The son of a retired cop compares his dad's take on the police tactic with his own perspective.
(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.
However, I'm careful about completely dismissing my father's perspective. Others share his opinion, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New York's Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Like my father, Walcott has argued essentially that stop and frisk can be inconvenient but it's a sign that police are active and engaged in monitoring the neighborhood. Walcott cited a reduction of guns in his district. He also remarked that when he was stopped last year, he didn't appreciate the "types of discussions that took place between me and the police."
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.
As Father's Day approaches, warnings passed from father to son -- particularly among blacks and Latinos -- may also have special significance. (The timing of a silent march against stop and frisk this coming Sunday capitalizes on that significance.) Until stop and frisk is dialed back, talking to cops during an investigation with a bit of diplomacy could mean the difference between surviving and not. However, the psychic burden of blackness (or Latino-ness) -- constantly negotiating someone else's preconceived notions about you -- is a load too heavy for many to bear.
What my dad's advice doesn't take into account, though, is the police's responsibility. It's imperative that they treat all residents with equal amounts of dignity and civility. Bloomberg has said as much, when he contended that stop and frisk should only be "amended, not ended." My dad and the mayor both know that a lot of effort and education has to go toward changing officers' long-ingrained opinions about what a criminal looks like. Whether that shift in attitudes happens anytime soon is anybody's guess.
Brett Johnson is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.