As Washington D.C. sees this year’s deadly violence surging over 40 percent over 2014’s figures, Mayor Muriel Bowser is looking to desperate solutions. One of these comes in the form of a desire to grant questionable new powers to law enforcement. If these new powers are granted, District of Columbia residents on parole or in probation will face the possibility of having their person or property searched at any given time with little pretext. If found in violation of their parole or probation, an individual could wind up spending as much as 72 hours in detention.
The policy bears a striking resemblance to New York City’s infamous “stop and frisk” operations, which were ruled unconstitutional in 2013 and were not found to have a profound effect on stopping crime. Is D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan also destined for a similar path?
Like New York City’s abandoned “stop and frisk” policy, Bowser’s policy would be a blatant assault on Fourth Amendment-guaranteed civil rights. What may make this policy even worse than “stop and frisk” is the ability to detain individuals for a 72-hour period and the way this will be done; with the conditions needed to make such an arrest being unclear, this policy would clearly be ripe for abuse, opening the door to violating the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process.
The reasoning behind Bowser’s drastic move is that if people already known to have committed crimes are subject to random and frequent searches, mainly for firearms, it would curb District of Columbia’s climbing homicide rate. This logic deserves to be questioned. Even putting civil rights concerns aside, the policy seems to be a punitive measure that can and will have undesirable effects that don’t serve long-term law enforcement goals — and probably undermine short-term aims.
Some may argue that parolees’ and probationers’ rights are justifiably more pliable than others’, but this is a flawed stance. The way the legal system is set up in the United States, no citizen is guilty until proven so by a jury. While the people targeted by this new policy in District of Columbia have, in the past, committed crimes, they have also been legally convicted and, in some cases, served time.
Legally speaking, though parole or probation may be part of the sentence, these individuals are still citizens. Rather than treating these people as criminals, even after they’ve paid and continue to pay their dues, it is crucial that they are regarded as ordinary citizens, entitled to their constitutional rights. Beyond the simple importance of safeguarding these fundamental constitutional protections, doing so for parolees and probationers could have a positive, long-term effect on their recidivism and crime in general.
It is not hard to see how policies of antagonizing and alienating former criminals could end up pushing them back toward lawbreaking behaviors and criminal social groups.
All that can be said for certain about Bowser’s new policy is that is will mean more bodies in jails than before and most will be Black men. The undeniable fact is that while the U.S. criminal justice system, as a whole, processes a disproportionate number of Black American men, D.C. is especially egregious.
Though just under half of its population consist of Black men and women, D.C.’s prison populations are made up of 91 percent Black men. It follows that an overwhelming number of parolees and probationers are likely to be Black men and are most likely to be affected by Bowser’s proposed policy.
It is also worth pointing out that although this year’s homicide rates have surged compared to the previous seven years, if 2015 keeps pace, it will still be less deadly than 2008 and the decade that preceded it — so Mayor Bowser’s panic may not be wholly justified to begin with.
New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy didn’t work and was eventually struck down. It and other practices across the United States have helped foster black Americans’ feelings of distrust and resentment toward law enforcement. With this writing on the wall, it is puzzling that Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to put in place new laws making black communities even more vulnerable to police abuse. There are no easy answers as to how to control violent crime rates — but it’s clear curbing civil rights is not one of them.