One thing that needs to be discussed is the money-driven nature of the criminal justice system and how it drives poverty and actually increases crime and other dangerous activities, such as car chases.
For instance, a young man is making $10 an hour and in order for his car to pass inspection the mechanic tells him he needs to come up with $500. He does not have the money so he continues to drive with an expired inspection and expired registration.
A police officer stops him and writes him a citation, instead of a warning ticket which the officer has the discretion to do. This drives the young man deeper into debt by $300 to $400 and he has to take a day off to go to court. He can’t go to court because he can’t afford to pay the fine and his license is suspended. He has to drive to go to work and gets stopped again for driving while his license is suspended. This cycle makes the young man depressed and hopeless, and his problem with repeated traffic citations costs him his job. We are driving him into a criminal posture.
Add to this that he has acquired a reputation with several young police officers as a repeat traffic offender and every time he is stopped he is asked if he can be searched for drugs. If the original officer had written a warning ticket this escalation into criminality may not have occurred. Many law enforcement officers lack compassion in their dealing with young men of a certain appearance.
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Two young men are on a street corner and get into a shoving match. The police come and arrest them for simple affray and assault rather than lecturing them and breaking up the fight like the old time police. They go to court, they now have a violent criminal history even though they are not dangerous. They are put on probation for 18 months and ordered to go to anger management. They must pay $40 per month to probation, pay a $250 fine and pay at least $95 per hour for six hours of anger management: a total of $1,330.
Neither has a full-time job. They can’t make the required payments, fall into despair, fail to meet their probation officer, their probation is violated, and they are locked up in jail periodically at a cost of at least $70 per day to the taxpayers. Tired of jail they commit crimes to pay their court fees. Additionally, since they have acquired a reputation the police treat them like trash and search them every time they are encountered. This treatment of certain young men by law enforcement plus the money driven nature of the criminal justice system is creating situations where young men feel they have no choice but to work in the underground economy.
Policing in Durham needs to be calibrated with a little more compassion, and the police must stop fishing for crime through useless traffic stops in high-crime neighborhoods. Proactive prevention of violence and property crime can only happen if law enforcement gets to really know the people in the neighborhoods, not alienate people with minor but costly traffic citations.
Law enforcement and the criminal justice system tend to approach crime in the black community as the collective responsibility of all blacks. In no other community is this approach used. It is an extremely racist approach that blames all blacks for the criminal activities of a small segment of the total population. How can a police chief blame the community when it is law enforcement that has allowed drug cartels and gangs to flourish in the black community? When a 40-year old woman is shot walking down the 2000 block of Angier Avenue, how is this criminal act something for which the entire black community is responsible? When armed criminals, using in some instances fully automatic rifles, commit 93 shootings in one month, what is a law-abiding citizen supposed to do?
Assuming you are a law abiding black person in Durham – something that law enforcement, apparently at least in a subliminal construct, believes is a rare phenomenon – would you report to the police that you saw a person you can identify fire 30 rounds into your neighbor’s house? Would you be willing to testify a year or two later about this matter? Would you put your family at risk of being gunned down? Do you trust the police to deal with your clinically depressed 20- year-old son who gets stopped and searched three times a month because he was seen once with a validated gang member who is his first cousin? Or do you worry that your son might get killed by a police officer the next time he is stopped because he has grown tired and frustrated of being stopped and might resist?
Unfortunately, this is the reality that many, mostly black citizens, confront every day. I call it criminal justice fatigue, which is aggravated by the aforementioned money-driven nature of the criminal justice system. So you have black citizens who have been mentally drained and financially depleted living in fear for their lives, caught between a criminal justice system that apparently considers them at least partially responsible for their victimization and very violent criminals who may well have been driven in that direction by various social factors as well as the harassing and unjust nature of the criminal justice system toward the poor.
There is apparently also a collectivist approach toward the black community in traffic enforcement in Durham. On April 17, 2015, I observed approximately 550 persons standing in line for traffic court on the third floor of the courthouse. At least 530 were black. I have seen this repeatedly on other dates. Traffic fines and fees can be very costly and an inability to pay can cause your license to be suspended, which can lead to an inability to get to work thereby causing unemployment. Traffic enforcement merely reflects criminal law enforcement tactics that subliminally assume the entire black community is guilty of supporting the criminal infrastructure. And no, I am not saying that it is just white officers with this approach.
Paul J. Martin is a 35-year law enforcement veteran.