Civil Rights, New York

What it means when police turn their backs

(This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.)

Public servants take an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and laws. From that solemn oath stems a police officer’s duty to serve and protect the public. The Constitution is merely a reflection of the will of the people.

The rule of law also flows out of the Constitution: the democratic order, public institutions, statutes and regulations, policing itself. Law and order exist because as society we have deemed vital to grant a shield, a weapon, and a salary to the men and women tasked with keeping it.

That’s why New York and the country shook when a deranged gunman shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. When you threaten the life of a police officer, you threaten the rule of law itself. Everyone feels unprotected.

But we also feel unprotected when police turn their backs. That’s precisely what happened when scores of people in uniform—ostensibly in mourning over Ramos and Liu’s senseless deaths—turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio during the officers’ funerals.

Turning your back on the mayor is not a protest. A real protest is a legitimate part of the social contract, enshrined in the First Amendment right of free speech. Nothing stops an officer from freely expressing himself or criticizing political leaders when off duty, or in private with colleagues and family members.

But when a police officer—in uniform, armed, and bearing a shield that represents us all—stages an act of defiance in public and in front of an official elected by the public, there’s nothing legitimate or democratic about his actions. It’s insubordination. It’s a violation of their oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and laws.

Suppose for a moment that another lunatic with a gun, the kind that kills public officials, would’ve interrupted the ceremonies. Would any of the back-turning officers have bothered to make the ultimate sacrifice and protect the mayor? Would they even have noticed? Anyone worthy to bear the shield of the state stands at attention in time of crisis, not turn his back.

Which is why this spectacle should not be read through the lens of politics or opportunism; it is instead a constitutional problem. What happened in New York should be a cautionary tale for the United States. Is this the kind of force the country wants enforcing its laws, its ideals, its institutions?

The irony of this episode is that it finds its roots in another constitutional issue: the discriminatory application of stop-and-frisk tactics on New Yorkers of color. Last year, a federal court in Manhattan declared the NYPD’s application of such tactics unconstitutional. But police unions attempted to appeal the ruling, arguing in court that compliance with it dealt a blow to police morale and its bargaining rights with the city. A panel of federal appellate judges roundly dismissed those concerns.

It’s a troubling precedent nonetheless—the notion that police reputation and self-interest somehow trumps compliance with the Constitution. That it trumps the will of the people. The same people who put Bill de Blasio in power. The same people who grew weary of stop-and-frisk and simply asked for fairer treatment from those who took an oath to serve and protect them.

If police turning their backs on an elected leader—on the people—doesn’t get us to rethink the kind of men and women we want defending everything we hold dear, then nothing will.

Civil Rights, Latinos and the Law

Latinos and police: It’s complicated

A micro-survey conducted by Pew in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., revealed Latinos really like the police. Sort of.

It was a “confidence” survey, meaning all the questions were framed in terms of participants’ trust in the ability of police to do their job. Latinos came in squarely in between blacks and whites in all the questions.

For example, where whites really trust police to not use excessive force on suspects—a whopping 74 percent—blacks’ confidence was only at 36 percent. Latinos were in the middle at 45 percent.

Or where blacks and whites were on opposites ends of the spectrum in terms of whether police treat races equally—with blacks’ confidence below the 40 percent mark and whites hovering above the 70s—Latinos’ trust was at near 50 percent.

What does this all mean? Probably not much, given the small sample size of Hispanics surveyed and the significant margin of error. What’s more, this was a national survey; the figures would likely shift if the survey were conducted in, say, an area affected by discriminatory policing.

Last year, shortly after a Manhattan federal judge found the NYPD’s application of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, the Vera Institute of Justice released a study on youth perceptions of police. The numbers were startling: 88 percent of New York youth surveyed perceived that their neighborhoods did not trust the police.

The findings seem to lead to a truism: The more police target young blacks and Latinos, the more their distrust grows. The more unsafe they feel. The least likely they are to call the police to report crime. Youth interviewed by Vera reported all of the above perceptions.

In the case of Latinos, surveys like Pew’s also obscure certain realities, like the fact that Latinos can be apprehensive of police encounters—not only for fear of stop-and-frisk, but because of potential immigration consequences.

For an undocumented Latino, for example, something as routine as a traffic stop, even as a passenger, can prove terrifying because it may lead to deportation. Stories of factory raids, harassment of day laborers, and racial profiling on account of ethnicity are all part and parcel of the immigrant experience. All of them can be more telling indicators of how Latinos view police.

There’s also the Secure Communities and the 287(g) programs, two controversial Department of Homeland Security-led initiatives partnering local police with immigration authorities. Criticized for sweeping too broadly and decried by immigrant groups for tearing up families, both have contributed to the perception that law enforcement and immigration enforcement are one and the same.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also contributed to the trust problems. In 2012, the court allowed Arizona to keep a law on its books permitting state officials to verify the immigration status of people suspected of unlawful presence in the country. The court called the law constitutional “on its face”—that is, it did not single out Latinos explicitly, and thus let it stand.

But the reality of this “show-me-your-papers” law—other states have passed copycat provisions—is that, on the ground, anyone who looked Latino was targetedEven American citizens. Even school kids.

Perhaps a more interesting question for a future Pew inquiry would be to ask how many times a participant has had an unsavory police encounter. Or if prior police stops have resulted in merely a warning, a summons, or something worse. Or how participants feel when they pass a patrol car on the street. Or if they have a family member or know someone who is involved in the criminal justice system or in immigration proceedings.

Those are better questions because personal experience often colors one’s views of law enforcement and their work. And when such work is viewed as something other than serving and protecting, it is likely the served and protected will feel anything but.