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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/16/10

New York City/Champaign, Illinois: Policing and Race

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Message Belden Fields
New York City/Champaign, Illinois: Policing and Race

Belden Fields

(This is a slightly modified form of an article that first appeared in the February 2010 issue if the Public i, the monthly newspaper of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center)

In the New York Times of February 2, columnist Bob Herbert discusses the 2009 statistics on NYPD stops and other police practices in that city. The data are for the first three quarters of that year, when 450,000 pedestrians and drivers were stopped by the police. That represented a 13% increase over 2008. What is striking is that 84% of those civilians stopped by the police were black or Hispanic.

Many might argue that these data reflect realities of crime and not racism. However, further data disputes this. For example, when people are frisked, whites are more likely than people of color to have illegal contraband (usually drugs)-2.2% of the whites had contraband, compared to 1.6% of the blacks and 1.5% of the Hispanics. The whites stopped were also more likely to have weapons on them-1.7% of the whites, 1.1% of the blacks, and 1.4% of the Hispanics. Based on evidence such as this, it would seem that whites are more likely to be responsible for crime (let's not even talk about white collar crime!) in New York City than are people of color. In response to these findings, the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a class action suit against New York challenging the constitutionality of the NYPD's racially discriminatory pattern of stopping people.

But the problems in the NYPD are not limited to stops. There is also the problem of overly violent policing and of incredible brutality on the part of some officers. An example that gained national attention was the 1999 killing of an unarmed street peddler from Guinea named Amadou Diallo, who was shot forty-one times in front of the door of his own apartment building by a team of four white police officers. Some of the violence is perversely sadistic. Such was the 1997 case of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima who was beaten and then sodomized with a broom handle that was then forced into his mouth. He suffered internal injuries and broken teeth. And lest one think that this is old business, another NYPD officer is presently accused of a 2008 attack in which he rammed a police baton into the rectum of a man. In both of these New York cases the police were prosecuted, but that was made more difficult by the "code of silence" on the part of other officers who saw or knew of the violations.

However, such prosecutions are not the norm. In his 1995 comparative study of the New York and Los Angeles police departments, Professor Paul Chevigny of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice found that police departments tended to not only disregard the validity of civil suits (from 1995 to 1997 the amount paid out to victims of police misconduct in NY went from $19.9 million to $27.3 million) and refuse to draw policy implications from them, but that the most violent officers tended to be rewarded with promotion and even to be made trainers of other officers.

The Champaign Police Department has just come out with its 2008/099 Report. The department does conduct periodic warrant stops of anyone out in public in the predominantly African American areas of the city. Unlike the New York data, such stops are omitted from the report. But clearly, these stops target blacks and if black people protest these stops or refuse to stop, they find themselves faced with obstruction of justice and/or resisting arrest charges, as was the case with 17 year-old Brian Chesley in March 2007 (see

Regarding the vehicle stops, of a total of 9,159 such stops, 1, 856 or 20% were of black drivers, 428 or 5% were of Asians, 240 or 3% were of Hispanics, and 4270 or 47% were of whites. If we compare these traffic stop data with the New York data on stops, it might seem that there is less discrimination in stops in Champaign. However, in Champaign blacks comprise only 15.62%, and Hispanics only 4.03% of the population according to the latest (2002) census, while Blacks comprise 26.6% and Hispanics 27% of the population of New York according to the same census. People of color are a majority in New York and a small minority in Champaign.

If we compare the number of white stops (4,270) over the white population in the 2000 census (49,398), with the number of black stops (1,856) over the total number of blacks (10,543), we find that blacks were over twice as likely to be stopped as whites--17.6% of black versus 8.6% of white stops. When it comes to consent searches, where the police ask for stopped drivers' consent to search their vehicles, 20 white drivers were asked for such permission and 38 minority drivers were asked. Keep in mind that we are not factoring in here the non-vehicular warrant sweeps in the black community that snare up exclusively or almost exclusively black people.

When we turn out lens onto other police practices, a highly disturbing picture emerges in the schools. School Resource Officers made 84 "custodial arrests," the most severe intervention of the SROs.. Of these arrestees, 62 were black, 39 white, 2 Hispanic, 2 Middle Eastern, and 1 Asian.

Another area of concern is in the use of force and violence. As in the case of New York, police violence tends to fall most heavily upon the black community. In a presentation to the Champaign City Council study session on the police's Use of Force Policy, I detailed a number of such instances. Among them were: a 1998 incident in which a frail 81 year-old grandmother was grabbed by the throat and forced to the floor as a SWAT team broke in and searched her apartment in vain for her nephew; a 2007 incident in which the Champaign police, chasing an armed man who ran into a house, shot multiple times into the house despite being warned by neighbors that a woman and two young children were inside; and the 2009 killing of unarmed 15 year-old Kiwane Carrington who, like Amadou Diallo, was shot and killed in front of the door of the dwelling in which he was staying.

In 2000, Daniel Norbits, the officer who shot young Carrington, had also been one of the officers involved in the death of another unarmed man, the developmentally disabled Gregory Brown. Brown's family received a $185,000 settlement from the city. Yet, Norbits remained on the force. After Carrington's killing, Officer Norbits was permitted to continue

to perform administrative duties in the department while he was placed on administrative leave while the state police prepared a report on the killing for the State's Attorney. After receiving the report, the State's Attorney accepted Norbits's claim that he did not know how his gun went off when it was in his hand and pointed at Carrington. The State's Attorney, who is married to a police officer in Champaign's twin city Urbana, went further in declaring the killing to have been an accident. Thus the officer once again remains on the force, free from the prospect of prosecution by the state.

Heck, why should Champaign let itself be outdone by New York anyway!

PS: Immediately after finishing this article, I opened the New York Times of February 15, 2010 only to read Campbell Robertson's article about another police shooting of an unarmed 73-year-old black man in Homer, Louisiana. How many instances are out there that we never hear about?.

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Belden Fields is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Illinois in Urbana and an editor/facilitator/writer for the Public i, the newspaper of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Center. His scholarly work has focused on French (more...)
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