Friday, June 01, 2018

A Police Issue, And It's Not Race

In a story pertaining to an incident in the greater Philadelphia region underplayed in the national media, the Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News reports

In body-cam video released this week, the Wildwood police officer can be seen lifting the compartment of his beach buggy, picking up a yellow portable breathalyzer wand and approaching a Philadelphia woman sitting on her beach towel with an open container of fruit.

Emily Weinman, 20, agrees to submit her breath to the testing device, which comes up negative, but the encounter quickly escalates to a violent arrest in which the officer pulled her hair, slammed her to the ground, and punched her twice, all of his actions filmed by an onlooker and viewed by millions.
Has the Jersey Shore become a place where police officers are going beach towel to beach towel with their breathalyzers?

Not in Atlantic City. Not in Margate. Not in Sea Isle. Not in North Wildwood. Not in Ventnor. Not in Ocean City. None of those towns use portable breathalyzers on their beaches.

Wildwood is pretty much on its own in using this breathalyzer strategy of turning their wide beaches into one big underage-drinking-while-sunning police checkpoint.

Ms. Weinman, as the video attests, is white, but more on that later. This would not have occurred were Wildwood not (knowingly or unknowingly) evidently in thrall to a policing tactic popularized by then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.  In a broad but invaluable survey of possible explanations for the sharp decline in crime since the mid 1980s, Vox reporters Dara Lind and German Lopez note

New York implemented a host of policing reforms in the early 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani (of whom you may have heard), but the most famous was "broken-windows policing" — an emphasis on enforcing minor "quality-of-life" offenses to make neighborhoods feel safer and encourage residents to feel pride (as well as deter people from committing more serious crimes). And sure enough, crime declined precipitously in New York during the Giuliani era.

They also explain, however, that

crime declined in plenty of places that weren't New York City during the 1990s — meaning New York's trends probably weren't totally the result of the NYPD. For another thing, broken-windows policing was just one aspect of the policing reforms implemented in New York or other places during this time; crime-tracking system CompStat, for example, also came online in the mid-1990s. How can you separate how much of the crime drop was due to one thing, or to another introduced at the same time?

The article was not intended to be an in-depth analysis of each theory and was written 36 months ago, at the genesis of our recognition of  "mass incarceration," to which arrest for offenses such as possession of small amounts of marijuana contributes. (Even if the individual is not incarcerated for possessing marijuana, he will go through the criminal justice system, with significant inconvenience and cost to both the offender and the state.)

Without so labeling it- the approach has, thankfully, fallen out of favor- Wildwood has been practicing broken-windows policing, at least as pertains to its greatest resource, its beaches.

The police officers involved are seasonal officers. Commonly used by shore towns in New Jersey, they are not as quite as well-trained and not nearly as well-paid as full-time police.  Nevertheless, all officers should defuse the situation, as Paul Hetznecker, quoted as explaining

When she blows the breathalyzer and it comes up negative, they're done. It's an overreach. Any reason to come back to her is gone. She makes a statement to you, that's covered by the First Amendment. Police have to be trained to de-escalate and deal with the negative reaction to their authority. It's really important that police are trained to deal with colorful language and obscene language. There's been a lack of training on those protections overall.

The entire situation was blown out of proportion, from municipal ordinance to arrest. But missing the point is Weinman attorney Stephen Dicht, who charged "Thank God it wasn't a black person. A black person wouldn't have gotten out alive." 

As a long-time resident and (retired) criminal justice professional in New Jersey, I find that outcome extremely unlikely. Given the fear among African-Americans of over-policing, he or she probably would not have responded as did the suspect. Additionally, law enforcement is required to undergo cultural diversity training, as he should be well aware. Recognition that police may overreact, intolerance of racial bias by courts, and oversight of state and local departments deter racial preference, a problem at least somewhat less prevalent in New Jersey than elsewhere. 

And video everywhere. With real problems exemplified by the special police of Wildwood, we shouldn't be imagining unreal ones.

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