Fatherly Advice on Stop and Frisk

The son of a retired cop compares his dad's take on the police tactic with his own perspective.

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Brett Johnson; his father, Ronald Johnson

(The Root) -- Although I might be biased, my dad, Ronald Johnson, was one of New York City's good cops. He spent nearly half his career on the other side of the blue shield, investigating reports filed with the department's Civilian Complaint Review Board and assessing police wrongdoing as a sergeant in the Internal Affairs Bureau.

He effectively policed the police -- no small task in the Big Apple.

Retired since 1991, he remains proud of his 25 years spent on the force, scoffing at those who claim that "real" black men should never walk with a badge and a gun. At the same time, he'll readily admit that sometimes cops make certain assumptions based on superficial factors such as race and style of dress.

And in recent conversations, he's expressed how upsetting it is that black and Latino men are more likely than whites to face arrest or be convicted of a crime they may or may not have committed. "It's unfortunate," he said. "When you look at stats, they bear out that most people who are arrested [in New York City] ... are people who look like us." (pdf)

Still, he considers the NYPD's "stop and frisk" -- the policy defended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that allows officers to detain, question and search people they suspect have committed a crime or are about to commit one -- as a necessary, if unpleasant, crime-fighting tactic. Being my father's only son hasn't made it easier to side with him. Neither has any anecdotal evidence he has shared about how certain stops have led to the discovery of hidden guns, drugs or even Molotov cocktails (an incident he recalled happening in the 1960s).

From my view, the numbers don't lie: Eighty-seven percent of those stopped were African American or Latino, and 90 percent of African Americans and Latinos stopped were innocent of any crime, according to recent reports. Plus, the arguments of the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous -- who have claimed that the practice is illegal racial profiling -- are quite convincing, and they've urged the mayor to put an end to stop and frisk.

It's even more difficult to ignore my own experiences. In 2007 I was returning home after playing pickup games of soccer in a nearby park when two cops stopped and questioned me. They ran my license and handed me a summons for riding my bike on the sidewalk -- for less than 50 feet -- just a block from my apartment in Brooklyn.

Before I knew it, four additional officers rolled up to the scene in three different patrol cars. For a case that was eventually dismissed, a total of six cops surrounded me -- humiliating me in front my neighbors -- ostensibly while other crimes were being committed. The ordeal was a frustrating reminder that even I, an educated black man from a respectable middle-class family, could be regarded as suspicious just steps from my own residence.

One can only imagine what kinds of words were exchanged before the situation was diffused and Walcott was able to avoid spending a night in jail. Knowing how to deal with police when stopped is a vital skill. My father's advice has been typically cautious. "All you do is comply," he told me. "Don't give people cause or reason [to use force] ... you might be shot. They might go upside your head ... keep your hands where they can be seen. Respond with yes or no, officer."

Not exactly the militant response I'd want him to suggest I use when confronted with an officer who has wrongfully targeting me as being suspicious. Yet more than most, my ex-cop father knows how certain police can respond when someone is being uncooperative. I have come to understand that his measured approach is aimed at preserving my safety and freedom.

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