The events in Ferguson, Missouri started with police officer Darren Wilson stopping Mike Brown in the street. The legality of these stops, done by police all over the country, was the subject of the Elon University School of Law’s forum with legal experts from around the area.
At the heart of the Tuesday panel are “Terry stops,” police stopping individuals whom they have reasonable suspicion of being involved in criminal activity. The procedure takes its name from a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, where the Supreme Court said reasonable searches and seizures are permitted.
“If there was not racism and profiling, it would be fine,” said Yvonne Johnson, former mayor of Greensboro and current mayor pro tem. “But we do have racism and profiling, and it is not fine.”
The disproportionate stopping of racial minorities by police in Terry stops became the core of the forum. Several of the panelists, including James Mayes, interim chair of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at North Carolina A&T State University, said ignoring the role of racism in Terry stops hinders society’s ability to make a change.
“Until we really deal with the issue of systematic racism in the justice system, we cannot fix this issue,” Mayes said. “I believe, in fact, that we no longer have a 4th Amendment and to bring it back, we’ll either need more court decisions on the side of individual freedoms or legislation.”
James Herring, chief of police for the University of North Carolina Greensboro police department, said he is working in his department to execute proper stops and searches, as well as educate his officers on seeing their own biases.
There’s a difference between racism and bias,” Herring said. “The only way to recognize those biases is to realize they exist and confront them.”
Barbara Lawrence, associate professor of justice and policy studies at Guilford College, said it was necessary to come to terms with disproportionate contact between racial minorities and the criminal justice system for the conversation over the police and the 4th Amendment to be productive.
“In most communities, black neighborhoods are policed very different,” Lawrence said.
Unreasonable searches and seizures
On the issue of Terry stops, what Steven Friedland, professor of law at Elon, repeatedly articulated is police are restricted, in the court’s decision, to stop someone if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity.
“In Terry v. Ohio, the officer in question said he thought the individuals he stopped looked like they were up to no good,” Friedland said. “That kind of answer is not a justifiable response. They’re supposed to stop us and first ask questions to dispel or confirm their suspicions and they can only search us for weapons. Now it’s being used as a general regulatory procedure.”
But too often, many on the panel argued, stops do not fall within this reasonable suspicion restriction.
“When you look at civilian complaints, they don’t have the opportunity to confront an officer or offer evidence and when it’s over, what you get is someone in the police office saying the complaint has no merit,” Mayes said. “The police are citizens. They’re not exceptions. They need to be held accountable and not by some panel in private.”
Even if complaints do make it to court, Daniel Harris, associate attorney at Clifford Clendenin & O’Hale LLP, said precedent has been set to make these procedures ineffectual.
“The decisions since Terry have snowballed and we’re allowing more and more.,” Harris said. “It’s allowing bias and, increasingly, racism to creep into the courts and be used as justification.”
And, as has been the case in many instances, the stop leads to deadly force being used by the police involved.
“When a young black man is shot on the street, there is no appeal,” Mayes said.
Cause and effect
Herring said structural racism in our economic system, more than in our criminal justice system, is what drives much of the disproportionate jailings and stops of minorities.
“With a growing gap in economics, minorities are more often in poverty and crime follows poverty,” he said. “We need to find a way to get minorities opportunities to surpass the inherent racism in our society.”
It was around this point in the forum that the first question in the audience came from a local woman from Greensboro, who said that the police push people in poverty who have felonies who are just “trying to live.” She added that both her husband and son were killed by police, adding that her son was shot 10 times and had no weapon on him.
She touched on a point brought up by the event’s moderator, Robert Parrish, assistant professor of law at Elon: the events in Ferguson can and do happen anywhere in the United States, even if news vans don’t show up.
“If we look at New York City’s ‘stop-and-frisk’ and say that’s anomalous and doesn’t happen everywhere else, we need to take a harder look at our communities,” Lawrence said.
While he also pointed to the over-criminalization of drugs as the source of a lot of current issues with policing, Herring further articulated his points about poverty and crime, he described our nation’s high prison population as a symptom of poverty, but not everyone on the panel agreed.
“I would question whether jail is a symptom of poverty or the other way around,” Harris said. “When you get out of jail and you can’t get a job, you have fines and you have a family to support, where does that leave you?”
Fixing a broken system
As Johnson put it, “pissing and moaning” about the issues of racially discriminatory policing and bringing up data can only go so far and real solutions need to be presented. One solution Greensboro is introducing is both video cameras mounted on police officers and a return to community policing.
“I remember community police and I remember that that relationship was very good. Now, there is no trust,” Johnson said.
Johnson brought up how, in Ferguson, 12 percent of the city’s majority black population was registered to vote, leading to the rest of the panel to point out the necessity for voting if one wants change
“We spend $6,000 per child in our schools in North Carolina and $20,000-30,000 per person in prison,” Mayes said. “That needs to be reversed.”