Commentary

Saunders: When people break the law, arrest them – regardless of their race

bsaunders@newsobserver.comDecember 4, 2013 

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“Hey doc, it hurts when I do this.”

Doc: “Then don’t do that.”

Simplistic, sure, but barring hard evidence that the Durham Police Department is singling out black citizens unwarrantedly for arrests, that old vaudeville gag is the best prescription for what some critics say ails the city – a shockingly high percentage of arrests of black people.

Can we all agree that if most of the people arrested in Durham are legitimate criminal suspects, then the solution is for them to stop committing crimes, not for police to stop arresting them?

A recent N&O story noted that 80 percent of those arrested in Durham’s District 1 were black, 69 percent in District 2, 65 percent in District 3, 87 percent in District 4 and 79 percent in District 5.

Alarming ... and more

Ricky Hart, chairman of the Durham Human Relations Commission, called those figures alarming. There’s another word for it – actually, two words – but my editor wouldn’t let me use them.

There are things about which to criticize the Durham cop shop – its seeming reticence about releasing information to the public in a timely manner, if at all, being one. I am not a member of the Chief Jose Lopez Fan Club; nor, it should be noted, is he of mine.

For all I know, people on the porch at Parker & Otis restaurant are still laughing about the time a few years ago when I extended my hand to the chief to apologize for inadvertently offending him in a column and he looked at it, before wordlessly wheeling away, as though I were handing him a roadkill pot pie.

In his news conferences – rare though they are – he seems genuinely concerned about the city and the need, for instance, to get illegal guns off its streets and to find another solution besides violence.

Despite that, Lopez is not being completely honest if he thinks, as he said, that people who feel wronged by his department know they can complain “and it will be investigated.”

Maybe on Pluto, but not on this here earth. Most dudes I know, after an encounter with the fuzz, are content to let the matter end right there – whether it was a righteous stop or not – as long as they’re still alive when it ends.

Complain to the police about the police? C’mon, chief.

Can’t help but help

We all ought to be delighted that the city’s Human Relations Commission and groups like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are investigating the cause of the ugly numbers. That can’t help but help, especially if it turns out the numbers are skewed or the result of bad policing.

A police spokesman explained that victims and witnesses ID’ed a black suspect an overwhelmingly high percentage of the time. But what about in those instances when there is no witness or victim to ID a suspect, when it’s up to the cop to determine who is and isn’t one?

I couldn’t reach anyone at the Southern Coalition’s office Wednesday, but on its website, its researchers say that “Durham PD Racial Profiling data between the years 2000 and 2011 reveals that ... a black motorist in Durham County was 162% more likely to be searched pursuant to a traffic stop for a seat belt violation than a white motorist. ... Likewise, a stop of a black motorist for speeding was 109% more likely to result in a vehicular search than a stop of a white motorist for the same offense.”

Yikes. That’s troubling and needs addressing. When we break the law, arrest us. When others break the law, arrest them, too.

A former colleague here told me of being pulled over by cops for driving 115 mph and allowed to go home if he promised to slow down. No ticket, no nightstick upside the head after the cop chased him down, nothing.

This was after I’d told him of being arrested for doing 80 mph in a 55 mph. I deserved my ticket, but dagnabbit, so did he.

One night about five years ago, a local TV news anchor and I were eating at a popular downtown Raleigh restaurant when two white fellas started fighting – overturned tables and chairs, blood, like something out of a “Gunsmoke” saloon fight.

“Somebody’s going to jail,” the anchorwoman said to me as a police officer arrived. I concurred.

Imagine our surprise, then, when the cop merely separated the men, lectured them and sent them on their way – one first, the other five minutes later.

You know where I’m going with this, right?

Yep: had the disturbers of that eatery’s white-cloth gentility been named Jamal and Cleotis or Quantel and Tyrone, it’s unlikely they would have gotten such kid-glove treatment, with no arrest showing up on their records that they’d have to explain when they went for a job interview or tortured explanations to Sweet Thang about that impending court date.

The first time I went to jail was for a crime I didn’t even know existed – verbal assault when I was 15. True, that jetstream of profanity I loosed upon the late Rev. Harrell is probably still floating around, a blue cloud befouling the atmosphere in Kathmandu or some far-off place, but as God is my witness, I didn’t know you could go to jail for cursing somebody out.

For what it’s worth, the cop who arrested me was black.

So yeah, I confess to being disappointed that neither of the combatants that night was escorted out in cuffs.

Most people I know don’t care whether people arrested are black, white, yellow or brown. They’d just prefer that they be criminals. The cops should keep that in mind.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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