Race, Discretion, and Policing

As Bill de Blasio’s term as mayor of New York takes shape, I’m thinking about the stop and frisk issue. Just the other day his administration announced that they would not appeal the recent decision handed down against the most egregious of police practices. Police Commissioner Bratton then announced that the NYPD would no longer deploy squads of rookie cops to high crime areas as part of their initiation into the world of urban policing. I think that’s wise, but there is something more fundamental about policing that needs to be realized.

I taught cops, would-be cops, and retired cops for 35 years at the City University of New York. Here’s what I think I learned: policing is driven by rules that define your career and by laws that tell you what you can do, not what you must do. Consequently, police, who are civil servants, are conservative in their practice and jealous of their discretionary prerogatives. So, for instance, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley at the front door of Gates’ own home, Sgt. Crowley acted as many line officers would and as most supervisors regret–he arrested a man for challenging his use of police power discretion in choosing how to act. Many New Yorkers are aware of this dynamic. It’s not against the law to do what Gates did, but Crowley had the discretionary power to remind him just who was in charge. At this level, race was not necessarily a factor. Power, and I suspect, class, was.

That having been said, the other thing I know, from being a white professor of African American lit and having a Black son, now a man in his 40s, is that most whites assume Blacks are culpable EXCEPT for the Black people they know, whom they assume to be exceptions. White theories of the distribution of racial execptionality have no basis in fact, but they are deeply held. That’s why any given white man can tell you he has Black friends; he does. But he thinks his friend or friends are exceptions to the rule of Black sociopathology and suspects every Black person he doesn’t know. That’s where race enters into Sgt. Crowley’s practice.

Nevertheless, at the specific core of police mistreatment of civilians is the jealous regard for discretion, such that even Black police officers brook no question of their discretionary choices by Black civilians. Sgt. Crowley’s Black colleagues could have done the same thing Crowley did because they are cops; Sgt Crowley did it because he is a cop AND because he is white.


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