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Mere words won’t do

Melvin B. Miller
Mere words won’t do
“Let’s hurry so we’re not late for our conversation on race relations.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

Demonstrations by Black Lives Matter have generated considerable interest in America’s race problem. Some journalists and commentators have suggested that interracial “conversations” are needed to resolve the problems. While the intention is undoubtedly well meaning, there is no reason to believe that such discussions will simply lead to effective resolutions. Although they are not so stated, the fundamental demands of the Black Lives Matter groups are non-negotiable.

What skilled litigator is willing to negotiate issues to which he or she already is entitled by law? What blacks are willing to concede that the police have the right with impunity to gun down unarmed civilians? Will conversations induce blacks to agree that “reasonable suspicion” is an adequate police defense against their breach of the Fourth Amendment rights of any individual?

Prior to 1968, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected citizens against some police abuse. It states in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” It then was unlawful for the police to stop and frisk any person on the street unless the officer had probable cause for an arrest.

The “probable cause” standard did not eliminate all police abuse, but it established an objective criterion based upon the requirements of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry vs. Ohio, reduced the standard to a subjective consideration, “reasonable suspicion.” With 685,724 stop-and-frisks by the police in New York City at its peak in 2011, the standard had degenerated to “whatever.” Only ten percent of those stopped were white. The rest were black or Latino.

Undoubtedly, the increasing availability of firearms induced the courts to permit law enforcement to be more aggressive. The Supreme Court stated in the Terry case that it is enough for the police to have “reasonable suspicion” that the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.” There have been numerous conversations in America on the Second Amendment rights of individuals to buy and own guns. Political conservatives have won the issue so far, despite increasing gun violence in America. They assert that the Second Amendment grants a personal right to the individual to own a gun, whether or not the intention is to form a state militia.

It appears that mere conversations do not always win the day. A change in the culture of the police is needed. So far, no major police department has reestablished the Fourth Amendment rights of the individual that existed prior to the Terry case. However, police departments are legally free to do so in order to reduce the harassment of black citizens.

Another step would be the establishment of greater professionalism by eliminating the “blue code.” There should be greater penalties for failing to report the malfeasance of fellow officers. Police officers should be trained to become highly competent and well-respected public servants, a status attained by the best police departments in Europe.

While conversations might help individuals overcome their racial bigotry, they will not likely resolve the nation’s historic race problems.