Friday, February 19, 2016

The Professor and The Police

As I've made clear on many occasions in this space I'm not overly fond of the police. Just as a general rule if police are talking to you for any length of time something has probably gone wrong in your day. All else equal police are usually quicker to initiate and escalate aggressive action against Black citizens than they are against Caucasian ones whether it it be shooting people only armed with wallets or toy guns, choking people accused of selling loose cigarettes, arresting professors who are entering their own home or writing people tickets for incredibly obscure and vague traffic violations which only ever seem to be enforced against Black people. There is a problem with policing in this country. After saying that though police do have a job to do. They are necessary. I don't want police not to arrest anyone. Humans aren't saints. We never will be. I just want police to stop being needlessly violent, racist, brutal or bullying. When I first saw this story headline I was primed to find fault with the police officers' action. But after reading the story I couldn't see what the police did wrong. And believe me I looked.  A black Princeton professor is protesting her arrest during a traffic stop last week, saying she was mistreated because of her race by two white police officers who searched her and handcuffed her to a table. The police chief in Princeton, N.J., however, said the officers had followed department policy in arresting the professor, Imani Perry. The arrest of Dr. Perry, a professor of African-American studies, and the divergent views of how it was handled have reignited a debate on social media over police tactics and racial profiling. The arrest came after officers stopped Dr. Perry around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday for driving 67 miles per hour in a 45 m.p.h. zone, Capt. Nicholas K. Sutter, the department chief, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
While Dr. Perry said in a message posted online that she was arrested over “a single parking ticket,” Captain Sutter said that the officers who stopped her — a man and a woman — learned during a routine check that her driving privileges had been suspended and a warrant had been issued for her arrest over two unpaid parking violations from 2013. “The warrant commands the officer to take the person into custody,” Captain Sutter said. The officers searched, handcuffed and placed Dr. Perry into a squad car, the captain said. At the police station, she was handcuffed to a workstation and booked. After paying outstanding fines totaling $130, he said, she was released. Dr. Perry, who declined to comment via email on Tuesday, wrote about the episode on Twitter and Facebook on Monday, saying it had left her humiliated and frightened.


So I'm not sure what the good professor expected the police to do in this situation. If you are really doing 67 mph in a 45 mph zone chances are good that the police will notice that and stop you. If you're doing 22 mph above the speed limit, no matter what your race there is a good probability that you will receive a ticket. Once the police have stopped and identified you, if they discover that you're driving on a suspended license and have an outstanding arrest warrant, your travel plans are going to change. It's virtually a sure bet that they will ask you to (and by ask I mean make) accompany them to the nearest local police station or jail to get things sorted out. And being police they will likely use the imperative mood and imperious tones of voice that are guaranteed to rub you the wrong way. 
Now the original underlying parking tickets may well have been issued by racist cops looking to mess with black people for their own amusement or to meet revenue quotas. I wouldn't have been surprised at all. We've seen that sort of thing all over the US, most infamously in Ferguson. The tickets may have been ridiculous. But if you are a victim of such an occurrence your choice is to fight them in court or pay them. Doing neither will simply make matters worse as we saw in this situation. Maybe I'm missing something but from the article it appears that the police did what they were supposed to do. It is a fact that police routinely mistreat black people or other non-black people whom they perceive as being powerless. It is also a fact that in any given individual case you have to show some form of mistreatment. And I just didn't see that in this case, even predisposed as I am to expecting it. Of course maybe the police are lying. Maybe they were already profiling the professor. But if so it's not apparent from anything the professor says. There are very real cases of bias in the world. Mentioning this incident in relation to them trivializes more dangerous police encounters.  Again I understand that the professor did not like her run-in with the police. Most people don't. I certainly haven't.  But in this individual case I think some perspective is of use.
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