractions. What can that protection mean when these intense, adversarial encounters begin to be considered “no big deal” ?