The Atlantic has a article in their latest issue that talks about the policy of ‘stop and frisk‘. It’s a tough issue to handle because on the one hand it pretty clearly subjects minorities (mostly young, minority men) to scrutiny by law enforcement, often on pretty shaky grounds. It does so much, in fact, that a judge recently declared the NYPD’s program unconstitutional.
On the other hand, there appears to be evidence (although, by no means universally accepted) that the rise of ‘stop and frisk’ coincided (and perhaps was the reason behind) the dramatic decrease of crime we’ve seen over the past couple of decades (contrary to what your local Eyewitness news team might lead you to believe, crime is and has been going down for years).
I highly recommend the article. As I was reading it I was struck by it’s applicability to COIN. A lot of the objections to ‘stop and frisk’ revolve around the idea of arbitrary use of force and coercion by law enforcement. This, in turn, fuels an undermining of the legitimacy of state institutions. Really, a fundamental problem in counterinsurgency situations. What we know from COIN operations is that the answer is rarely increased coercion and/or decreased transparency.
Supporters of the program tend to talk about efficacy. Usually some form of the ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs’ justification. This argument tends to be directed at the people who a) vote and b) almost never find themselves being stopped and frisked. Therefore, the discussion can be kept on a theoretical level (‘If it means I don’t get robbed, I won’t mind answering a few questions to the police’) without really addressing the real issue.
Some of this controversy reflects real and deep understandings of the role of government and race in our society. But…there is a real opportunity here. The article points out something that I’ve heard anecdotally for some law enforcement officers over time. In the very same neighborhoods where coercion and heavy handed law enforcement actions occur and often cause tension, there’s a realization that something like ‘stop and frisk’ might actually be necessary for order and stability. From the article:
In Shabazz’s Dream Lounge, I asked the three teenagers about how they thought stop-and-frisk might be improved.
I posed a more general question. You’re the police director: What would you do about stop-and-frisk?
“It’s not cool,” Kiairus said. “I don’t think they should do it at all.”
“I think the whole stop-and-frisk thing is kind of bad and kind of good,” Roman said.
Extending the hypothetical, I asked them what they would tell me if I were a rookie cop. Smiling minimally, painfully, Roman said, “I’d tell you to look for black people. We’re the reason this happens. Think about it. The main people who are locked up, wind up dead, or are doing nothing with their life—it’s black people. It’s not just a stereotype. We’re committing most of the crimes. We do dumb things, rob stores, kill our own friends.”
So, what if we took something like ‘stop and frisk’ but made it more population-centric? Is that even possible? The article hints at it but what might it look like? More community outreach? Conducting stops in a less antagonistic way?
I don’t know if it’s a good analog but I think back to my time in Afghanistan. There certainly were times when people were ‘wrapped up’ but those were clearly identified individuals, the equivalent of having an outstanding warrant on someone 1. In the regular course of business (patrolling, visiting elders, humanitarian assistance or presence patrol missions) we wouldn’t roust people like that. It seemed a pretty clear way to guarantee the loss of the population’s support.
And yet here in the U.S., we seem to dismiss similar considerations out of hand. To entertain them is to somehow be seen as being ‘soft’ on crime. Maybe, if I may continue the COIN analogy a bit more, something like ‘stop and frisk’ is a on the more ‘kenetic’ part of the spectrum of available tools for a population-centric operation. Perhaps it’s reserved for particularly lawless, violent areas and its implementation would require some pre-identified metrics to determine when the program would cease. That’s probably a bit too cut and dried but some sort of mechanism to make sure an policy which could easy be seen (and actually morph into) a special ‘tax on minorities’ seems essential.
And, of course, the information operation accompanying this would be equally important. We’re not very good at all at doing information operations in the law enforcement/homeland security realm. We still rely overwhelmingly on 20th century ideas of communication. If you don’t watch the local news, get the local paper or (maybe) attend the town meeting you simply aren’t going to know the official word about what’s going on in your neighborhood. Some have moved to more alternate forms of media but we’ve yet to embrace that widely or move much beyond just posting the old press release on a little used website or twitter account.
But, of course, I’m looking at this from the position of a privileged, middle class white guy. Talking about hypotheticals is one thing. This article describes some of the concerns that would need to be addressed.
- Granted that’s not a perfect analogy and certainly there were times when someone was mistaken or incorrectly picked up but I think it works well enough for this point. ↩