Traffic stops and lack of upward mobility for black boys.

Two recent reports that you should consider together.

The first was a groundbreaking study Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States; By  Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, released last week. It analyzed  racial disparities in income and other outcomes across generations.  (read the New York times report on this study which includes some of the best graphics you’ve ever seen in a news article). The study concluded in part that black girls had similar outcomes to white girls insofar as income mobility and outcomes were concerned. But when they looked at black boys they found:

Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children.

White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.

Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. And the gaps only worsen in the kind of neighborhoods that promise low poverty and good schools.

If this inequality can’t be explained by individual or household traits, much of what matters probably lies outside the home — in surrounding neighborhoods, in the economy and in a society that views black boys differently from white boys, and even from black girls.

The other report was the audit of the Portland Police Gang Enforcement Patrol. (Read an OPB report for a summary). The report concluded in part:

Auditors found that the police team regularly uses minor traffic violations as a pretext to stop and search people.

The Gang Enforcement Team disproportionately stops African-Americans, and it lacks the data to show how frequently it pulls over actual gang members versus how often it unnecessarily stops other drivers.

“Without data to answer these questions, the Bureau can neither prove that its Gang Enforcement patrols are effective nor explain to the community what it is doing,” auditors wrote.

If my or some of my high school or college friends were stopped driving around on a Friday or Saturday night for “license plate light out”, or “air freshener blocking view of windshield”, and searched, I hate to think of the beer and marijuana they may find in our car. And that would be a felony under the law at the time. If I were stopped six times per year by the police and incorrectly identified as a “gang member” adn searched by a police officer who didn’t know me from Adam,  I’d probably have been the smart ass arrested for what the angry officer determined was disorderly conduct or “failing to obey the orders of a police officer”. I’d hate to think of what a background check by an employer  or landlord would yield today.

Are “Gang List” stops justified?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics A lower percentage of white drivers stopped by police in 2011 were searched (2%) than black (6%) or Hispanic (7%) drivers. Another study found that while blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be searched, those more numerous searches are less likely to uncover illegal drugs or weapons than searches of vehicles with white or Asian drivers. That could be because still another study by Stanford University found that while police are likely to search a vehicle driven by a white driver if there is a 20% change they believe they could find drugs, they will search a black of hispanic driver on  5% suspicion.

I’ve practiced criminal law for 30 years. I’ve been a Deputy District Attorney in Washington County, did volume public defense work, and retained private bar defense. When I argue a motion to suppress evidence I usually open my argument with version of the following.

We’re here because the officer in fact found contraband or evidence of a crime during a search. That fact alone may lead many to conclude that my client here is guilty. I don’t get to stand here beside a client in this forum and argue that the police violated my clients constitutional rights unless the officer found some evidence that incriminates my client. But the truth is, while today I’m fighting to protect my clients constitutional rights to unreasonable and illegal search by the state, I’m also here fighting to protect the rights of every other person that had – or may have –  their rights violated by the State in the same way. This court must protect the rights of every driver, homeowner, or pedestrian who has been illegally stopped, searched or detained illegally. And this court can only protect innocent citizens by suppressing illegally seized evidence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person standing next to me today.

I have no doubt that the police officers who conduct these “gang list” stops believe they are doing their job and aren’t influenced in any part consciously or subconsciously by race. They are wrong. They will point out the arrests they make for gun possession or  drugs. The problem with that argument is that it’s excusing the collateral damage they are doing to communities by criminalizing too many black boys and men. Making it difficult for them to be present as future fathers and breadwinners. It’s serious. It’s real. It’s community wide and it’s is in no small part responsible for the problems identified in the Race and Economic Opportunity in America study.

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