Officials talk 'reasonable suspicion' in Ferguson forum

On the eve of the grand jury verdict on whether Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson should be tried for killing an unarmed Michael Brown, the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) convened its second forum on issues arising from Brown’s death. The “Forum on Ferguson II,” held at the ASRC Nov. 17, focused on law enforcement, training and policies.

Noelani Gabriel ’16, an Africana studies major, presented a list of questions by Black Students United to the panelists: Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner, Ithaca City Chief of Police John Barber and Joe Margulies, visiting professor in the Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the Law School.

The questions Gabriel asked reflected the complexities in police-minority relations that have been highlighted in the aftermath of Brown’s death, such as: What constitutes deadly force? How can minority civilians assert their rights in the presence of police?

“Everyone has the same constitutional rights,” said Zoner, who provided an American Civil Liberties Union pocket card of those rights to Gerard Aching, chair of Africana and moderator of the panel, for distribution to students.

But Margulies noted that Miranda rights – to remain silent, to retain a lawyer, etc. – only apply if you have been arrested and are being questioned. If you’ve been stopped because a police officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is afoot, you do not have the right to simply walk away. And if the officer believes that you may be a danger, you can be frisked.

Zoner said most of the difficulties in such interactions arise because there’s a disagreement on whether reasonable suspicion exists. She advised cooperating with police officers, then filing a complaint afterward.

When Barber noted that his department received fewer than 20 written complaints last year despite approximately 100,000 officer interactions with the public, Gabriel asked whether the lack of complaints was because the community feels the police force is not its friend. Barber and Zoner discussed the importance of community policing to counter such distrust and noted that complaints can also be made through community leaders.

Zoner and Barber emphasized that there are no quotas police must meet. However, Margulies said economic incentives to police departments can skew judgment in favor of activities that have a racial component; for example, in the war on drugs, municipalities have received money based on the number of stops they make – leading to situations like New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy.​

“It doesn’t make them racist,” said Margulies, “but economic incentives for conducting their affairs in a particular way are much more pernicious than a quota.”

Zoner and Barber discussed how aware they are of the continuing problem of racism in the criminal justice system. Both police departments use formal and informal efforts to combat racism, including extensive training on cultural diversity and bias awareness, the police chiefs said, emphasizing the difference in approach between Ithaca and many other municipalities.

“When Ferguson happened, I said [to my officers], you are wearing the same uniform as people who really screwed up,” said Zoner. “People are going to bring that to every interaction, and you need to be aware of that.”

Margulies noted that explicit racism of the sort associated with Jim Crow police in the Deep South has become relatively rare. “The type of bias you’re dealing with now is much more difficult to root out because it’s implicit bias, subconscious,” said Margulies. “It triggers a predisposition to assign positive or negative meaning to facts based on the race of the actors who are participating. And you’re not even aware that you’re doing it.”

During the Q&A, which stretched a full hour, Oneka LaBennett, Africana associate professor, said the answer to implicit bias is that every day, police officers should think about the perception of people they serve: The way officers think and the way community members of color think are not the same.

“You are spot on,” Barber said.

The audience applauded.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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