Seeded mistrust as well
Advance Media New York
Syracuse police are under intense pressure to do something about gun violence. In their zeal to get guns off the street, they engaged in a questionable campaign to search vehicles in predominantly poor neighborhoods. Over seven months, members of a special crime-fighting unit issued nearly 1,000 tickets to city residents for low-level marijuana possession, knowing full well that they would be kicked out of court.
In the process, hundreds of people guilty only of minor traffic infractions — or guilty of nothing at all — were exposed to police encounters that could have gone wrong, to intrusive searches of their cars, to court appearances that were a waste of time, and to fines they could least afford to pay.
The marijuana ticketing scheme, reported by staff writer Chris Libonati, ended when the state Legislature legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and blocked police from using its odor as a pretext to search a car.
But even before the Legislature acted, police knew that District Attorney William Fitzpatrick had stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession in 2019. Issuing marijuana tickets that were doomed from the start was a cynical abuse of police power.
Syracuse Police defended the practice as having led to confiscation of 43 guns, 17 of them from stops where marijuana tickets were issued, over a period of nine months, and as a deterrent to gun possession. To University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner, who has studied traffic stops, what Syracuse police were doing “adds up to a war on low-level marijuana users who happen to fit a profile the police target. The question is: Is that making us safer?”
We’re not convinced it is.
Gun ownership grew exponentially during the coronavirus pandemic, to where a third of U.S. adults say they own a gun. Knowing police are stopping cars to search for guns, someone intent on committing violence would be foolish to carry one. In fact, a common tactic used by gangs is to “stash” a gun where someone in the know can find it. There is scant evidence correlating pretext stops to decreases in crime, similar to the discredited police tactic, “stop and frisk.”
If the “benefit” side of the equation is cloudy, the “cost” side is clear.
Pretext stops damage trust between police and the people they are supposed to protect.
They invite racial profiling. Libonati found that nearly 90 percent of the marijuana tickets were written to Black people in a city that is 30 percent Black. Nearly 80 percent of those ticketed were Black men. Little wonder that aggressive over-policing of Syracuse’s minority community was an issue in last summer’s racial justice protests after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
These stops are more than an inconvenience; they can be traumatizing. Traffic stops account for 10 percent of cases where police kill someone, Libonati reported. During the trial of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder, suburban Minneapolis police shot and killed Daunte Wright after stopping him for a minor traffic violation.
At bottom, there is this: Americans have a constitutional right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures …” The Supreme Court has upheld pretext stops as constitutional, and so police constantly push the boundaries — as they did here.
Police Chief Kenton Buckner declined to be interviewed for the story. He ought to clearly explain the logic of pretext stops. Can the police prove it works? Who are they pulling over, based on what suspicion? How are they guarding against abuse? Then the public can decide if that’s what we want our government to do.
There are other approaches to reducing gun violence. Cities have tried strategies like employing “violence interrupters” to mediate conflicts between groups of young people; identifying risk factors to improve violence prevention; turning vacant lots into green spaces to remove hiding places for guns; reducing gun theft; and, longer term, meaningfully changing the economic prospects of young people through education, housing and jobs.
After George Floyd’s death, racial minorities demanded an honest accounting of police tactics that disproportionately harmed their communities. Similarly, an honest accounting of pretext stops should lead police to cease this practice and find better ways to reduce gun violence.